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Updated: January 18, 2012 17:14 IST

'Activists must know what they want to be'

Archana Nathan
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An outsider's perspective: Johan Wnqvist talks about the surge in ‘environment activism' in the city. Photo: Archana Nathan
An outsider's perspective: Johan Wnqvist talks about the surge in ‘environment activism' in the city. Photo: Archana Nathan

Johan Enqvist's thesis provides some insight into how ‘environment activism' in Bangalore could gain more teeth

Who knew that an M. Sc. thesis paper for Stockholm University could point to the loopholes in the functioning of environment groups in Bangalore?

At the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), where Johan Enqvist presented the findings of his ongoing research in a talk titled, ‘The role of social network structure for urban environmental activism', that seemed to be the case.

Objective analysis

Carrying out his thesis research for a master's degree in ‘Ecosystems, governance and resilience', Johan, a student of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, has been living in Bangalore for the last two months witnessing the surge in ‘environment activism' in the city, especially in the latter half of last year.

Fellow researchers and experts at ATREE, who support the field work for his thesis, felt that Johan's ‘outsider position helps him deliver an objective analysis of why environment groups in the city end up fighting a toothless battle.

Long-term change

“Is an environment group interested in just fire-fighting or fire prevention?” he asked while citing the findings of his ongoing case study on Hasiru Usiru, a city-based environment group.

Through detailed interviews of 38 members and six non-members of Hasiru Usiru, Johan discovered that the group only reacts to issues when they surface rather than taking pre-emptive actions.

What he implied was that groups like Hasiru Usiru that function as watchdogs manage to create enough noise but fall behind when it comes to effecting substantial long-term change.

Case study

The purpose of the interviews was to identify each respondent's relationship with other groups, organisations, institutions and authorities. Though confined to a single group, his case study focusses on how the network structure of a group affects its ability to achieve its goals.

Lacking commitment

Johan's study shows that a group like Hasiru Usiru is loosely connected with five to ten members in the core committee who work actively. However, these members barely interact with other members who are on the periphery of the group and are primarily connected through an email list. Johan says that while such an arrangement allows for ‘openness of participation', there is very little long-term commitment in the network.

“Under such an arrangement, people who attend the group meetings are never the same. This could affect the results or the goals that the group is trying to achieve,” he said.

Result-oriented

His reasoning prompted him to recommend a ‘formalised structure' as a solution for an environment group that is more interested in results.

He also said that the group would need to ‘fine tune' the decision-making process. While his conclusions were specific to the case study, some of the recommendations could benefit the entire gamut of environmentalists.

Suggestions

Addressing particular challenges of funding and a full-time set-up, were some of his other suggestions. He added that while broader participation is the key, instilling a sense of belonging is vital too. “Groups have to understand what they want to be,” he asserted.

Clarification

This is a response to the article “Activists must know what they want to be”, published in City & Neighbourhood section of The Hindu Bangalore on 12 January 2012.

The article purports to be based on a Masters thesis presentation at ATREE, but provides a biased, distorted and inaccurate summary.

The article indicates that the presentation described how environmental groups are failing in their work, stated that groups like Hasiru Usiru are not effecting substantial long-term change, and that they lacked commitment.

This is completely incorrect. In fact the presentation argued that groups like Hasiru Usiru have managed to accomplish several important environmental victories for Bangalore.

Secondly, the article describes a number of “recommendations” and “solutions” presented by Enqvist. However, the presentation made it very clear that it was a preliminary discussion, and neither the study nor the student are at a stage where solutions or recommendations can be made for environmental groups. Further, the thesis itself is not focused on pointing out “loopholes” (a word mentioned prominently in the article, although never used in the presentation) in environmental groups — but on learning from how they interact.

Finally, the article incorrectly states that discussions with fellow researchers at ATREE supported the idea that environment groups in the city fight a “toothless battle”.

On the contrary, the discussants indicated that groups like Hasiru Usiru have had a major influence in shaping environmental outcomes in Bangalore, citing specific instances of success which the article omits to discuss.

— Johan Enqvist, Masters student, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm University

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