Manju Menon is a Senior Fellow at CPR, where she undertakes research, writing, and community projects on environmental justice and the politics of resource rights. She has engaged with India’s environmental laws and policies for over two decades. She holds a PhD from the University of Technology, Sydney and a Masters degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She was awarded the Nehru-Fulbright fellowship in 2011. She is a member of the UTS Climate Justice Research Centre and Kalpavriksh, an environmental research group.
In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, Menon talks about her work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact she hopes to achieve, and more.
Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.
I coordinate several research projects under the broad thematic area of Infrastructures and Ecologies. The main aim of this research cluster is to advance multidisciplinary and applied research on the political ecology of large infrastructure projects. I pay attention to the intersections of mega infrastructure development, natural resources, legal governance and accountability frameworks. My research has focused on development in ecologically sensitive geographies such as mountain ecosystems and the coasts as well as the role of environmental regulation in urban infrastructure projects.
I joined CPR in 2011 to start the Environmental Justice Program in collaboration with Namati. This program focuses on the gap between the conditional environmental approvals given to industries and their compliance with these conditions. Our research tries to address this huge gap within the institutional system through a mechanism of community learning, government engagement and by seeking remedies through processes that involve affected people and local government bodies.
Why do these issues interest you?
These research projects highlight the fallout of the economic growth and environmental accountability models set in the 1990s or earlier. That was when environmental sustainability and inclusive growth discourses started to gain traction in projects, policies or government decisions. But these discourses mean different things to the various actors that every large project brings together and they result in very different outcomes when they land on the ground. I am interested in seeing how these different meanings and definitions may (or may not) be reconciled and who will make this effort if our existing institutions are not up to the difficult task. Without forums and meeting points for dialogue and understanding, the environmental and economic outcomes are left to intractable contests.
How have these issue evolved in the country and globally over the years?
I’m afraid that we are not making gains in the sustainability aspects of governance. The reforms of the 1990s promised that economic growth would take care of both social justice and environmental improvements. But that has simply not happened because of institutional failures to regulate and redistribute the cost-benefits of projects towards improving the commons, whether it is natural resources, public institutions or welfare schemes.
There has been a lot of backsliding over the past fifteen years on social and environmental rights and this space is occupied by hyper technical mechanisms to solve the climate and environmental crises. This situation is not unique to India alone, it is a global phenomenon. Global capital has a disproportionate influence on governance institutions at all levels. As the world of capital works itself out one crisis after another, the social life of the planet is implicated in these processes.
The overall scenario looks quite disheartening because democratic institutions globally are struggling to cope with the demands of capital and the effects of climate change.
What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?
Our projects help us think about practical and experimental approaches to the governance of socio-ecologies. There is a lot of new conceptual thinking on this topic but much of it remains in academic and policy forums. Similarly, social and environmental movements are also thinking and discussing these issues in more inclusive and intersectional ways. My aim is to make our research projects a forum where these new ideas can be piloted and tested. Our teams of field-based and policy researchers work together to achieve this goal.
We hope to use our research to inform infrastructure planning and implementation with analysis on resource-based livelihoods, conservation, and other land-use practices. These aspects are usually assumed as easy to accommodate, but there are enough examples to show that it is easier said than done. Now that we are seeing the devastating impacts of climate change and pandemics, I believe that such research inputs will be timely and valuable to society.
What does a typical day look like for you at CPR?
These days, it is all about being virtually in touch with our community partners, government offices and field researchers in different places. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread in India, this has been very hard to do with many of the places we used to work in. The lockdown last year disrupted several ongoing monitoring exercises and remediation processes.
A typical day involves research activities like data collection, literature review and analysis. Our work involves reading a lot of government documents on projects and policies. Since we produce a lot of materials in the form of academic papers, articles, training manuals, case studies and policy reports, a lot of time is spent in individual or group writing sessions. We also spend time in research meetings and discussions with colleagues within and outside CPR. Finally, this work is possible because of organisational administration and support which is why we spend quality time on planning, administering our projects and managing collaborations well so that work can be done smoothly.
What are you currently working on and why is it important?
I am currently researching a terrible case of evictions of a large informal migrant workers housing basti at the border of Delhi and Haryana. The basti is being demolished because it is on municipal corporation land that is categorised as forest land. The demolitions have been on for nearly a month now in the middle of the monsoon and a pandemic. It is one of the worst evictions I have seen. This example shows how the urban poor are made to pay the costs of massive environmental and urban planning disasters.
My colleagues at CPR are presently engaged in the Masterplan process for Delhi. Their contribution is very important because if the planning agencies do things right at the planning stage itself, such cases could be avoided.
To know more about Manju Menon’s work and research, click here.