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Differently Abled People: A ‘Green Liberation’ Perspective

George Mathew Nalunnakkal1


I am most grateful to the organizers of this pre-assembly workshop for having given me this opportunity to present some of my thoughts on Differently Abled People (DAP) from an eco-justice or green liberation perspective. In an age where ‘identity politics’ is gathering much momentum and me being a proponent of that school of thought myself, I asked myself about my credentials in addressing this gathering. Although, strictly speaking, I do not belong to the category of ‘disabled people’, I do believe that I share a common humanity with the disabled. Secondly, for the last eight months I have been living and working with a particular section of disabled people, the mentally challenged children to be precise. This has transformed my life radically to the extent that at least at praxiological level, I now share the identity of disabled people. I am here to strengthen that identity and bond with people with disabilities. Let me begin with an attempt to unpack some of the ideas that are present in the title of my paper.

“Green Liberation”

The concept of liberation has often been understood as a political process of gaining socio-economic freedom and self-determination. This was given theological content in liberation theology, in a pioneering manner and most notably by Latin liberation theologians. However, such discourses, though groundbreaking, did not consider the ecological dimensions of liberation seriously. The intimate interconnectedness between economy and ecology was, for some reason, ignored by the liberation think-tank. By and large, they failed to notice the vital link between the worsening plight of the poor and the increasingly alarming destruction of the environment, between social injustice and ecological imbalance. While it is true that environmental problems are caused by structures of social and economic injustice such as poverty, it is equally true that poverty and other forms of social injustice are also the results of environmental destruction. For instance, when rain forests are destroyed to make way for nuclear plants or mega dams that would only benefit the industrial sector and the urban elite, it is the poorer sections of society, particularly the tribal and indigenous peoples who live in close proximity with forests, and the fisher-folk who have to bear the brunt. When the cultivation of staple food is replaced by cash crops, as is happening in many Third World countries, it is the traditional farmers and landless laborers who have to suffer the consequences. Hence, any perspective that looks at reality from the vantage point of the poor and oppressed can ill afford to ignore eco-justice dimensions of liberation. Thus, eco-justice is implied in ‘green liberation’.2

Disability and Green Liberation

Can there be any connection between disability issues and those of environmental justice? The term ‘disability’ is of recent coinage and origin. As Arne Fritzon and Samuel Kabue point out, the expression “emerged in the context of an attempt to have organized care for people who in the eyes of the society were seen to require looking after".3 They also explain the various ways in which disability has been defined by different groups and players. The caregiver’s model or the medical model of addressing disability issues is radically different from that of the social model. The former model locates the problem of disability in the body of the individual concerned (the problem is identified basically as a physiological one) whereas the latter school also identifies and addresses the socio-economic and political systems that cause disability and discriminate those with disability. Coming from a context where structures of injustice cause various forms of disability, my own position has more leaning towards the latter model. This is crucial because in the so-called ‘globalized village’ of ours today, about 600 million who are people with disabilities find themselves mostly isolated.

Disability and Eco-Justice: A Green Liberation Perspective

Disability can be either congenital or acquired. Although the distinction is more than clear, the line of demarcation between the two is increasingly becoming vague just as it is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to ascertain the difference between ‘natural’ and human-made disasters. People who are born with certain form(s) of disability could well have been affected by certain structures of injustice. All I want to do in this section is to give a few cases where environmentally insensitive development policies and activities have been detrimental to humanity, even to the extent of causing disability to many.

Japan was probably the first country that witnessed the wiping away of a generation of people due to nuclear bombing and industrialization. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not only erased thousands of people from the face of the earth, but also caused severe forms of disability to many others who still live that legacy. Meenamatha in Japan is another case in point. People here were victims of a kind of industrialization that was bereft of an ecological and human face. Meenamatha used to be a happy hamlet where most of its inhabitants were fisher-folk and farmers. Fish was part of their daily diet. Their happiness was suddenly halted with the coming of a multinational company called Chiso. In 1932, the Company started producing acetic acid. In the production process, mercury was used as catalyst. The impact of the chemicals produced there began to surface in the early 1950s. Fish and animals started dying in large numbers. Many people too lost their lives due to an unknown disease. Many were rendered ‘handicapped’. The unknown disease was later called “Meenamatha disease” which subsequent research and inquiry established was caused by the industrially polluted water from the Chiso factory. This water contained organic mercury. The fish wealth was contaminated and the people who ate this fish were affected by this strange disease. There are people who still live with the legacy of this man-made-environmental tragedy, which also caused severe deformities in hundreds of the inhabitants of Meenamatha. Like in Chernobyl, many pregnant women either had to undergo abortion or had to give birth to children with deformities. People who were affected by the factory organized protests and demanded compensation. It took long 12 years for the government in Japan to wake up and finally admit that the tragedy was actually caused by the industrial pollution from the Chiso factory. Hamamatho, a victim of Meenamatha syndrome, has since then become a champion of environmental justice. Seated on his wheel chair, he addressed the Environmental Protection Assembly of the United Nations held in Stockholm in 1973. In his speech, he underlined the importance of protecting the environment lest such tragedies should occur in history. His words were not heeded by every nation.

In my own country, India, a disaster was waiting to strike. The Bhopal Gas tragedy occurred in December 1984. This was probably the worst-ever chemical industrial disaster. The unprecedented tragedy took the lives of about 2500 people away. Apart from this heavy death toll, several thousands were terribly affected with various forms of disability such as blindness, high degree of foetus damage among pregnant women etc. The Union Carbide, a US-based multinational company in Bhopal, had bypassed many fundamental safety measures. Even today, women face uncertainties about pregnancy. The issue of compensation and justice has not been settled till today as Union Carbide authorities have not been wiling to compensate the victims in a just manner. Multinational companies who seem to take over the market in the Third World get away with their injustice because of their power, money and political influence, be it in Meenamath or in Bhopal. Several environmental movements are still fighting the battle of justice for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy, yet again reminding the world that environmentally insensitive policies and development can be disastrous, especially from the perspective of disability.

Recently in the state of Kerala in India, a controversy arose over the use of a pesticide called Endosulphan. Right from its introduction, environmental groups had been warning the state government of its ill effects, both for the environment and for humanity at large. But those words of caution and wisdom fell on deaf ears, as the government chose to ignore those voices, branding them as anti-development slogans! The government had their interests at stake as several ministers had deals with the company that produced this pesticide. The government waited until two years before it finally banned the use of the pesticide, as independent research subsequently established the fact that there was direct link between the use of the pesticide and the increasing incidence of mentally ‘retarded’ (challenged) children being born. Our own organization conducted a social survey in the Northern part of Kerala, Kasarkodu, where the use of the pesticide was in much higher proportion compared to other areas. We found that the prevalence of mental retardation among children in these villages was much higher than in other villages in Kerala. Whereas the average number of mentally challenged (retarded) children in a village in Kerala is about 40 to 45, it was about 100 in villages in Kasarkodu!

This points out that disability is also caused by environmentally unfriendly and insensitive measures and policies. Hence, there is a call for a green version of liberation vis-à-vis disability issues because several cases of disability are, as already seen, caused by ecological injustice. In this age of globalization, the multinational companies literally dominate the market of the Third World, with little respect for local cultures and indigenous wisdom that are ecologically rich. People in the South have become more vulnerable to environmental tragedies which, in turn, cause among other things, disability to innocent people.

Random Reflections

Much has been written on disability from a faith/theological perspective. However, very little theological reflection has been done on the environmental aspects of disability. I want to offer a few random thoughts along these lines.

The Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18-19) is a bold statement on social and ecological justice (green liberation) with obvious reference to disability.

…To Proclaim the Acceptable Year of the LORD (v. 19)

The proclamation and realization of the Jubilee Year constitutes God’s mission in Christ. The social justice element in the Jubilee Year (cancellation of all debts in the 50th year) and its ecological thrusts are inextricably intertwined. Jubilee Year is also portrayed as a Sabbath for the land. The theological principle underlying the jubilee is that the land must not be sold off permanently, for the land is Yahweh’s. This would imply that natural resources of all kinds can only be used with a sense of accountability to God. The freeing of the slaves and the granting of rest to the land are two sides of the same coin. In an age of sweeping globalization and its corollary project of intense commercial farming, the jubilee principle is a helpful reminder of the need to respect the integrity of earth. Intense farming and the increasing use of pesticides and fertilizers have rendered much of our land barren and many of our people ‘disabled’, both literally (as we have seen in the previous section) as well as symbolically. (When people are displaced from their land, they are ‘disabled’ too.)

… and Recovering of Sight to the Blind (v. 18)

One of the most significant, yet perhaps the most misunderstood aspects of Christian mission and ministry is the whole area of healing. Both mainline churches and the sectarian groups have carried out healing ministry in a much-distorted manner. Healing, in most cases, is understood and interpreted as ‘miracles’, something extraordinary and supernatural, often forgetting the fact that for Jesus Christ, healing the sick was a fundamental dimension of establishing the reign of God on earth where wholeness is restored in creation.

With the new ecological awareness, healing has assumed newer and earthly dimensions, which then have serious practical implications vis-à-vis our relationship with nature.4 Unfortunately, much of what we call healing ministry is bereft of any ecological dimension and, hence, not organic. Healing needs to be understood as a process of bringing human beings back to the original oneness with nature (earth). The Johannine account of Jesus healing a blind man (John 9) articulates a mission paradigm of ecological healing – restoring in humanity the earthliness. In dealing with Jesus’ signs and miracles, the important question to be raised is the why question, although the how question also appears to be relevant. The modes operandi of this healing miracle reveals certain ecological insights. Jesus took some mud (earth), mixed it with saliva, and applied it to the eyes of the blind man. This could be understood as a process of God in Christ recreating humanity. By applying mud to the man, Jesus refashioned him as an ‘earthling’ as he was at the time of his original creation. He was thus being brought back to his original oneness with nature. This, therefore, was truly an ecological healing. Humanity, in general, seems to have lost its ‘touch’ with the earth, its very being. The people of the soil, the indigenous peoples, in particular, who used to live in harmony with their nature (land/forests) are being forcefully evicted and alienated from their oneness with nature through large-scale displacement under the pretext of ‘development’. Someone who is displaced from their homeland is a ‘disabled’ person, someone who has been ‘blinded’ by others. Jesus clearly says that the blindness of the person concerned was not due to his or his parent’s sin. Blindness and other forms of disability are often caused by structural sin, sinful activities carried out by unjust systems. Healing, in this sense, gives us a vision of mission as quest for eco-justice with clear implications for the church, the need to be part of people’s struggles for land rights.

It is also important to note that the blind man who was brought back to his original bond with nature (healing) was also asked to go to the pool of Siloam to wash himself. The word ‘Siloam’ means ‘sent’. It was, therefore, a missionary imperative demanded by Jesus. The church should develop insights from this example for its mission in today’s ‘blind’ world. The mission of the church is that of healing, of recreating the ecological human being and to be sent out (Siloam) for the same mission of healing. The reign of God is a healed community of communities where harmony among all beings, human and non-human, shall prevail.

The healing miracle in Acts 3 is also significant from the point of view of disability. The lame person who confronted Peter and John was healed of his disability. The response of Peter is of great import: “Silver and gold have we none. What we have we give you. In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk”. The logic of Peter and John was not the logic of materialism, the logic of globalization, to use a contemporary jargon, but of faith in God. When the forces of mammon (of gold and silver) try to address issues of disability and other social concerns, they tend to offer a few coins of silver and gold (charity) through which they manage effectively to evade structural issues of justice that are instrumental in causing disability. The gospel imperative is clear enough. We cannot serve two masters, mammon and God, simultaneously. We would shun the god of globalization (mammon) and choose the God of Justice (Jesus Christ).


1 The Rev. Dr. George Mathew Nalunnakkal is an ordained priest in the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. He is director of India Center for Social Change, a voluntary organization working with mentally challenged people. He presented this paper at the CCA Pre-Assembly Forum on People with Disability in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

2 For a detailed exposition of the concept of ‘green liberation’, see George Mathew Nalunnakkal’s Green Liberation: Towards an Integral Ecotheology (Delhi: ISPCK, 1999).

3 Arne Fritzon and Samuel Kabue, eds., Interpreting Disability: A Church of All and for All (Geneva: WCC Risk Book Series, 2004).

4 For an exposition of Mission of Healing from an Ecological perspective, see George Mathew Nalunnakkal’s “Mission – An Ecological Perspective” in Milton Jeganathan, Mission Paradigm in the New Millennium (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000), 317-30.


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