This article is written by Vanya Verma, from Alliance University, Bengaluru. This article talks about environmental activism in India and the recent and famous environmental movements that took place in India.
Table of Contents
When it comes to deciding between development and environmental protection, climate action has traditionally taken a back seat, but current circumstances are forcing us to reconsider the time we have left. If the climate crisis is not addressed, the world will be on the verge of disaster. That is certainly how one feels in light of current political and social happenings. However, increased awareness through protests, particularly among the youth, gives us a ray of hope.
Environmental activism is the bringing together of numerous groups of people and organisations to work together in the social, scientific, political, and conservation fields to tackle environmental concerns. These persons and organisations are all members of the green movement, green living, or environmental sustainability, and they all share a commitment to environmental protection and preservation. Coming up with answers to environmental problems is the most important philosophy these people have in terms of ideas is coming up with the solutions to the environmental problems. Environmental activism has been active in India through various environmental movements that have a long history in India, starting with the Chipko movement. Further, we will study what environmental movements mean and then the recent and the most famous environmental movements in India whose reference is used to date.
The environmental movement can be defined as a social or political movement aimed at environmental conservation or improvement. The terms “green movement” and “conservation movement” are both used to describe the same thing.
Environmentalists advocate for the sustainable management of natural resources. These movements often stress the protection of the environment because of the changes in public policy. Many movements are centred around ecology, health and human rights.
Environmental movements range from highly structured and formally established activities to completely unorganised ones. The spatial scope of various environmental movements ranges from being local to almost global.
Recent environmental movements in India
This movement began as a response to the National Board of Wildlife’s (NBWL) decision in April 2020 to allow North-Eastern Coal Fields (NEC) to opencast mines in 98.59 hectares of the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Coal India Limited (CIL) had been mining on 57.2 hectares of the newly permitted territory since 2003, according to an RTI filed by activist Rohit Chaudhary. The 111.19-hectare sanctuary, called the “Amazon of the East,” is home to over 40 species of animals, 300 kinds of birds, 40 species of reptiles, and 100 varieties of orchids. It has the greatest variety of wildcats of any place on the planet. Logging, hunting, and illicit mining are already problems in the Elephant Reserve, and granting these activities legal status will only exacerbate them. Human-animal conflicts will increase as the habitat diminishes.
Members of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Matak Youth Students Union conducted a human chain protest in the Tinsukia district earlier in May. People all around the country, including celebrities like Adil Hussain, Randeep Hooda, and Joi Barua, used the hashtag #SaveDehingPatkai to stage online protests. The Forest Man of India, Jadav Payeng, had appealed to the Centre to rethink its judgement. Coal mining operations have been temporarily halted by the NEC, and the Guwahati High Court has directed both the Centre and the State to submit all relevant documents.
Several petitions against the felling of the Aarey Colony for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited’s (MMRLC) metro 3 car-shed were denied by the Bombay High Court at a time when the rest of the world was moving towards climate action. The ‘Save Aarey’ protest marches began when the car shed project was approved in August, and they gained strength after that. Aarey is the only national park in the world that is located within the city limits of a major city; it is home to not just flora and fauna, but also to many tribal tribes that have been displaced by various government initiatives.
On September 1, 2019, a group of concerned people, environmentalists, students, and activists marched to the streets with posters to form a human chain to show their opposition to the move. In the midst of this, HC cleared the way for cutting trees. Following its dismissal, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) authorities cut around 2000 trees in an incomprehensible rush on the night of October 4th.
Protesters began streaming into Aarey to safeguard Mumbai’s “green lungs.” Over the weekend, the police used lathi charges on them, and many of them were arrested for several hours in various police stations around Mumbai. Until October 6, Section 144 came into effect. Things appeared optimistic when newly elected Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ordered the shed’s construction to be halted. However, the problem persists, with little possibility of restoring the forest to its former glory.
Save the Sundarbans
The Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest, are located in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river deltas. They are home to Bengal tigers and saltwater crocodiles, among other animals. The majority of it is in Bangladesh, with the remainder in India. It covers an area of 10,000 square kilometres and is home to a variety of wildlife, including the Royal Bengal Tiger. However, the world’s largest intact mangrove forest is rapidly dwindling due to rising sea levels and cyclones, which are becoming more common as a result of climate change.
In May 2020, hurricane Amphan, the worst cyclone in the Sundarbans since 1737, left a trail of devastation. Thousands of people are now totally dependent on relief camps after livelihoods were destroyed, people were relocated, and embankments were breached. Because of a more noticeable rise in sea level than anywhere else, the mangrove forests are at risk, which could eventually lead to a severe migration issue among the local inhabitants. #SavetheSundarbans has become a popular hashtag on social media. Concerned folks resorted to donating to organisations working on the ground, initiating dialogue about this asset like the Amazon or Australian Bush, and made art to spread awareness amid a global pandemic.
Climate action strike
Students in major cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Chennai staged peaceful protests in prominent city centres during the third week of September 2019, responding to Greta Thunberg’s call for mass protests to urge governments to take decisive action on the issue of climate change. This was mostly led by youngsters, who used inventive slogans to emphasise the seriousness of global warming. The goal was to raise awareness about the potential impact of a 2-degree shift on the globe.
Environmentalists like Bittu KR spoke out, emphasising how the government needs to pay attention to actual policy objectives and go beyond token afforestation to show its commitment to the environment. It was part of a global show of solidarity in the battle for climate justice and to highlight the urgency of the issue.
As the Air Quality Index (AQI) fell to 494, the nation’s capital was plunged into an environmental calamity. Toxic pollution engulfed the city, making even breathing dangerous to one’s health in Delhi. On November 5, nearly 1,500 people gathered at Amar Jawan Jyoti, India Gate, for a protest organised as a result of several social media campaigns. The success of these protests in forcing government action on climate change was underlined by Leonardo Dicaprio.
The Supreme Court ordered state governments to address the issue of crop and garbage burning, and the Centre agreed to spend the Green Climate Fund to battle hazardous air pollution, but the air quality remained abysmal.
Following the shutdown, Delhi had “clean” air, but the quality began to deteriorate progressively. Despite government measures such as the Odd-Even Scheme, New Delhi has been the world’s most polluted city for the previous two years. It only goes to highlight how serious the problem of global warming is. To battle air pollution and safeguard the safety of its residents, the government must implement more stringent policy measures.
With extraordinary storms, bushfires, deforestation, spiking pollution, rising sea levels, habitat loss, and islands disappearing, it seems pointless to even consider that the threat isn’t genuine.
Famous environmental movements in India
The Chipko movement in the central Himalayan region in the early 1970s is credited with establishing modern environmentalism and environmental movements in India. The Chipko movement, which was started to defend Himalayan forests from destruction before independence, has its origins in the pre-independence era. During the early decades of the twentieth century, many protests against colonial forest policies were organised. People’s main demand during these rallies was that the forest’s benefits, particularly the right to fodder, be distributed to locals. These fights have continued in the post-independence era, as independent India’s forest laws are identical to those of colonial India.
During the year 1973, ‘Chipko’ [chipak jayenge – to hug] was born. The forest department declined to give ash trees to the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangha (DGSS), a local cooperative centred in the Chamoli regions, to create agricultural tools in early 1973. The forest department, on the other hand, assigned ash trees to Symonds Co., a private firm. The DGSS was prompted by this occurrence to protest the injustice by lying down in front of lumber trucks and burning resin and timber warehouses, as was done during the Quit India movement. When these tactics proved inadequate, one of the leaders, Chandi Prasad Bhat, recommended hugging the trees, and thus ‘Chipko’ was born. This type of protest was crucial in convincing the private enterprise not to cut down the ash trees. As a result of its success, the movement extended to other nearby communities, and the movement came to be known as the Chipko movement internationally. From its inception, the Chipko movement focused on environmental issues such as forest depletion and soil erosion.
The Chipko movement’s success was due to three main factors:
- First is the intimate relationship between local people’s livelihoods and the nature of the movement. Chipko is seen by the locals as a war for fundamental survival, which has been denied to them by the state’s institutions and policies (Guha, 1989). Furthermore, the uniqueness of the Chipko movement is due to the peculiarity of the locality where it took place, the engagement of women in household sustenance, and the overwhelming support for anti-alcohol campaigns.
- Second, the nature of agitation in this regard is to be considered. Chipko, unlike other environmental initiatives, has completely adhered to Gandhi’s nonviolent freedom struggle tradition.
- Third, the simplicity and sincerity of leaders such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, as well as their connections to national leaders such as Mrs Indira Gandhi, other politicians, and officials, contributed significantly to the movement’s success.
The Chipko movement’s demands were as follows:
- Complete stoppage on commercial tree cutting;
- Traditional rights should be recognised based on people’s basic needs
- Making the arid forest green by increasing people’s participation in tree cultivation
- Formation of village committees to manage forests
- Development of forest-related home-based industries and making raw materials available as well as money and technique for it
- Priority to be given to afforestation considering local conditions, varieties and requirements.
What makes the Chipko movement unique is that it served as a predecessor and direct inspiration for several subsequent popular movements in defence of community rights to natural resources. These conflicts sometimes centred around woods, and other times they evolved around the control and the usage of pasture, mineral, or fish resources.
Villagers in the Western Ghats of Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada region initiated the Appiko Chalewali movement in September and November 1983, inspired by the Chipko movement. Commercial tree felling for timber extraction resulted in the devastation of the forest in this area. Contractors cut the region’s natural trees, causing soil erosion and the drying up of perennial water resources. Forest dwellers in Sirsi’s Saklani hamlet were prohibited from collecting usufructs such as twigs and dry branches, as well as non-timber forest products for fuelwood, fodder, honey, and other purposes. Their customary rights to these things were taken away from them.
In September 1983, a group of women and youth from the region decided to start a Chipko-style movement in South India. Women and children from Saklani and neighbouring villages travelled five miles to a nearby forest and hugged trees. They forced the state forest department’s fellers and contractors to stop felling trees. The populace asked that all green trees be cut down. The movement lasted 38 days, forcing the state government to finally give in to their requests and rescind the order for tree removal. For a while, the government halted the felling of trees, which was then resumed after a while. The inhabitants of the area backed the movement. The contractors’ daily wage labourers who were engaged to fell trees also stopped working.
The movement reached its second phase in October, which took place in the Bengaon forest. The forest was largely on mountainous terrain and contained a mix of tropical semi-evergreen species. The forest was vital to the existence and livelihood of the region’s residents, who were mostly tribal or indigenous people. The disappearance of bamboo as a result of the commercial felling of trees deprived them of a basic source of material for baskets, mats, and other products. The sale of these things was their main source of income. When the felling of trees did not cease, the movement began. The movement was very natural. Local indigenous people hugged trees to prevent them from cutting them down, and the government eventually had to intervene. Local indigenous people embraced trees to prevent the government from cutting them down, and the government eventually was forced to give in to their demands. Similar movements began in other locations, such as Husri. It also sparked a grassroots movement in the area.
The Appiko movement became a symbol of people’s power over natural resource rights in the face of the state. The protest spread to Nidgod village in Siddapur taluka in November, prohibiting the state from commercially chopping trees in the region’s deciduous forest.
The Appiko movement was successful in achieving its three goals:
- Protecting existing forest cover;
- Replanting trees on degraded regions;
- Utilising forest wealth while keeping natural resource conservation in mind.
The movement also raised awareness among peasants in the Western Ghats about the environmental threat presented by commercial and industrial interests to their forests, which served as their primary source of nutrition. The Appiko movement, like the Chipko, reintroduced Gandhi’s method of protest and mobilisation for a sustainable society while maintaining the balance between man and nature.
Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)
The Narmada River Project spans three western Indian states. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. No other development project in India has pushed the scale and severity of eco-development issues to such a high level of informed debate, political mobilisation, and grassroots activity like this one. The controversy surrounding this project has posed several challenges to the government at all levels, while also allowing it to establish and strengthen ties with civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on both a national and international level. This project influenced India’s political debate on alternative development.
The Sardar Sarovar Project, an interstate multi-purpose project with a huge dam at its end in Gujarat, was being developed on the Narmada River, India’s fifth longest river with a length of 1312 kilometres.
With its two megaprojects, the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Narmada Sagar Project in Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada Valley Project is the world’s largest single river valley project to create the world’s largest man-made lake.
The project’s repercussions, on the other hand, are fairly obvious and disturbing. The reservoir would engulf 37,000 hectares of land, including 11,000 hectares of forest. Around one lakh people will be displaced from 248 villages in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. The project was started by the state government because Gujarat was one of India’s most water-scarce regions, with a severe lack of water for domestic, commercial, agricultural, and industrial requirements. Furthermore, between 1985 and 1988, the state had one of the greatest droughts in its history, bolstering the need for this endeavour.
Critics, on the other hand, see it as “the world’s worst man-made ecological disaster” and believe it is unsustainable. It should be noted that the Narmada project was initially intended to be an irrigation project with a 161-foot-high dam. It was later discovered that if the dam’s level was raised to 455 feet, water could be technologically harnessed, making it a multipurpose dam. As a result, state governments began asking for funds not only from the federal government but also from the World Bank.
In 1946, plans for damming the river Gora in Gujarat arose. In 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation for the construction of a 49.8-meter-high dam. The dam planners thought that a much larger dam would be more profitable after analysing the new maps. The only issue was reaching an agreement with Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, two adjacent states.
In 1969, the Indian government established the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, after years of negotiations attempting to agree on a feasible water-sharing formula. Ten years later, it announced its award – the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award. The award envisaged that land should be made available to the ousters at least a year before submergence.
The World Bank approved a $450 million financing for the largest dam, the Sardar Sarovar, in 1985, before the Ministry of Environment even cleared the Narmada Valley Development Projects in 1987. In reality, work on the Sardar Sarovar dam site has been going on in bits and pieces since 1961, but it got serious in 1988. 154 questions were raised about the government’s promises of a relocation and rehabilitation programme. As a result, each state established a people’s organisation to handle these issues. Soon after, these disparate groups merged to create the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or Save the Narmada Movement, led by social activist Medha Patekar.
It should be noted that the NBA began as a campaign for knowledge on the Narmada Valley Development Projects, but has since evolved into a fight for just rehabilitation for the tens of thousands of people who would be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam and other huge dams along the Narmada River. When it became evident that the project’s size made proper damage and loss assessments impossible, and that restoration was impossible, the movement challenged the project’s entire foundation and called into doubt its claim to development.
The NBA demanded that all development on the Narmada Valley Development Projects be formally halted in 1988. More than 50,000 people from all over India gathered in the valley in September 1989 to promise to combat “destructive development.” Thousands of villagers marched and paddled to a small town in Madhya Pradesh a year later to renew their vow to drown rather than agree to be relocated. Under pressure, the World Bank was obliged to establish the Morse Commission, an independent assessment commission. Its report, the Morse Report, was published in 1992. The report “endorsed all the main concerns raised by the Andolan (NBA).
The Pamela Cox Committee was appointed by the Bank two months later. It was also referred to as “a sort of patchwork remedy to try and salvage the operation” that was exactly what the Morse Report cautioned against. The World Bank eventually withdrew from the Sardar Sarovar Project due to the international controversy caused by the Report. The Gujarat government decided to raise $200 million and move on with the project.
Many of the project’s concerns have yet to be resolved. What is more essential, though, is that the Movement has been successful to a considerable extent.
The achievements of the movements are:
- In 1993, the World Bank left Sardar Sarovar.
- Construction of the Sardar Sarovar was halted between 1994 and 1999.
- Foreign investors have pulled out of the Maheshwar dam project. 1999-2001.
The NBA is unique in that it emphasised the significance of people’s right to inform themselves, which the authorities eventually forced them to accept under media and public pressure. It was successful not only in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people from many walks of life to put pressure on the State government for its anti-people policies, which impacted and displaced thousands of tribals from their homes and livelihoods. It also drew a lot of support from around the world.
This movement started in 1700 at Khejarli located in Rajasthan’s Marwar area. The leaders of this movement were Amrita Devi and Bishnoi villagers from Khejarli and the adjacent villages. The goal of this movement was to prevent sacred trees from being cut down by the king’s soldiers for the construction of a new palace.
Amrita Devi, a female villager, could not handle seeing her religion and the village’s sacred trees destroyed. She hugged the trees and urged others to do so as well. This movement resulted in the deaths of 363 Bishnoi residents.
The teachings of Guru Maharaj Jambaji, who founded the Bishnoi faith in 1485 and established precepts prohibiting harm to trees and animals, influenced the Bishnoi tree martyrs. When the monarch learned of the incidents, he hastened to the village and apologised, ordering the soldiers to stop logging operations. Soon after, the maharajah declared the Bishnoi state a protected area, prohibiting the destruction of trees and animals. This legislation is still in effect in the region today.
Save silent valley movement
Save Silent Valley is a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the area. It started in 1978. Silent Valley is an evergreen tropical forest in Kerala, India’s Palakkad district.
Leaders in the Silent Valley protests included the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), an NGO, and poet-activist Sughathakumari. This movement aimed to prevent a hydroelectric project from destroying the Silent Valley, a wet evergreen forest.
The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had suggested a hydroelectric dam across the Kunthipuzha River that runs through Silent Valley. The Planning Commission approved the project in February 1973, at a cost of around Rs 25 crores.
Many people were concerned that the project would submerge 8.3 square kilometres of undeveloped moist evergreen forest. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were outspoken in their opposition to the project and encouraged the government to cancel it.
In January 1981, Indira Gandhi declared that Silent Valley would be protected, in response to unrelenting public demand. The problem was re-examined by the Center in June 1983, through a commission chaired by Prof. M.G.K. Menon. The Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project was cancelled in November 1983. The Silent Valley National Park was formally opened by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985.
Jungle Bachao Andolan
This movement started in the year 1982 at Singhbhum district of Bihar. The leaders were the tribals of Singhbhum. This movement aimed to protest the government’s intention to replace natural sal forests with teak forests.
When the government decided to replace natural sal forests with highly-priced teak, tribals in Bihar’s Singhbhum area began protesting. This move was called by many “Greed Game Political Populism”. Later this movement spread to Jharkhand and Orissa.
Tehri Dam conflict
The movement started in the year 1990 at the Bhagirathi River in Uttarakhand, near Tehri. The leader of this movement was Sundarlal Bahuguna. The protest was held in response to the eviction of residents and the environmental consequences of the weak ecosystem.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tehri dam drew widespread attention. The region’s seismic sensitivity, as well as the submergence of forest regions and Tehri town, are among the significant objections. Despite the assistance of other famous leaders such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, the movement has been unable to gain widespread public support at both the national and international levels.
To summarise, environmental and ecological movements, like other social movements, have grown in prominence in India since the 1970s. These movements’ issues are not limited to any particular group. They cover the entire village and urban populations, as well as women, tribals, peasants, the middle class, and wildlife. These include challenges such as protecting people’s right to utilise natural resources, preventing land degradation, limiting commercialization of natural resources and pollution, maintaining ecological balance, and rehabilitating displaced people, among others. These issues also include people’s dignity, environmental rights, and their ability to make decisions about matters that affect them.
With the help of their leadership, NGOs, and other civil society organisations, the environmental and ecological movements have gained pace. These movements have helped to raise people’s awareness and have had some success. They are an important part of India’s democracy.
While the wealthy and powerful can adopt a zero-waste lifestyle or switch entirely to the pricey organic items, what about the poorest and most vulnerable?
The recent cyclones such as Tauktae, Yaas, Amphan etc and their impact on the native people are only one example. When natural disasters strike, they are nearly invariably the hardest struck. The marginalised are always first in line. As a result, the government must act and design green policies in ways that take caste, class, race, and religion into account. It is past time for us to compel more meticulous climate action for the sake of a more holistic improvement!
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