Local environmental movements on the annual calendar go a long way in reminding people of their eco responsibility, as in the case of Sahyadri Day last week

More than ever before, our society needs reminders to maintain its ecological sanity. With the long arm of commerce stretching into the most pristine regions of the country, the need for evoking conservation ethos and supporting protective efforts to preserve the fragile ecosystems have become compulsive. Haven’t thousands of people paid a heavy price for decades of ruination of the hills of Uttarakhand?

Had people been reminded how a group of women led by Gaura Devi had quelled those who had come armed with axes to fell forest in her village in Garhwal on March 26, 1974, it could have acted as a deterrent against wanton destruction of the hilly slopes. But the opportunity of making the birth of the Chipko Movement an ecological reminder was lost amidst internal squabbles between activists and official apathy to acknowledge peoples’ movements.

Much before the world had woken up to ecological consciousness, India had already embarked on an annual national reminder to green the country. Initiated in 1950 by the then Agriculture Minister K.M. Munshi, Van Mahotsav (festival of trees) had become an annual tree-planting festival. Over the years, however, indigenous environmental events like van mahotsav have largely lost out to global annual reminders on environment like the World Environment Day.

Has the impact of globalisation played heavy on the minds of people to neglect events of local and regional ecological significance? Has ecological consciousness become hostage to how such events/days are indeed hyped? In addition, other issue worth addressing are: do people relate as closely to global environmental events as to their local ecological milestones? In many ways, the current ecological insensitivity among masses could be directly attributed to such disconnect!

For the past five years, however, a group of concerned academics and activists have come together to bring the relevance of one such local event to light amidst people from various walks of life. Celebrated each year on September 8 as Sahyadri Day, it marks the day when people from villages around Salkani in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka had undertaken an eight-km trek to lay siege to a tree-felling site in the Kalase forests in 1983.

The Appiko Movement (hug-the-tree) was born that day and grew quickly over the next three months as the perpetrators of the attempted felling were given a swift and unceremonious send-off. Chanting ulisu, belasu and balasu, meaning “save, grow and sustain”, the movement had spread to other districts in no time as forest-dwellers challenged the tyranny of the State that was bent upon clearing the native tropical forests to pave the way for monoculture plantations.

Not only did this spontaneous social action led to a moratorium on green felling across the Western Ghats or the Sahyadri range of mountains, the movement has been the vanguard of ecological conservation ever since: from opposing a seventh dam on the Kali river in Karnataka to saving the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, and from taking on the controversial ‘Nylon 66’ project in Goa to supporting the Chalakudy river campaign in Kerala.

In fact, the success of this movement had led to the launch of the ‘Save Western Ghats Campaign’ in mid-1980s. The media has hailed it as one of the finest ecological campaigns aimed at protecting the 1,600 km length of the Sahyadri range across five States — from the edge of Gujarat in the north to the tip of Kerala in the south. Its revival in 2009, 25 years after its launch, alone pressurised the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests to set up the much talked about Gadgil Committee.

The Appiko Movement has not only worked within its limits, but also pushed the limits, showing enormous level of maturity in being politically correct in contesting the development priorities of the States and the Centre in the Sahyadri range. No wonder, it is not only part of the school curriculum in Karnataka but has also registered its presence in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) textbooks for the ninth standard.

Pandurang Hegde, who had launched the movement in 1983 and continues to inspire it, insists: “The movement and its driving principles ought to become the living tradition in the region.” Only by celebrating Sahyadri Day can the ethos of this movement be turned into a potent household expression to counter violence against nature. Backed by its rich history, Sahyadri Day easily qualifies as an annual ecological reminder.

At this time when the contours of ‘environment versus development’ discourse have shifted in favour of individual gains emanating from the economic conversion of natural resources as opposed to collective survival upon them, the challenge has been to address the widespread apathy towards environmental conservation. Only by putting local environmental movements on the annual calendar can people be made to value them as essential ‘ecological reminders’.

(The writer is with the Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)

More In: Delhi