The past & present of Indian environmentalism

Polluted skies, dead rivers, disappearing forests and displacement of peasants and tribals are what we see around us 40 years after the Chipko movement started

March 27, 2013 01:00 am | Updated 01:00 am IST

130327- lead--- Chipko and Enviroment -Ram Guha

130327- lead--- Chipko and Enviroment -Ram Guha

On the 27th of March 1973 — exactly 40 years ago — a group of peasants in a remote Himalayan village stopped a group of loggers from felling a patch of trees. Thus was born the Chipko movement, and through it the modern Indian environmental movement itself.

The first thing to remember about Chipko is that it was not unique. It was representative of a wide spectrum of natural resource conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s — conflicts over forests, fish, and pasture; conflicts about the siting of large dams; conflicts about the social and environmental impacts of unregulated mining. In all these cases, the pressures of urban and industrial development had deprived local communities of access to the resources necessary to their own livelihood. Peasants saw their forests being diverted by the state for commercial exploitation; pastorialists saw their grazing grounds taken over by factories and engineering colleges; artisanal fisherfolk saw themselves being squeezed out by large trawlers.

Social justice and sustainability

In the West, the environmental movement had arisen chiefly out of a desire to protect endangered animal species and natural habitats. In India, however, it arose out of the imperative of human survival. This was an environmentalism of the poor, which married the concern of social justice on the one hand with sustainability on the other. It argued that present patterns of resource use disadvantaged local communities and devastated the natural environment.

Back in the 1970s, when the state occupied the commanding heights of the economy, and India was close to the Soviet Union, the activists of Chipko and other such movements were dismissed by their critics as agents of Western imperialism. They had, it was alleged, been funded and promoted by foreigners who hoped to keep India backward. Slowly, however, the sheer persistence of these protests forced the state into making some concessions. When Indira Gandhi returned to power, in 1980, a Department of Environment was established at the Centre, becoming a full-fledged Ministry a few years later. New laws to control pollution and to protect natural forests were enacted. There was even talk of restoring community systems of water and forest management.

Meanwhile, journalists and scholars had begun more systematically studying the impact of environmental degradation on social life across India. The pioneering reportage of Anil Agarwal, Darryl D’ Monte, Kalpana Sharma, Usha Rai, Nagesh Hegde and others played a critical role in making the citizenry more aware of these problems. Scientists such as Madhav Gadgil and A.K.N. Reddy began working out sustainable patterns of forest and energy use.

Through these varied efforts, the environmentalism of the poor began to enter school and college pedagogy. Textbooks now mentioned the Chipko and Narmada movements. University departments ran courses on environmental sociology and environmental history. Specialist journals devoted to these subjects were now printed and read. Elements of an environmental consciousness had, finally, begun to permeate the middle class.

Changing perception

In 1991 the Indian economy started to liberalise. The dismantling of state controls was in part welcome, for the licence-permit-quota-Raj had stifled innovation and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, the votaries of liberalisation mounted an even more savage attack on environmentalists than did the proponents of state socialism. Under their influence the media, once so sensitive to environmental matters, now began to demonise people like Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada movement. Influential columnists charged that she, and her comrades, were relics from a bygone era, old-fashioned leftists who wished to keep India backward. In a single generation, environmentalists had gone from being seen as capitalist cronies to being damned as socialist stooges.

Environmentalists were attacked because, with the dismantling of state controls, only they asked the hard questions. When a new factory, highway, or mining project was proposed, only they asked where the water or land would come from, or what the consequences would be for the quality of the air, the state of the forests, and the livelihood of the people. Was development under liberalisation only going to further intensify the disparities between city and countryside? Before approving the rash of mining leases in central India, or the large hydel projects being built in the high (and seismically fragile) Himalayas, had anyone systematically assessed their social and environmental costs and benefits? Was a system in which the Environmental Impact Assessment was written by the promoter himself something a democracy should tolerate? These, and other questions like them, were brushed off even as they were being asked.

Steady deterioration

Meanwhile, the environment continued to deteriorate. The levels of air pollution were now shockingly high in all Indian cities. The rivers along which these cities were sited were effectively dead. Groundwater aquifers dipped alarmingly in India’s food bowl, the Punjab. Districts in Karnataka were devastated by open-cast mining. Across India, the untreated waste of cities was dumped on villages. Forests continued to decline, and sometimes disappear. Even the fate of our national animal, the tiger, now hung in the balance.

A major contributory factor to this continuing process of degradation has been the apathy and corruption of our political class. A birdwatcher herself, friendly with progressive conservationists such as Salim Ali, Indira Gandhi may have been the Prime Minister most sensitive (or at least least insensitive) to matters of environmental sustainability. On the other hand, of all Prime Ministers past and present Dr. Manmohan Singh has been the most actively hostile. This is partly a question of academic background; economists are trained to think that markets can conquer all forms of scarcity. It is partly a matter of ideological belief; both as Finance Minister, and now as Prime Minister, Dr. Singh has argued that economic growth must always take precedence over questions of environmental sustainability.

An environmentally literate Prime Minister would certainly help. That said, it is State-level politicians who are most deeply involved in promoting mining and infrastructure projects that eschew environmental safeguards even as they disregard the communities they displace. In my own State, Karnataka, mining barons are directly part of the political establishment. In other States they act through leaders of the Congress, the BJP, and regional parties.

In 1928, 45 years before the birth of the Chipko movement, Mahatma Gandhi had said: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

The key phrase in this quotation is ‘after the manner of the West.’ Gandhi knew that the Indian masses had to be lifted out of poverty; that they needed decent education, dignified employment, safe and secure housing, freedom from want and from disease. Likewise, the best Indian environmentalists — such as the founder of the Chipko movement, Chandi Prasad Bhatt — have been hard-headed realists. What they ask for is not a return to the past, but for the nurturing of a society, and economy, that meets the demands of the present without imperilling the needs of the future.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the finest minds in the environmental movement sought to marry science with sustainability. They sought to design, and implement, forest, energy, water and transport policies that would augment economic productivity and human welfare without causing environmental stress. They acted in the knowledge that, unlike the West, India did not have colonies whose resources it could draw upon in its own industrial revolution.

In the mid-1980s, as I was beginning my academic career, the Government of Karnataka began producing an excellent annual state of the environment report, curated by a top-ranking biologist, Cecil Saldanha, and with contributions from leading economists, ecologists, energy scientists, and urban planners. These scientific articles sought to direct the government’s policies towards more sustainable channels. Such an effort is inconceivable now, and not just in Karnataka. For the prime victim of economic liberalisation has been environmental sustainability.

Corporate interests

A wise, and caring, government would have deepened the precocious, far-seeing efforts of our environmental scientists. Instead, rational, fact-based scientific research is now treated with contempt by the political class. The Union Environment Ministry set up by Indira Gandhi has, as the Economic and Political Weekly recently remarked, ‘buckled completely’ to corporate and industrial interests. The situation in the States is even worse.

India today is an environmental basket-case; marked by polluted skies, dead rivers, falling water-tables, ever-increasing amounts of untreated wastes, disappearing forests. Meanwhile, tribal and peasant communities continue to be pushed off their lands through destructive and carelessly conceived projects. A new Chipko movement is waiting to be born.

(Ramachandra Guha’s books include How Much Should a Person Consume? He can be reached at

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