Making sense of the Appiko movement

Save, grow and sustain: A unique agitation to save trees by ordinary individuals in Karnataka. Appiko believes that despite being submissive they are unlikely to be psychologically swamped.

Save, grow and sustain: A unique agitation to save trees by ordinary individuals in Karnataka. Appiko believes that despite being submissive they are unlikely to be psychologically swamped.  

Sudhirendar Sharma

A quarter century after the movement emerged in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, it is seen to have lived up to the promise it originally held out.

Internal squabbles and external resistance have weakened many environmental movements, yet the southern version of the Chipko movement has seemingly waded its way through such predictable uncertainties. It has lived up to the promise it made on September 8, 1983, a quarter century ago, when people from villages around Salkani in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka undertook an 8-km trek to lay siege to a tree-felling site in the Kalase forests.

Appiko 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 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.

However, it took six years before the movement succeeded in getting an executive order issued spelling a moratorium on green felling across the Western Ghats. Since then Appiko has been in the vanguard of ecological conservation: from opposing a seventh dam on the Kali river in Karnataka to saving the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, and from taking on ‘Nylon 66’ in Goa to supporting the Chalakudy river campaign in Kerala.

It may have had a low ‘TRP rating’ among contemporary movements of its genre, but Appiko has made a strong sense of its place in history. Working within its limits, but also pushing the limits, it has shown an enormous level of maturity in being politically correct in contesting the development priorities of the state. Its reasonable success rate and continued relevance makes you curious to understand why it clicks.

First, Appiko’s greatest strengths lie in it being neither driven by a personality nor having been formally institutionalised. However, it does have a facilitator in Pandurang Hegde, 52. He helped launch the movement in 1983 and continues to inspire it. In fact, the movement has facilitated the creation of a sociological space where one could find oneself and even relate to it. It was this collective search that led over 25,000 people to protest against the 4,000 MW Barge Mounted Power Plant at Tadadi on the west coast, some three years ago.

Second, Appiko does not have any agenda of its own and is not opposed to any economic agenda. It relies on the spontaneity of public action and reaction to determine its course. This is the way it has been these last 25 years. Thus Appiko has turned into a potent household expression to counter violence against nature. It may seem loose-knit but it has necessarily been an act of culture that affirms the inviolable need to define or be defined.

Yet, the act of culture has not been impermeable altogether. Devoid of any deep-rooted ideology, it lacks firmness in making a distinction between the past and the present, and between the internal and the external. It is this ambiguity that is reflected in Appiko’s critical stand against the proposed Hubli-Ankola railway link that will destroy 2,000 hectares of dense tropical forests, being contested from within its larger constituency.

Does not such opposition from within weaken the movement? Conversely, it reaffirms the fact that the average Indian is fundamentally submissive to external pressures at the cost of one’s autonomy and self-respect. This submissiveness has been further amplified by the fact that over these years the driving force of Appiko enshrined in words like “ecology” and “conservation” has been replaced with words such as “economy” and “consumption."

In the process, the contours of the 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. No wonder, then, that land, water or forests have increasingly been seen through the economic lens. Appiko is seized of the fact that obsession for individual gains through economic growth, as reflected in the case of the proposed rail link, seeks to brew widespread apathy towards ecological conservation.

Far from being repulsive, Appiko has been responsive to such changes. That leads us to the third reason for Appiko’s relevance, which lies in its capacity to survive on residual empathy amongst its constituency as it seeks alignment with new actors. Appiko has been a mass satyagraha, however, leaving individuals to define what satya, or truth, may mean to each. It is through the non-heroic ordinariness of individuals that this satyagraha has survived. Unlike other movements, Appiko relies on the ordinary individuals because it believes that despite being submissive they are unlikely to be psychologically swamped.

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