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Environmental Movement in India


‘On the one hand, the rich look askance at our continuing poverty — on the other, they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? …When they themselves feel deprived, how can we urge the preservation of animals?’

Excerpts from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s speech at the Stockholm Conference, 1972


The Indian environmental conflicts have arisen among two groups. The first section consists of those who have gained disproportionately from economic development whilst being insulated from ecological degradation (in particular, industrialists, urban consumers and rich farmers). The second group, on the other hand, consists of poorer and relatively powerless factions such as small peasants, pastoral nomads, tribals and fishing communities, whose livelihoods have been seriously undermined through a combination of resource flows biased against them and a growing deterioration of the environment. 

The epilogue of the environment movement in India was written during the independence movements in colonial India. Most of the tribal uprisings were centred around the taking away of forest rights of people by the colonial powers for their commercial purposes. Freedom Fighters like Mahatma Gandhi called for a reversal of state priorities towards more directly serving the needs (subsistence) of the rural sector. Even today, social action groups have relied to a considerable extent on the classic Gandhian techniques of the ‘bhook hartal’, ‘padayatra’ and satyagraha. 

JC Kumarappa who joined Gandhi in the 1920s worked out a coherent ideological framework in justification of a village-centred economic order, of which resource conservation was an integral part. Kumarappa’s economic and ethical defence of agrarian civilisation hinged on a novel distinction he made between ‘pack type’ and ‘herd type’ societies. The ‘’pack type’ groups, (which he suggests are exemplified by Western societies) are formed for selfish reasons, for aggression, and where although people come together, each maintains their separate reasons. The herd-type groupings are purely defensive, and although their reason is also selfish i.e. protection, in the aggregate, each has a duty in defending the whole. Historian Ramachandra Guha calls Kumarappa, “The Green Gandhian,” portraying him as the founder of modern environmentalism in India.

We also have Verrier Elwin who has written extensively on the significance of the forest in tribal life. Noting that a majority of tribal rebellions had centred around land and forests, he pleaded for the greater involvement of tribals in forest management in free India.

Factors for Environmental Conflict

Forests, dams, water bodies and mining, have been the prominent material causes of conflicts dominating the Indian environment protection discourse.


The development of the railway network represents a significant turning point in the history of forestry in India. The Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, described how the building of railways served as both a conduit for British finance looking for lucrative investment opportunities and a means of opening up a market for British goods. Thus, more than 80,000 kilometres of track were built throughout the subcontinent between 1853 and 1910. In the early stages of railway development, India’s forests came under brutal attack. Meanwhile, in 1864, the Indian Forest Department was established. For its effective functioning, the new department required a progressive curtailment of the previously untrammelled rights of use exercised by rural communities all over South Asia.

It is reasonable to attribute the beginnings of the Indian environmental movement to the most well-known forest conflict involving the Chipko movement in the Central Himalayas. The Garhwal Himalayan village of Mandal’s peasants successfully stopped commercial tree cutting in a neighbouring forest in April 1973 by threatening to “hug the trees.” The hill peasantry had been harbouring a simmering but widespread animosity towards state forest policies that had continuously supported outside economic interests at the expense of their own basic requirements for fuel, fodder, and small timber. So was born the “Chipko” (hug the trees) movement. 

Protesting against the allotment by the state of village pasture land to a polyfibre industry that intended to grow eucalyptus on it, the peasants of Kusnur and surrounding villages in Karnataka organized a ‘Pluck-and-Plant’ satyagraha demonstration on 14 November 1987, when they symbolically plucked a hundred eucalyptus saplings and replaced them with useful local species.

The movement, Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement), was launched in 1982 by local people in Garhwal, Uttarakhand, to revive the use of indigenous crops and cropping systems destroyed by the introduction of HYVs. Similarly, the Navadanya movement against mono-cropping and the control over resources of corporates.


In the Indian environmental issue, large dams have quickly occupied the space left by trees. Different river valley projects, from Tehri in the north to Silent Valley in the south, Koel Karo in the east to Sardar Sarovar in the west, have been the focus of ferocious disputes throughout the 1980s and beyond. 

The Tehri dam, which is built on the river Bhageerathi in the Garhwal Himalaya, faced the most ardent opposition. The Tehri Baandh Virodhi Sangarshan Samiti, a group founded by renowned Virendra Datt Saklani, has been fighting against the construction of the dam for more than ten years. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a revered leader of the Chipko people, was an active participant in the movement, participating in a number of hunger fasts to put pressure on the government to halt construction. The fragile mountain chain’s seismic sensitivity (and the potential for a dam break), the flooding of vast tracts of forest, farmland, and the ancient town of Tehri, and the threat that deforestation poses to the reservoir’s life span were all reasons for opposition to the dam.

The water-rich and heavily forested tribal areas of central India have also witnessed a surge of opposition to new hydroelectric projects. Two of the more notable movements have arisen in opposition to the Koel Karo dam in Bihar, and the Bhopalpatnam-Inchampalli project on the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border. In both cases, threatened tribal groups have put up a spirited defence, organizing demonstrations and work stoppages. The Koel Karo struggle has been coordinated by established left-wing political groupings such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Communist Party of India, whilst opposition to the Bhopal-Inchampalli project has been initiated by unaffiliated voluntary organizations and inspired by the veteran Gandhian Baba Amte.

The abandonment of the hydroelectric project in Kerala’s Silent Valley was a notable achievement. This 120 KW dam did require flooding one of the last remaining areas of rainforest in peninsular India, home to the largest population of lion-tailed macaque. Although no human community was intended to be uprooted, the movement gathered a large social base. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, a large and influential organisation in Kerala that promotes popular science education, spearheaded opposition to the project.

The Narmada River Valley Project called for the construction of 135 medium-sized and 3000 small dams, in addition to 30 major dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. The Sardar Sarovar reservoir, the largest of the Project’s separate plans, has been the centre of public criticism because two of the major dams have already been constructed. The construction of Sardar Sarovar is unique in India’s history of building dams because the command area for the majority of the beneficiaries is in Gujarat, but the majority of the displaced people (193 of the 243 villages that will be flooded) will live in Madhya Pradesh.

Water Bodies

The third category of nature-based conflicts involves artisanal fisherfolk whose dependence on a living resource has also been undermined in recent decades. Distinct endogamous groups of fisherfolk, both along the sea coast and on rivers, have long been a feature of the Indian landscape. 

The introduction of huge trawlers, which primarily caught fish for export, brought about significant changes in Kerala’s fisheries’ ecology and economy. In the early years of trawling, fish landings increased rapidly, but this was followed by stasis and a relative reduction. While some artisanal fishermen were able to switch to a more resource- and capital-intensive system, the majority were directly competed with by trawlers. Small fishermen demanded restrictions on the use of trawlers as a result of this conflict, which sparked a widespread movement that included strikes, processions, and violent encounters with trawler owners. The movement also called for a ban on trawling during the monsoon, the breeding season for several important fish species. A partial ban which was finally imposed in 1988 and 1989 did in fact result in an increased harvest following the monsoon months.

When it comes to inland fisheries, there have been sporadic reports of localised pushback from fishermen impacted by industrial contamination. In the Bihar district of Bhagalpur, a special “Ganga Mukti Andolan” or campaign to “free the Ganga” has emerged, engaging fishermen. Two lineages in this strange feudal relic claimed inherited authority over a section of the Ganga. The 40,000 fishermen who live along the river are subject to fees from the waterlords, who claim that these “panidari” (water) rights date back to Mughal times. Young socialists have been organising the fishermen into the “Ganga Mukti Andolan” (Free the Ganga) campaign since the early 1980s. 

The movement has been fighting on two fronts at once—against effluents and against a dated system of monopoly rights over water—as fish catches are also dropping as a result of industrial contamination.

A significant success for GMA came in January 1991 when, following a protracted battle, the contract system and zamindari on rivers (Panidari) were eliminated and traditional fishermen were granted unrestricted access to all rivers in the state of Bihar, including a 500-kilometer length of the Ganga.


The Doon Valley in northwest India witnessed one of the most well-known mining battles. Here, the expansion of limestone mining since 1947 has resulted in significant environmental damage, including deforestation, drying up of water sources, and the destruction of previously farmed areas through erosion and debris. Two different groups have opposed limestone quarrying, which gained momentum in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ‘Friends of the Doon’ and the ‘Save Mussoorie’ organisations were established on the one hand by retired CEOs and officials to protect the valley’s ecosystem. Hotel owners from Mussoorie joined them because they were concerned about how environmental deterioration would affect the number of tourists visiting this well-known hill station. These groups may fairly be characterized as NIMBY (not in my backyard) environmentalists, preoccupied above all with protecting a privileged landscape from overcrowding and defacement. 

In the state of Orissa in the southeast, there is another movement opposed to bauxite mining that has basically similar characteristics. The public sector Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) has been given permission to mine a densely forested region of roughly 900 acres in the Gandhamardan hills of the state’s Sambalpur district. The Orissa Chief Minister laid the project’s cornerstone in May 1983, and mining operations started two years later. However, BALCO’s operations had to come to an end by the end of 1986. In Gandhamardan, bauxite production quickly caused erosion, deforestation, and water source pollution. Blasting operations were seen as a threat to the area’s historic temples, which receive a lot of outside pilgrimage. Balco shut down its operation to mine 213 million tonnes of bauxite after a persistent five-year campaign by the locals. It was a significant win for the region’s forest-dependent residents as well as the vulnerable environment of western Orissa. More than a million people live in Gandhamardan, which also serves as the source of two significant Mahanadi tributaries.

The Present and Future 

Political thinkers like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have called modern society a ‘risk society’. The risk society is a society in which the social structures become unstable and permeable. Risk is defined here as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself”. Exponential growth in productive forces unleashes hazards, potential threats, and risks. Thus, excessive production of hazards and ecologically unsustainable consumption of natural resources are the root sources of modern risks.

Today, the idea of a ‘risk society’ is no longer an abstract concept. We as a society are always wondering about the future. And in some places, people are gathering and fighting for the future of collective humanity.

Some of the major recent protests and movements are discussed below. Here, we see some changes and some continuities. We also see that the movements to protect the environment have also spread to the urban spaces where people are suffering floods and heat waves. They are being compelled to come out of their comfortable homes to fight the fear of the future.

Concerns about the river connection project’s potential environmental impact have been raised, however, it is anticipated to make significant progress in resolving the problems of water-scarce areas. The Ken-Betwa river linking project has seen the green flag. It would help water-starved districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. However, it has been opposed by environmentalists due to the deforestation it would require and the harm it would cause to the Panna Tiger Reserve in MP.

Similarly, in order to improve irrigation, hydropower, and water supply, the Par-Tapi-Narmada river-link project calls for transporting “surplus” water from the Western Ghats in Maharashtra to the semi-arid districts of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat. The proposal to connect the Bedti and Varada rivers in Karnataka has drawn criticism from environmental groups who label it “unscientific” and a “waste of taxpayer money.” On June 14, 2022, thousands of people demonstrated against the project.

The India Neutrino Observatory project has been in development for almost 15 years, but it has been dogged by disputes. A Chennai-based environmental group called Poovulagin Nanbargal had petitioned the Supreme Court for help in stopping the state government from approving the project. According to the Tamil Nadu government, the project may have an influence on the Mathikettan-Periyar Tiger Corridor and the Western Ghats, an area of great ecological importance.

A petrochemical complex is being developed for Paradip by the Indian Oil Corporation. Due to environmental concerns, some Kendrapara district inhabitants in Odisha have voiced opposition to a planned petrochemical investment along the state’s coast. On August 30, 2022, at Mahakalapada in the Kendrapara district, some 120 people showed up to voice their opposition to the proposed Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Invest Region (PCPIR) project. They claimed it would have an impact on the mangrove trees, rivers, and their way of life.

The Sundarbans were devastated by the latest hurricane Amphan, which struck in May 2020 and was the worst cyclone since 1737. A more noticeable sea level rise than anyplace else puts the mangrove forests at significant risk and could eventually cause the local communities to experience a severe migratory problem. Online, the hashtag #SavetheSundarbans was created. In the midst of a pandemic, concerned residents have turned to giving to local charities, starting conversations about this asset like the Amazon or Australian Bush, and creating art as part of the #SundarbansChallenge to raise awareness.

The Pathalgadi movement is an indigenous tribal movement in India where stone plaques or “Pathalgadis” are installed to declare tribal areas as autonomous regions, governed by their own customs and laws. This movement asserts tribal rights, protects land and resources, and challenges external government authority. It signifies the ongoing struggle for tribal autonomy and recognition within the Indian state.

The crime of “protecting trees” led to the arrest of roughly 29 persons in October 2019. Sanjay Gandhi National Park is close to Aarey in Mumbai. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation values the location, and the same 2500 trees were allowed to be taken down for development. Additionally, the IPC’s section 144 was implemented there. Finally, SC intervened, ordering the release of activists and a ban on further tree-cutting.

Indian conservationists are working to stop deforestation, illegal mining, and urbanisation from harming the Aravalli Hills’ essential ecosystems. To protect the ecological significance and biodiversity of the Aravalli for future generations, activists call for rigorous laws, reforestation, and sustainable development. According to the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, a group of environmentalists and activists working to save the ecologically sensitive Aravallis region, the 10,000-acre Aravalli safari park project proposed by the Haryana government in April 2022 is likely to fragment natural habitats, increase waste generation, and destroy the region’s fragile ecosystem.


In many areas of modern India, campaigns for human rights, equitable access to natural resources, and environmental causes have come together. 

Millennials are starting collectives and local chapters of Western environmental organisations all throughout the nation. Extinction Rebellion (XR), a Western-led organisation with around 20 chapters in India, is one such organisation. There are several significant flaws in this emerging kind of millennial-led environmental activism, despite the fact that it may initially seem like a positive development for anyone worried about the climate problem. They are mostly the result of these communities frequently copying their Western counterparts.  

Social conflicts over nature and natural resources have become the third category to the two generic forms of conflict widely studied by social scientists – those over cultivated land and its produce, and those within the factory. The dichotomies of development vs. the environment were the focus of public discourse. One side, made up of bureaucrats and urbanists, criticised the deliberate opposition to development and pushed for a realistic approach to sustainable development. However, the activists see the concept of sustainable development as a joke. Furthermore, the forest officials continue to assert their exclusive “scientific expertise,” rejecting villager suggestions for species selection, habitat spacing, or harvesting methods. 

While economic growth is past and development is present, we cannot forget that environment is the future. We need to shift from the politics of blame and the politics of negotiation to the politics of collaboration to ensure its well-being.


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