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Environmental Movements In India


            These days, social media is filled with posts of an older man undertaking a 100-day motorcycle journey through 27 countries. The man is Sadhguru, a renowned spiritual guru, who is on a mission to make people aware of soil’s importance. In 2018, a Swedish teenage girl made news for challenging world leaders to take immediate action on climate change.

          Individuals taking initiatives to save our planet and conserve it for future generations is commendable and inspiring. It awakens people worldwide. However, for an environmental movement to succeed, it needs mass support and community participation. Proper implementation is crucial for its success as well.

         Earlier, governments and civil society groups used to be the warring parties during environmental campaigns. The importance accorded to economic growth over environmental protection by the governments, disregarding their ecological impact, has resulted in extremes in climate. Severe droughts, soil erosion, and species extinction affect people’s lives and livelihoods.   

        Climate change has impacted our planet so gravely that the global community and governments are waking up to its threats. In the past, we witnessed community-led environmental movements; now, we see governments taking initiatives for environmental protection. LIFE (lifestyle for the environment) Panchamrit Plan declared at COP26, and the National Mission for Clean Ganga are examples of government-led ecological conservation initiatives in India.

        Environmental movements in Western countries focus on protecting the environment. In contrast, ecological campaigns in India focus on the livelihoods of the marginalised and the rights of the local people to use natural resources sustainably. To contrast, Ramchandra Guha calls the environmental movements in Western countries as “full stomach,” whereas those in developing countries as “empty stomach.”

          Tribal revolts during colonial rule were the epitome of the Indian environmental movement. Peasant and tribal protests against the British, though not recognised as environmental struggles, were protests to stop the exploitation of natural resources by outsiders. To understand what an environmental movement is, it is imperative to examine the history of environmental activities in India.

            If we look into the history of environmental movements in India, we find that these campaigns have been closely related with the livelihood concerns of marginalised sections. There is a difference between environmental movements in Western countries and environmental movements in developing countries such as India.

         An environmental movement is a social movement where civil society organisations and citizens collectively act to protect the environment and demand changes in government policies to align them with sustainable practices. Bishnoi, a community of non-violent nature worshipers, sacrificed 363 of its members while protecting trees being felled by order of the king. The campaign to protect the environment is not only restricted to safeguarding forests; it also includes movement against large-scale dams and illegal mines.

           Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was a movement to secure justice for the tribes displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. NBA successfully showed the World Bank, which had agreed to fund the Dam project, that neither a social impact assessment nor an environmental assessment was done before  the construction of the dam. This led to the World Bank withdrawing and cancelling the funds. However, the government of India continued the project on its own.

Nonetheless, the movement became an eye-opener for policymakers and citizens to accommodate the grievances of vulnerable and marginalised sections.

           Chipko movement is an example of an environmental movement where women participated in large numbers. Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt were the movement’s leaders in Uttarakhand. The campaign was successful in saving trees from the axes of exploiters.

     The most recent environmental campaign to save Aarey Forest shows how environmental protection is sidelined for economic development. Aarey forest is known as the “green lungs” of Mumbai. A Metro coach washing facility was proposed at Aarey Milk Colony. That required the cutting down of more than 2,000 trees. The following data highlights the ecological importance of the Aarey forest.

          In a 2013 poster, researchers Zeeshan Mirza and Shardul Bajikar highlighted that there were 86 butterfly species, 90 spider species, 46 reptile species, 126 bird species, and more than 400 different types of plants. The forest is also home to a small population of leopards. The colony hosts over 10,000 people in 27 tribal villages, also called padas.

       Image Source-The Hindu

        To get a bird’s eye view of environmental movements in India, the analysis of Indian environmental movements by Ramchandra Guha comes in handy. He divides the Indian environmental movement into four phases. In the first phase (in the 1970s), the ecological movement was seen as an interloper. They were seen as the luxury of wealthy nations. Environmentalists were seen as agents of the CIA, preventing the rise of India.

      The above narrative is also evident in present times, as an IB report in 2014 cited that foreign-aided NGOs are stalling development projects in India.

     Environmental journalism ushered in the second phase (in the 1980s) of environmental movements in India. Ecological issues started getting media attention. The third phase began in the 1990s. Social and natural scientists became the harbingers of this phase by producing credible data and looking for the roots of environmental conflict.

      From the fourth phase(the 1990s) onwards, with the government adopting the neo-liberal development model, environmental protests were seen as anti-developmental and anti-national.

         However, increased climate extremities, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, frequent droughts and water scarcity have made governments realise the gravity of the situation. Governments are taking steps towards sustainable development. Governments need to show more urgency in tackling environmental issues. The implementation of environmental protection programmes should be fast-paced.

Environmental movements, too, suffer from inefficiencies. These inefficiencies, when rectified, will make the movements more successful in restoring the balance in nature. According to Sunita Narain, an Indian environmental activist, environmental campaigns in India suffer from a lack of leadership, a lack of expertise, and a lack of a firefighting approach.

       In India, where nearly 300 million people live below the poverty line, we cannot ignore economic development. But it would be wrong to assume that environmentalism is opposed to development. Instead, it advocates the democratic use of natural resources. It opposes the commodification and monopolisation of natural resources. The environmental movement and economic development should go hand in hand. Sustainable development and conservation of the environment are the best options to avoid environmental conflicts.       

Reference-Explained | The Aarey conundrum – The Hindu.


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