Thirty-five years ago today, a group of peasants in the upper Alakananda Valley stopped a group of loggers from felling a patch of forest. That act of protest gave birth to the Chipko Andolan and, by extension, to the Indian environmental movement. Through the 1970s, other peasants in the Himalayas successfully prevented other loggers from decimating public forests. Then, under the leadership of the visionary Chandi Prasad Bhatt, they turned from protest to reconstruction, reforesting barren hillsides and promoting renewable sources of energy such as biogas plants and microhydel projects.
Unlike in the West, where modern environmentalism was given birth to by scientists, in India it began through the protests of rural communities. Following Chipko, tribals in the Chotanagpur plateau launched their own struggles in defence of local rights in the forest. Meanwhile, on the Kerala coast, artisanal fisherfolk protested the destruction of their fish stocks by large trawlers. And in Gandhamardan in Orissa, tribals resisted the damage to their lifestyles and to the local ecology by bauxite mining.
Since its origins, the environmental movement in India has passed through four stages. In the 1970s, it was seen as something of an interloper, disturbing the consensus — shared among politicians and intellectuals alike — that concern for nature was a luxury only rich countries could afford. The Marxist intellectuals went further. For them, ecology was a ‘bourgeois deviation from the class struggle’. Dismissed at first as CIA agents, men like Chandi Prasad Bhatt slowly brought their critics around to the view that there was indeed an ‘environmentalism of the poor’. Where in the West the Green movement was motivated by the desire to keep beautiful places unpolluted to walk through, in India environmentalism was driven not by leisure but by survival. There was an unequal competition over resources such as forests, fish, water and pasture. On one side were local communities who depended on these resources for subsistence. On the other, urban and industrial interests who appropriated them for profit. State policies had tended to favour the latter, leading to protests that called for a fairer and more sustainable use of the gifts of nature.
If in the 1970s they struggled to be heard, in the 1980s Indian Greens began receiving massive (and mostly positive) media attention. There was a veritable flood of reportage on environmental issues, and in most languages of the Eighth Schedule. Of those who wrote in English, the names of Anil Agarwal, Darryl D’Monte and Usha Rai come to mind. But superb work was also done by Raj Kumar Keswani and Shekhar Pathak in Hindi, and by Nagesh Hegde in Kannada. With this surge of media attention came a welcome if belated response from the government. In 1980, a new Department of the Environment was established. This was upgraded five years later into a full-fledged Ministry of Environment and Forests. State governments followed by setting up environment ministries of their own.
To begin with, peasants had protested. Then, journalists sympathetically reported on these protests. Now commenced a third phase, which we may term ‘professionalisation’. Scientists and social scientists began to systematically analyse the roots of environmental conflicts. Some went further, seeking technical or institutional solutions. The flagship Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore started a Centre for Ecological Sciences. This academic interest was manifest in the social sciences as well — thus, for the first time, students could take courses or write theses in the emerging fields of ‘ecological economics’ and ‘environmental history’.
Then, in about 1995, an anti-environmental backlash began. As the Indian economy began to take off, as a surge of new projects were floated or started, the Greens found themselves cast as negative, backward-looking and, indeed, as the only obstacles to India’s march to greatness. Where it had once stifled private enterprise, the State now bent over backwards to accommodate it. Only the Greens were willing to ask any questions at all — about where the land for the new projects would come from, for example, or what likely impact the projects would have on the state of the air and the water.
From the mid-1990s, a series of sharp attacks on environmentalists began appearing in the national press. Where they were once calumnied as CIA agents, now they were said to be a hangover from the bad old days of socialism; of being, as it were, KGB agents in disguise. The criticisms were at times deeply unfair. But it must be admitted that the Greens had not always stated their case to advantage. They had used exaggerated, apocalyptic, language. They had demonised the market as they had once demonised the State. And some Greens had displayed what appeared to be an almost atavistic fear of modern technology.
The attacks on environmentalists were initiated by a few free market ideologues, whose arguments found a ready audience among the growing middle-class. With India (for the first time) experiencing high rates of economic growth, the Greens were dismissed as party-poopers. Bowing to the mood, the press stopped running stories on the degradation of the environment and the marginalisation of the rural communities that it caused. A greater and more shameful abdication was by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which dismantled the existing safeguards and made the clearance of even the most destructive projects a mere formality.
There are many good things to be said in favour of economic liberalisation. It has increased productivity and efficiency, and spawned a new wave of philanthropy. At the same time, the consumer boom it has engendered has come at a very large cost. Air pollution levels in India’s cities are among the highest in the world. Most of our rivers are dead, killed by industrial pollution or untreated sewage. Commercial farming has massively depleted groundwater aquifers. And, out of sight of the cities and the middle-class, mining projects in central India are leading to a disaster of possibly epic (and certainly tragic) proportions. Politicians in states such as Orissa and Chhattisgarh have handed over huge areas of forests and hillside to bauxite and iron ore companies. Although only a fraction of the projects cleared have begun operations, they are already destroying fields and farms, polluting rivers and sending the tribals they dispossess into the waiting arms of the Naxalites.
It may be that the anti-environmental backlash has finally run its course. If not the facts on the ground, the growing global concern with climate change could bring the question of sustainable development back into centre-stage. If, or when, that happens, the Indian elite would be advised to look within, to seek solutions worked out at home and in keeping with Indian conditions. For there is far more to Indian environmentalism than dharnas and satyagrahas. In those decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Indian scientists had thought deeply of how best to generate growth and employment while keeping in mind the distinctive resource endowments and social structures of our land. I think, for example, of the work of the late A.K.N. Reddy on sustainable energy strategies, of Madhav Gadgil and Ashish Kothari on biodiversity conservation, of Anupam Mishra and Ramaswamy Iyer on water management, of Dinesh Mohan on transport, of Dunu Roy on workplace safety, and of Ravi Chopra and the Peoples Science Institute in Dehradun on rehabilitation.
The work of these scholars addresses the environmental question in highly practical ways. They show how we can more sustainably manage our water and forest resources, forge better transport and energy policies, and protect the health of our citizens. Their studies, still available, still relevant, can — if given the necessary push by the press and the broader public — take India down a less destructive, that is to say more sustainable, path of economic development.
Ramachandra Guha, Historian and author of India After Gandhi.
This article is based on the TN Khoshoo Memorial Lecture that the author delivered in New Delhi on March 24, 2008.