Environmental Movements in India

Article excerpt

DURING the past twenty years people in various regions of India have formed nonviolent action movements to protect their environment, their livelihood, and their ways of life. These environmental movements have emerged from the Himalayan regions of Uttar Pradesh to the tropical forests of Kerala and from Gujarat to Tripura in response to projects that threaten to dislocate people and to affect their basic human rights to land, water, and ecological stability of life-support systems. They share certain features, such as democratic values and decentralized decision making, with social movements operating in India. The environmental movements are slowly progressing toward defining a model of development to replace the current resource-intensive one that has created severe ecological instability (Centre for Science and Environment 1982, 190). Similar grassroots environmental movements are emerging in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. Throughout Asia and the Pacific citizenry organizations are working in innovative ways to reclaim their environment (Rush 1991).

Even with limited resources the environmental movements have initiated a new political struggle for safeguarding the interests of the poor and the marginalized, among whom are women, tribal groups, and peasants. Among the main environmental movements are Chipko Andolan (Barthelemy 1982) and Save the Bhagirathi and Stop Tehri project committee (Manu 1984) in Uttar Pradesh; Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan) in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat; youth organizations and tribal people in the Gandhamardan Hills whose survival is directly threatened by development of bauxite deposits; the opposition to the Baliapal and Bhogarai test range in Orissa, the Appiko Movement in the Western Ghats; groups opposing the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka; the campaign against the Silent Valley project; the Rural Women's Advancement Society (Gramin Mahila Shramik Unnayam Samiti), formed to reclaim waste land in Bankura district; and the opposition to the Gumti Dam in Tripura.

In addition, there are local movements against deforestation, waterlogging, salinization, and desertification in the command areas of dams on the Kosi, Gandak, and Tungabhadra rivers and in the canal-irrigated areas of Punjab and Haryana. Local movements like Pani Chetna, Pani Panchyat, and Mukti Sangharsh advocate ecological principles for water use. A movement in the small fishing communities against ecological destruction exits along the coasts of India.

These environmental movements are an expression of the socioecological effects of narrowly conceived development based on short-term criteria of exploitation. The movements are revealing how the resource-intensive demands of development have built-in ecological destruction and economic deprivation. The members have activated microaction plans to safeguard natural processes and to provide the macroconcept for ecological development at the national and regional levels. In the rest of this article I focus on the Chipko movement in the Himalaya, Save the Narmada Movement in central India, and the Silent Valley Project in Kerala as case studies of the nonviolent direct-action environmental movements of grassroots origin in India.

CHIPKO MOVEMENT

The word chipko means to stick to or to hug and refers to the method used to protect the trees of the Himalaya from commercial timber cutters who have devastated the forests. The movement's activists embrace the tree trunks to interpose their bodies between the trees and the axemen. The Chipko movement is located in the mountainous northern segment of Uttar Pradesh, immediately west of Nepal. The area has long been known as Uttarakhand, a term recently revived by persons seeking self-government and perhaps statehood for the region. Persons with this political motive are few in number and are primarily members of the urban elite. In contrast, the members of the environmental movement are chiefly indigenous subsistence farmers, both Indo-Aryan-speaking Hindus of the lower Himalaya who are called Pahari and, in fewer numbers, Tibetan-speaking Buddhists of the higher Himalaya who are known as Bhotiya. …

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