6 Major Environmental Movements in India

In the previous post we learned about International agreements on Agriculture and Trade  
The main environmental movements and the methods of protest are introduced in this post.


  1. Introduction
  2. Modes of protest
  3. Organizing for action
  4. Chipko Andolan
  5. Narmada Bachao Andolan
  6. Save the Western Ghats March
  7. Programmes for ecological restoration
  8. The struggle for Niyamgiri
  9. Anti-SEZ movements
  10. Leading ideologies in environmental movements


Based on their material, political, and ideological manifestations, many environmental movements can be identified in India. The numerous conflicts over access to natural resources make up the material context. Industrialists, urban consumers, and wealthy farmers make up one social group that has benefited disproportionately from economic growth. It is protected from environmental deterioration (. - The vast majority of relatively powerless groups, such as small farmers, pastoral nomads, tribal peoples, and fishing communities, stand in opposition to this. Their livelihoods have been severely threatened by a combination of resource flows that are biassed against them and the environment's continued deterioration.

These conflicts have their roots in the development paradigm and its associated processes. The poor are forced to bear the social and environmental costs of economic development, whether in the form of declining natural resource availability, more polluted environments, or, increasingly, physical displacement, while forests, water, and other natural resources are diverted to produce energy and commodities for the wealthy. Local communities have erupted in protest as a result of growing alienation and the state's and society's overall failure to meet the needs of those most negatively affected. Although most activism has been nonviolent, with an emphasis on educating the public and challenging the establishment, there has occasionally been bloodshed between rival groups.

It is important to note that while the protests (and difficulties) started out locally, the way they grew and attracted attention shows that the issues and issues they brought to light have much larger ramifications. The learner must comprehend the inner workings of various protest movements.

Modes of protest 

The organisation of the victims of environmental degradation by social action groups has been the political expression of environmentalism in India against the backdrop of these battles.
The three sets of initiatives that action groups have started are noted by Gadgil and Guha (2000).
  • First, they have attempted, with varied degrees of success, to stop ecologically harmful economic activities through a process of organising and resistance.
  • Second, they effectively used the media, the internet (in recent years), and more creatively, informal channels like walking tours and ecodevelopment camps to spread the environmental message.
  • Last but not least, these organisations have also started environmental rehabilitation programmes (afforestation, soil conservation, etc.), rebuilding damaged village ecosystems and raising the standard of living for locals.
Nearly all of the actions took place outside of the purview of official party politics. The continued depletion of India's natural resource base and the danger it poses to the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations have, for the most part, been ignored by political parties. Environmental activist groups have evolved a sharp critique of the development process itself. Various situations where people have organised to assure development through proper natural resource management are referred to as "alternative development."

Organizing for action

Conflicts over the utilisation of natural resources have a long history, as was already mentioned. Modern environmental conflicts in India began with popular uprisings like the Kumaon Forest Movement (1921) demanding control of the forests and the Mulshi Satyagraha (1921) in opposition to the construction of a dam by the Tata Hydroelectric Company.

Following Gandhi's example, communities have employed "satyagraha" (literally, "the force of truth," but more commonly used to refer to non-violent resistance) to combat environmental deterioration and/or external control of natural resources. Communities can demonstrate their strength through collective activities like Pradarshan, rallies, with or without dharna (sit-ins), and sit-down strikes. They are set up for a variety of purposes. Another type of protest is gherao, or surrounding a top politician or bureaucrat until they give in to demands or are released by the authorities. Roadblocks are uncommon. Supporters of the Narmada Bachao Andolan sat for days on the National Highway between Delhi and Mumbai, preventing passenger and cargo movement on an important artery, out of frustration and exasperation with the policies of the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Stronger types of protest include the jail bharo andolan (literally, a movement to fill jails) and leader-led hunger strikes, or bhook hartal. In order to avoid being uprooted from their ancestral lands, the Narmada movement organised a significant Sangharsh Yatra (march for resistance) and a jal samadhi (voluntary immersion) in the rising waters of the reservoir. The "weapons of the weak" are these various protest methods taken as a whole (Scott 1985).

The majority of these disputes have seen widespread demonstrations against state agencies utilising one or more of the aforementioned strategies, closely followed by press coverage in print and (now) social networking media. Print media has been crucial in reporting, analysing, and publicising nature-based disputes in contemporary India because radio and television are carefully regulated by the Information and Broadcasting ministry of the Government. The internet and related technologies are widely used nowadays.

Chipko Andolan

The Chipko Andolan generated wide attention. The Chipko movement got its beginnings in the 1970s when a coordinated backlash against forest devastation developed throughout the Himalaya. The word "chipko" means "to hug," and that is what the locals did to the trees to stop the contractors from felling them.

In April 1973, a spontaneous Chipko action occurred in Mandal village in the upper Alaknanda valley. It spread to numerous districts of the Himalayas in many areas of Uttar Pradesh during the course of the following five years (which are now in Uttarakhand). It began when the government decided to grant a sports goods company access to a portion of a forest in the Alaknanda valley so that it could gather wood. The villagers were incensed by this since they had previously been rejected when they demanded to utilise wood to make agricultural equipment. Under the direction of an activist named Chandi Prasad Bhatt, members of the local NGO (non-governmental organisation) DGSS (Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh) entered the forest and built a circle around the trees to prevent the workers from felling them.

Gandhian activist and scholar Sunderlal Bahuguna was another leader who persisted in working in the area to halt other detrimental projects like dams. Similar rallies spread around the nation as a result of the success this one had. When Indira Gandhi, India's then-prime minister, issued a 15-year ban on tree cutting in that state's Himalayan forests in 1980, the Chipko andolan scored a significant success. Later, the movement spread to other American states. The movement put a stop to tree cutting in the Vindhyas and the Western Ghats. More significantly, it increased demand for a natural resource policy that is more focused on meeting both ecological and human needs.

Numerous NGOs organised locals to participate in afforestation programmes, water and soil conservation efforts, and the adoption of ecologically friendly technologies. The Dashauli Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM), led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, has changed its emphasis from the battle to local restoration activities. The communities in the upper Alakananda valley were the primary focus of the DGSM's afforestation efforts. Two noteworthy aspects of this effort were the leadership demonstrated by women and the high sapling survival rate, which averaged 75% and was significantly higher than the 14% attained in Forest Department plantations. Additionally, volunteers implemented appropriate soil conservation techniques in severely eroded environments, such as filling gullies, building tiny check dams, and planting varieties of fast-growing grass.

Narmada Bachao Andolan

The Narmada Valley Development Project, whose scope includes building 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams along the west-flowing Narmada river system in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, was approved by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal in 1978.

The Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat promised to provide drinking water and irrigation, but it also uprooted thousands of people and caused extensive environmental harm. Without discussing the populations who would be evacuated, the World Bank decided to finance the construction of the Sardar Sarovar project in 1985. The Sardar Sarovar dam's construction has started, but the relocation process was disorganised. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), also known as the "Save Narmada Movement," was founded in 1989 as a result of a coalition effort between local opponents, environmental activists, and members of the intellectual, scientific, and artistic communities. It was headed by Medha Patkar.

The NBA outright opposed alternate growth strategies, such as decentralised water harvesting, as well as the construction of dams. They requested World Bank accountability for the eviction of millions of people and at first looked into the claims of the advantages of the dams. A seven-person team started their extended hunger strike on January 7, 1991. Press, TV, and documentary teams from India and beyond expanded their coverage. Environmental activists upped their pressure, which led to the World Bank beginning the first-ever independent review.

The review's findings revealed the Bank's contravention of its own rules requiring the approval of the public and made sweeping reform recommendations for the restoration programmes and environmental impact assessments. The World Bank gave the Indian government the assurance that it would continue to fund it as long as reform criteria were met. Knowing that it couldn't adhere to the Bank's requirements, the Indian government cancelled the remaining loans, halting World Bank assistance for the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Indian government promised to finish the dam building with its own cash even without World Bank backing. By petitioning the Indian Supreme Court, the opposition to the dam campaign refocused its efforts. The State and Central Governments have continued to provide ongoing and growing funding for construction.

A million people will be impacted by associated canal systems and other developments, which could force more than 320,000 people to relocate. NBA has persisted in taking direct action and engaging in legal proceedings with international participation to halt additional Narmada dam building. It currently shares connections with numerous other campaigns against socially inequitable and environmentally irresponsible development projects.

Save the Western Ghats March

The 2,500-kilometer-long Western Ghats March, which took place between 1987 and 1988, was one of the most prominent environmental movements. The march started simultaneously from the two ends of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra on November 1, 1987, following months of planning involving more than 150 volunteer organisations from Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. The March came to an end at Goa three months later when all marchers from the north and south converged there.
The March's objectives were
  1. To study first-hand, environmental degradation and its consequences for communities living along the Ghats,
  2. To try to activate local groups to play a watchdog role to prevent further ecological deterioration
  3. And to canvass public opinion in general (Hiremath, 1988; Vijaypurkar, 1988).
The Western Ghats March's main goal was to raise awareness of the endangered mountain ecology. Numerous people joined the march as a result of the attention it received and are still working for the protection of the Western Ghats both individually and collectively today. A scientific team has advocated zoning the Western Ghats as an ecologically vulnerable area in 2012, led by Prof. Madhav Gadgil, one of the organisers of the Western Ghats March. Under political and business pressure, the government declined to back it and made attempts to make the proposal weaker. The idea of ecosensitive zones was backed by a number of organisations and people, which is a sign of the lasting benefits of the region's coordinated efforts to raise environmental consciousness. While local organisations continue their work on ecological conservation, no decision has yet been reached regarding the zoning of the Western Ghats for ecologically sensitive development.

Programmes for ecological restoration

For the benefit of communities, numerous people and groups have undertaken efforts at ecological restoration.

In Ahmednagar district (Maharashtra), Annasaheb Hazare organised the residents of Ralegaon Siddhi hamlet to construct a number of storage ponds and embankments (nallah bandhs) along the low hills surrounding the settlement. Rapidly decreasing runoff and recharging aquifers led to a significant rise in the groundwater table. There is currently enough water for irrigation and domestic consumption. Crop yields have significantly increased (the village has even begun to export food). In addition, Hazare organised locals to plant 400,000 seedlings. Today, Ralegaon Siddhi is recognised as a leader in self-help eco-restoration. Hazare also started a campaign against corruption in state forestry and water supply initiatives (Rai et al. 1991).

Another village in the prone to drought Ahmednagar district is called Hiware Bazar. Prior to 1989, the hamlet was dealing with a number of issues, including water scarcity and villager migration to surrounding urban regions in pursuit of employment. The villagers started a campaign to rejuvenate their natural resources using monies from government programmes in 1990, following Popatrao Pawar's election as sarpanch (village chief). The community was based on Ralegaon Siddhi. The locals used a drip irrigation system to improve food output while conserving land and water. They steered clear of crops that require a lot of water, including bananas and sugarcane. The scheme involved planting trees, collecting rainwater, excavating trenches around the edges of hills to catch runoff, and constructing percolation tanks.

A programme for social transformation that included a prohibition on alcohol, the adoption of family planning, requiring HIV/AIDS testing before marriage, and shramdaan supplemented these programmes (voluntary labour for development of the village). The socioeconomic climate of the village was enhanced by these activities. The Maharashtra government designated Hiware Bazaar as a "Ideal Village," and the Indian government gave it the "National Water Award."

The struggle for Niyamgiri

The Eastern Ghats' state of Odisha is home to a biologically diverse and ecologically delicate environment. In Odisha, native communities and tribes make up about twenty percent of the population. Due to development projects, many people have been uprooted. The Dongria Kondh, a highly vulnerable tribal community, adhere to a distinctive culture and values that blend with their environment in the Niyamgiri Hills in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Folklore in the area holds that Niyam Raja (provider of law), who is revered as the major deity and the origin of all life, resides atop the tallest peak, Niyam Dongar. Bauxite, a raw material used by the aluminium industry, which is becoming more and more resource-constrained, is abundantly deposited in the Niyamgiri range and other mountain plateaus in eastern India. In 2003, Vedanta Aluminium, a Sterlite Industries subsidiary, and the Orissa Mining Corporation designated Niyam Raja as a portion of a 7 sq km mining licence. A 1.5 million tonne alumina refinery will be built by Vedanta near Lanjigarh, at the base of the Niyamgiri mountain.

Following a land acquisition notice to twelve villages in the path of the projected Lanjigarh refinery, opposition to Vedanta's actions started in 2002. The initial investigations were more concerned with the refinery and how it affected the Kutia Kondh villages than they were with mountain mining. However, as the movement gained strength, the Dongria Kondhs started to get information. After the site was bulldozed, displacements began, and land was acquired in 2003, resistance rose and unplanned mass protests became routine. As it grew, the resistance movement changed. The movement evolved from small-scale community networks into the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samittree, which gave it a foundation and structure. Activists from throughout the nation and every state connected the Niyamgiri case to a larger argument against governmental industrial policy. Numerous activist groups that oppose neoliberal capitalism, including the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and the Lok Sangram Manch, have backed the Niyamgiri struggle. International NGOs like Amnesty International, Action Aid, and Survival International were alerted about the Vedanta resistance. A number of Dongria Kondh members became spokespeople for foreign NGOs, aiding in information distribution across the globe.

The Indian government has designated the Dongria Kondh as a "Primitive Tribe" that needs further protection as a vulnerable population. The Indian Constitution's Schedule V gives "Scheduled Tribes" the authority to control the land and resources in designated areas. The Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Area Act (PESA) of 1997 recognised the right of local communities to require public hearings prior to any land acquisition, and the Samatha Judgement of 1997 recognised the right of scheduled tribes to land.

The Saxena committee's 2010 report, which was requested by the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee, presented in-depth documentation of the environmental and social effects of Vedanta's operations, including its violations of the Forest Rights Act. In response to this report, the MoEF revoked the forest clearance and refused to approve the start of mining, though Vedanta appealed this judgement to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the gramme sabhas of the affected Dongria Kondh communities the authority to decide on environmental clearance and mining in a landmark decision in April 2013.

The twelve affected villages unanimously decided to oppose the mining in August 2013. This was India's first environmental referendum, and the MoEF restated its opposition to the proposal four months later. For the Dongria Kondh, this was a critical victory that established a standard for all of India. Governmental organisations recognised the sacramental and tangible relationships that exist between the inhabitants of the area and the Niyamgiri scenery. Large-scale industrial and development projects that have the potential to seriously impact local communities' landscapes were successfully resisted by local communities thanks to the movement's efforts, which attracted significant support on a worldwide scale.

Anti-SEZ movements

The Indian government established the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Policy at the turn of the century. The Policy's goal was to encourage industrial and economic growth that was focused on exports. The concept provided tax breaks and other financial incentives in an effort to draw sizable investments for SEZs. This led to extensive land acquisition that was imposed on the local population. By using a variety of techniques, including the "Eminent Domain" principle—which states that the state owns all land—the definition of "public purpose" was expanded, perverted, and subverted. Over a thousand SEZs were approved across the nation. Due to the disenfranchisement of people from their customary lands and livelihoods, rural areas experienced significant unrest when private developers and governments set about seizing this land.

SEZ policies completely disregarded local self-governance and removed locals from the development process. Villagers from all throughout the state band together to voice their opposition to development projects, but the administration showed little sign of changing its stance. The argument was that the government cannot take someone else's property forcibly if the owner is unwilling to sell. They suggested that corporations should directly bargain with the people for the purchase of the land rather than the government taking over the peasants' property for enterprises. The 2013 Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act is the consequence of the fight against the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act, which was used to acquire land for SEZs.

Leading ideologies in environmental movements

The three threads that make up Indian environmentalism's dominating thought are as follows. Ramchandra Guha, an environmental historian, classified them in the following categories in 2000 and 2002:
  • The first is the Gandhian ideology, which rejects the modern way of life by strongly relying on a moral/religious ethos.
  • The second trend is influenced by Marxism. Marxists view the issue in political and economic terms, contending that the patterns and processes of environmental degradation and social conflict are better explained by unequal access to resources than by a moral dilemma.
  • The third is appropriate technology for developing and disseminating labor-intensive, resource-conserving, and socially liberating technologies.
The majority of campaigns in recent years have concentrated on policy changes that would grant local communities the authority to decide how to use their resources. This has not always been successful because rules enacted at different times often conflict with one another. The interests of the government and corporations frequently overlap, then clash with those of the consumers of local resources, resulting in protracted legal disputes.


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