For much of the modern period, the greatest emphasis has been laid on development. Over the decades there has been a great deal of concern about the unchecked use of natural resources and a model of development that creates new needs that further demands greater exploitation of the already depleted natural resources. This models of development has also been critiqued for assuming that all sections of people will be beneficiaries of development. Thus big dams displace people from their homes and sources of livelihood. Industries displace agriculturalists from their homes and livelihood. The impact of industrial pollution is yet another story. Here we take examples of an ecological movement to examine the many issues that are interlinked in an ecological movement.

  1. The Chipko movement, an example of the ecological movement, in the Himalayan foothills is a good example of such intermingled interests and ideologies. According to Ramachandra Guha in his book Unquiet Woods, villagers rallied together to save the oak and rhododendron forests near their villages. When government forest contractors came to cut down the trees, villagers, including large numbers of women, stepped forward to hug the trees to prevent their being felled At stake was the question of villagers subsistence. All of them relied on the forest to get firewood fodder and other daily necessities. This conflict placed the livelihood needs of poor villagers against the government’s desire to generate revenues from selling timber. The economy of subsistence was pitted against the economy of profit.
  2. Along with this issue of social inequality (villagers versus a government that represented commercial, capitalist interests), the Chipko movement also raised the issue of ecological sustainability. Cutting down natural forests was a form of environmental destruction that had resulted in devastating floods and landslides in the region. For the villagers, these ‘red’ and green’ issues were inter-linked While their survival depended on the survival of the forest, they also valued the forest for its own sake as a form of ecological wealth that benefits all.
  3. In addition, the Chipko movement also expressed the resentment of hill villagers against a distant government headquartered in the plains that seemed indifferent and hostile to their concerns. So concerns about economy, ecology and political representation underlay the Chipko movement.

Gadgil and Guha in their ‘This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, 1992’ highlight that though environmental movements may be new, environmental consciousness is a historical fact in India. The nexus of nature and culture was first disturbed in India during colonial rule when forests were heavily exploited and industrialization started. Since early displaced were tribals who also had deep affinity with forests for cultural reasons also, they were perhaps the pioneers and unsung heroes of environmental movement in India.

According to Madhav Gadgil, environmental movements have issues like–forest and land related rights, dams, commercial exploitation of mines, and right over marine resources etc. Various other environmental issues can be enumerated as – air pollution, water pollution, solid waste, resource depletion, soil degradation, desertification, deforestation, genetically modified foods, loss of biodiversity, river pollution, man-animal conflicts, environmental disasters like Uttarakhand floods of 2013 and industrial disasters like Bhopal tragedy, Chernobyl accident and so on. Certain environmental concerns sometimes appear to be universal concerns, not particular to specific social groups. For instance, reducing air pollution or protecting biodiversity seem to be in the public interest.

Environmental movements gained currency in 1970s when New Social Movements were in vogue. At that time growing developmental needs were identified as having adverse impact on environment. In the same decade, UN conference was held in Stockholm and idea of sustainable development gained ground for the first time at international level.

Environmental movements are classified as –

  1. Pure environmental movements based on idea of conservation. Its examples are – air pollution movement in Delhi, movement against water pollution in Chennai due to leather industry. They were mainly concentrated in urban areas and mainly organized by NGOs and leadership was provided elite or middle class intelligentsia.
  2. Combined movements like Tehri movement led by Sundar Bahugune, Chipko Movement, 1973 led by Chandi Prasad Bhat, Narmada Bachao Andolan, 1988 led by Medha Patker etc which also included peripheral issues like livelihood, rights of the poor and deprived etc also. Paani Panchayats movement in Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra also addressed issue of poverty along with water conservation. Apart from these, activities of the ‘waterman’ Rajender Singh of Gujarat, Save Chilka Campaign, Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar for water conservation are other examples of successful movements.

Environmental movements are also classified on the basis of the strategy employed by them – Gandhian, Marxian, reconstructive which suggest alternative as well. Gadgil and Guha identify four
broad strands within the environmental movements in India based on vision, ideology and strategy.

In wake of global warming, ozone depletion, bio-diversity loss and inequitable development, environmental movements have taken a shape of global social movement industry which has tremendously helped in raising awareness and putting pressure on national governments. Such movements have tried to build a consensus between developmental needs and environmental protection. As a result, government in India has also taken many steps from time to time to address the issues raised by such movements. Courts have also acted on PILs to address environmental problems and right to healthy environment is considered as a part of ‘right to life’ by the courts. Introduction of CNG vehicles in Delhi was such an instance of judicial activism on environmental issues. Supreme Court has also established ‘Green Benches’ to address environmental issues. Rajasthan has launched Rain Water harvesting drives. Government has launched a ‘National Environmental Policy, 2005’ to address many of the issues raised by such movements. ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dweller’s (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006’ has also tried to address the issue of livelihood as well along with issue of conservation.

We may now conclude our discussion on social movements by stating that social movements in India mainly focused either.

  1. On achieving system stability by arresting the onslaught of rapid social change and reinforcing the existing values and norms and
  2. Attempting system change through the destruction and replacement of old and induction of new structures.

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