Thus Far, and Further: A View on Indian Activism

Over the last two decades, environmental activism in India has matured into a strong voice which demands a new order of development that is both socially just and ecologically sustainable.

In the period immediately after Independence, a majority of Indians who were politically and socially concerned were mobilised in the massive exercise of "nation-building". Propagated by the team of planners and political leaders led by Jawaharlal Nehru, mega-development projects were seen as the pillars on which would be based the country's "quantum leap" from a "backward" to a modern society,

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, groups and communities across the Sub-Continent had protested against the exploitative policies of the colonial government. From widespread forest-based movements in the Himalayan foothills to revolts and demonstration in tribal areas all over, these assertions represent a long-standing commitment to among the people to protect their natural resource heritage. However, the voices advocating a more sustainable use of natural resources were temporarily stilled during the initial years of independence, swamped by the focus on mega-development.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, it became increasingly clear that the existing development policies and projects were leading to intensive ecological degradation and the wresting from millions their sources of livelihood. With ecological collapse in many areas, large numbers of people lost their access and control over productive resources like land, forests and water.


In the Garhwal Himalaya, for instance, the large-scale denudation of forests Ted not only to the escalation of landslides and floods but also to loss of water, fuelwood, fodder and soil fertility. This process also compounded the debilitating burden on women, who had to go even further for water and bin-mass needs.

Spontaneously at first and then more consciously and systematically, the women of the area mobilised themselves against the multiple forces which were jeopardising their very survival. People like Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt facilitated the strengthening of this people's movement, popularly known as the Chipko Andolan.

Elsewhere in the country, the growing awareness of the adverse consequences of the dominant policies of economic development led to a wide range of popular movements which have mostly evolved around the use, access and rights over natural resources. From the struggles of traditional fisher-folk of the Gangs and its tributaries (Ganga Mukti Andolan) to those on India's coasts (such as the National Fishermen's Forum); from the popular movements against large dams (Narmada Bachao Andolan, Tehri Virodhi Samiti) to the responses against the erosion of rights over common property resources; from nationwide mobilisation against polluting industries (Bhopal, Sriram Chemical) to agitations against military establishments (Karwar Naval base, Baliapal Missile Rang); from opposition to nuclear power (Narora, Kahrapara, Kaiga) to the growing awareness of the adverse impact of Green Revolution; from the exposure to widespread displacement caused by development projects to the perils of importing obsolete technologies under "technology transfer" projects — all this and more represent the diversity and breadth of the popular movements in India that are intrinsically "green."


Inspired by these movements and by the publication of reports like the First and second Citizen's report on the Indian Environment, activists, academics and journalists have begun to respond more systematically to the multiple breakdowns in India's natural resource regimes. For example, they have thoroughly studied the long-term dangers of the Green Revolution package, which is based on a shrinking genetic base of hybrid seed, chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The Green Revolution has not only enhanced the control of transnational corporations, but have led to a variety of environmental and social problems – pollution and decline of ground water tables, pesticide-related deaths, declining soil productivity, marginalisation of small farmers, the slow collapse of diverse indigenous practices of land and water management, and so on.

There has also been significant popular writing on the impact of forest decimation; the disastrous consequences of monoculture; the side-lining of indigenous species; and unbalanced economic the unbalanced growth which has primarily benefitted the large and medium farmers.

The Bhopal Gas disaster and its tragic aftermath lay bare hazardous and shocking industrial practices, as well as official apathy towards the victims. The pervasive indifference to disasters such as Bhopal among the growing middle-class only compounded the tragedy.

Against all the indifference, however, there did rise some popular movements which gradually gained self-confidence Witness, for example, the mobilisation against the establishment of the Baliapal Missile Range in Arise, which would displace tens of thousands of traditional fisher-folk and natural farmers from some of India's forest agricultural land — and all this in the name of "national security".


Wherever they could, politicians have ignored each of these expressions of the struggle for human rights, cultural survival and environmental security. Mainstream politics is still committed to the model of development that aggressively forces millions into homelessness, a state in which they become victims of repression by the state and others.

As each of the new voices becomes steadier and louder, the official attempts to stifle discussion is strengthened. Not only is the demand for dialogue on the social, economic and ecological costs of these destructive projects not heeded, often, organised attempts are made at spreading disinformation which invariably exaggerates the benefits of the projects and questions the motives of those seeking greater accountability.

The significance of a Narmada or a Baliapal struggle goes far beyond the local and the specific, They raise issues that go to the very heart of democracy: Is the government the only repository of information on what it considers to be "beneficial" development projects? When conventional avenues of seeking public accountability are met with repression and pernicious propaganda, what arc the channels for dissent and debate? When institutions like the Courts abdicate their fundamental responsibilities, where does the citizen make an appeal?


In July 1988, Baba Amte, who with tens of thousands of local tribals had opposed the Inchampalli and Bhopalpatnam dams on the Indrawati river in central, India, called a national get-together on "the politics of big dams." Activists from all over the country met at his Ashram in Anadavan, Maharashtra. Uniting "with, a common resolve" affirming their . basic…, right over productive natural resources, the gathering expressed its collective concern regarding the unsustainable utilisation of the country's water resources – a process ,that gave priority to industrial,- urban and big farmer needs. A significant statement, the "Assertion of Collective Will Against Big Dams," was released.

In early 1989, groups from all over India decided that the Narmada river would be the focal point for their struggle against the "Destructive Development Model." All groups would organise to converge in a show of collective strength at Harsud, a town of 18,000 which will he submerged if the. Narmada Sager Dam is built. An unprecedented 40,000 people gathered in Harsud from all over India, primarily representing victims and potential victims of development projects and processes.

The Harsud rally signified a crucial coming of age. A statue was erected at the rally site resenting, the alternative path of development based on a sustainable relationship with Nature: It depicts the Pancha Mahtattva – air, soil, water, fire and ether — supporting a globe with "Vikas, chahiyey, Vinash Nahin." (We want Development, not Destruction) inscribed on it. A mass oath affirming belief in these principles was taken by those present.

The Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra, which was organised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in January, showed clearly where the divide lies today. The marchers represented those who want development without destruction. In the particular instance, they believed that extensive social, economic and environmental disruption will occur if the Sardar Sarovar Dam is built on the Narmada. Arrayed against them, and represented by the massive police barricade set up at the Gujarat border, were the political and corporate leaders and the big-farmer lobby, supported by the Gujarat government, which claims that the dam is the state's life-line to the future.


A direct outcome of the Harsud rally was the formation in December 1989 of a loosely knit forum of ecology-based movements and other social and political organisations and activists. In the intervening year, the Jan Vikas Andolan (Movement for People's Development) has evolved into a network of groups and individuals committed' to a' new order that is both socially just and ecologically sustainable.

The Andolan believes that development as is currently practiced is "socially disruptive, biologically and genetically homgenising and environmentally destructive." The evolving perspective of the Andolan is also that there is an integral relationship between "injustice and environmental degradation — from the local to the global context. The Andolan is committed to an alternative approach which gives central priority to ecological regeneration and the restoration of access and control over productive resources to local communities."

This approach, therefore, calls for a radical altering of current planning priorities and stresses a concentrated plan encompassing among other things, afforestation and comprehensive regeneration of wasteland and degraded lands; integrated restoration of watersheds; land-shaping and soil and water conservation measures; rain water harvesting and small and medium-scale storage; regeneration of pastures and maximisation of stall-feeding of animals; an alternative energy policy that is decentralised and relies on a sustainable utilisation of renewable resources; enhanced biomass productivity of the land; ecologically sustainable agricultural practices — all this within a perspective of enhancing an individual and collective lifestyle which creates least violence on other living beings. Much of this approach would obviously be irrelevant if attempted under the present centralised, bureaucratic and unjust system. The alternative has to be located in a systematic programmer to transform the system.

From the popular movements two centuries ago, to the Telegana and Jharkhand movements, to Chipko and Harsud, to the significant struggle along the Narmada river, the movement for an alternative future is deepening its impact and widening its reach in India. I would like to stress that what is stated above is only indicative and needs much greater discussion, reflection and action. The struggle will doubtless be slow and painful. It will have to be waged at multiple levels by a wide variety of actors. The current situation in India and, the Sub-Continent does not elicit optimism. However, the evolving political, economic, cultural and ecological perspectives and varied initiatives that are represented in Jan Vikas Andolan and other similar efforts hold out the promise of a new vision for our societies.

Kothari's concerns include ecology, human rights and people's movements in India. He is actively involved in the Jan Vikas Andolan. For information on the JVA, write to Lokayan, 13 Alipore Road, Delhi 110 054

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian