As human beings, we have used our unmatched intellect and genius to climb on top of the food chain and dominate all the three spheres of earth. But during these relentless conquests in the field of science and technology, we have historically prioritised our achievements over the well-being of the planet as well as the other life forms that co-exist with us.
With the industrial revolution, the ill-effects of our ignorance, concentrated by many folds, further polluting the biotic as well as abiotic entities in our surrounding. The emergence of great factories and the concomitant immense growth in coal consumption gave rise to an unprecedented level of air pollution in industrial centres; after 1900 the large volume of industrial chemical discharges added to the growing load of untreated human waste.
Fortunately, these maladies to our eco-system did not go unnoticed as there did arise some environment conscious men and women who fought against the system in an attempt to preserve the natural equilibrium. These brave heroes raised their voices against the undaunted exploit of the natural resources and contamination of the same; and they did that in the form of environmental movement.
Environmental movement, often shortened to environmentalism, is a diverse scientific, social, and political movement for addressing environmental issues. Its participants are the environmentalists, who advocate the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment through changes in public policy and individual behaviour. In its recognition of humanity as a participant in ecosystems, the movement is centred on ecology, health, and human rights.
Environmental movements have erupted across the continents and hence are a global phenomenon. India is no stranger to it, in fact, ours is the land which lays witness to some of the pioneers in the field of environmental movements.
India is a nation which holds a treasure trove of a variety of natural resources as well as is home to the tenth largest forest covers with numerous rivers coursing across the country. It is also the home to o 7.6% of all mammalian, 12.6% of all avian, 6.2% of all reptilian, 4.4% of all amphibian, 11.7% of all fish, and 6.0% of all flowering plant species, which makes India, one of the most bio-diverse regions in the planet.
But with the rapid urbanisation and economic development, we are also going about reducing the green cover, turning the forests into concrete jungles. With the increase in population, the carbon footprint is also on the rise. Hence, environmental movements are a need of the hour and a topic which should be thoroughly understood before implementation.
To do so, we have to analyse the origins and history of environmentalism in India with some major movements in focus, followed by challenges it faces, the achievements it accumulated as well as the road ahead.
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History and Origin of Environmental Movements in India
For centuries together, the Indian civilisation has worshipped nature and connected it to spirituality. The reason behind this mystic interrelation can be attributed to the fact that people used to be heavily dependent upon the raw natural resources for their survival.
Additionally, natural calamities like floods, thunderstorms, earthquakes and forest fires were not fully comprehended, hence given heavenly status. Nevertheless, the people understood the importance of conserving nature and its components and worked for its preservation. One of the greatest example is the Bishnoi movement which dates back to the 15th century.
This sect of nature worshippers was founded by Guru Maharaj Jambaji in the deserts of Marwar region of Rajasthan. This non-violent community had been safe-guarding the few trees and animals that the region was home to, and is believed to have planted thousands of trees to counter the deforestation that had been occurring in the region to feed animals during droughts.
Fast forward to 300 years later, The Maharaja of Jodhpur had decided to build his palace and ordered khejri trees for the construction, which the Bishnoi tribes had planted over centuries. The soldiers reached the forest under the King’s order to mow down the trees, but the tribes protested against it under the leadership of Amrita Devi Bishnoi by hugging each tree.
The soldiers brutally axed down the men and women along with the trees. The word reached the King’s ears, and he rushed to the place to stop prevent massacre. By the time the bloodshed had been ordered to stop, 363 Bishnois had sacrificed their lives to protect the trees.
In their memory, the King ordered planting equal number of trees to commemorate their bravery. The area was made off-limits for hunting and logging activities and was marked as a protected forest, something which is still prevalent in the 21st century.
The Bishnoi anecdote is a famous legend amongst the Indian societies. It also served as the inspiration for another famous environmental movement by the name- ‘Chipko Movement’. This movement was initiated by Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt in 1973, in Gopeshwar in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand.
At that time, there was relentless deforestation undergoing in the Himalayan region in the form of illegal logging and cutting down of trees. The Chipko movement was a peaceful demonstration against this activity under which the men and women stood hugging the tree to create environmental awareness. In the same lines, Pandurang Hegde launched the ‘Appiko Movement’ in Karnataka about a decade later, with the aim of afforestation and green development in the state.
Contemporary to the Chipko Movement, another movement had birthed in the south-western regions of the Indian peninsula. The twisting river of Narmada was to be the foundation of India’s largest single river development scheme. While it was meant to generate thousands of megawatts worth of energy, not everyone was happy with the project.
A sum total of 30 dams were to be built on the river along whose banks, more than 21 million people had found residence. Most of the denizens of the valleys were the tribes of Gonds and Bhils. Prominent environmental crusaders like Medha Patkar, who were joined by well-known faces like Sunderlal Bahuguna and Baba Amte, thus gave rise to the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Their main concerns were the huge floods that damming would have caused which would lead to widespread loss of flora and fauna, as well as loss of habitat and displacement of the tribes. In spite of its existence, dams were built on the river and Medha Patkar continues to fight the authorities by peaceful demonstrations such as dharnas and fasting.
Similarly, another movement was started by a group of locals who revolted against the construction of Tehri Dam. This movement gained popularity by the name of Tehri Dam Conflict later in the 20th century. The main concern was that since the dam project would be constructed in the seismic sensitive region, it might cause submergence of forest areas along with Tehri town.
Despite of protest, the construction of the dam is being carried out with police protection as Sunderlal Bahuguna is sitting on fast unto death. After assurance from the government to review the project, Bahuguna ended his fast but construction goes on, though at a slower pace.
Environmental movements relating to rivers do not only stop at dam constructions. The ‘Save Ganga Movement’ has been in motion since the 1980’s when concerns were raised regarding the deteriorating condition of the Ganges.
Water pollution was caused due to industrial, household and miscellaneous waste dumping in the water, poising the waters and causing harm to the aquatic life that the river supports. A comprehensive Ganga Action Plan was drafted, but it is yet to achieve its goals. Non-violent protests are regularly carried out by saints and citizens equally. But the river continues to stay polluted till date.
Challenges faced for Environmental Conservation
The environmentalists, who are leading the environmental movements, are doing their best to make the government and common people aware of the formidable consequences of environment degradation. Yet there are certain challenges which are proving to be difficult obstacles for them.
The growing population is one of the major concerns to this. With a per annum growth rate of 2.11% and a standing population of 1.32 billion individuals, India has one of the most prominent carbon footprints in the world.
Furthermore, with such a huge population to tend for, and the current government’s ‘make in India’ schemes, might help with the economic development, but if left unchecked can definitely lead to ecosystem destruction.
Adding to the woes is the rapid urbanisation that India is undergoing. The number of people increase, so does the number of automobiles, factories and industrial activities. This also increases the amount of waste generated by humans, both biological as well as industrial.
Urban areas are responsible for majority of the 62 million tonnes of mixed waste generated by the population of India. Its improper processing and disposal has caused many problems like soil pollution, water pollution and eutrophication in water bodies like lakes and ponds.
Frequent sewage drain chokes also point to the ill-planned design of the drainage system, especially in the impoverished areas of a city like slums. This not only causes eco-degradation, but also leads to unhygienic lifestyle of the residing citizens.
There exist hundreds of NGOs crusading for the betterment of the environment, but in a socialist republic democracy that we live in, a large number of decisions are only taken by the government that represent the demography. While there is no doubt that both the union and the federal levels of governance have taken various measures to prevent environmental degradation, but their efforts have not been enough.
In addition to that, the infamous red-tapeism that persists in the administrative and bureaucratic departments have delayed many projects Most of them have, over the time, been simply abandoned.
New Methods to Deal with Environmental Issues
To boost the environmental movement and make its goal successful, it is important that some major reforms are brought into action. First and foremost, projects should be handled by public-private partnership (PPP). This ensures a continuous and fast use of capital, technology and human resources available to the private sector.
The PPP model had been applied in forest conservation across the globe. The participating companies are allowed to undertake reforestation measures and utilise the newly developed forest produce for commercial purposes. Hence, the model ensures lesser imports of forest produce, unregulated use of forest resources and unburdening the exchequer.
Secondly, information and communication technology can be leveraged to benefit the environmental movement. They find there use in real time monitoring of pollutants from industries, status of natural resources and wildlife and address grievances.
Dedicated satellites can be deployed to monitor forest cover and water bodies and also help keep in check illegal forest activities. Drone surveillance can also be integrated to monitor forests as well as camera traps for wildlife census. Finally, better networking can improve waste management system in both rural and urban areas.
Thirdly, it is important for our country to pro-actively take part in the global environmental movements. It includes collaborations at the bilateral and multilateral level for the protection of the environment.
This is one sphere where India is participating very prominently as it is evident by the various MoUs it has signed on renewable energy sources with the USA and Germany. Additionally, India is also a part of the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC (2016), as well as the 121 membered International Solar Alliance.
Our nation needs to work on procedural reforms to ensure timely amendment of rules and regulations. They should increase their reach of spreading awareness using a broad based campaign which should include both the government as well as private organisations, exclusively promoting environmentalism.
This has been seen in the last few years, with the initiatives like Chintan Shivir, School Nursery Programmes and Climate Change Special Express, the government could successfully increase the participation of civil society and school children and educational institutions in the environmental conservation.
Results of Environmental Measures Implemented so far
Under the Paris Agreement, India had vowed to improve the green cover in the country amongst other policies. As of 2018, a report has concluded that India has seen an increase of 8,021 square kilometres since the Agreement. India ranks 10th amongst countries with highest forest cover.
This is positive news in the modern era since most of the countries are rapidly losing their forest covers, whereas India is gradually working to increase it. Along with the forests, we have also been able to improve the condition of the wildlife that they support.
Most importantly, Tiger conservation has been enforced strongly which has led to an increase in their population. This is an important achievement as tigers in the Indian forests are considered to be keystone species, hence affect the number of other species too.
While we achieved success in the aforementioned field, we have below average performance with curbing of pollution in cities. Despite a series of measures, the quality of air and water pollution has been deteriorating due to various reasons.
With 80% of the surface water being polluted and 9 out of 10 cities of the worst air quality index cities of the world belonging to our nation, it is important for our government to develop new schemes and reinforce the existing policies.
They should focus on the environmental movements that have been taking place across India. The Save Ganga Movement has been in the news after one of the famed environmentalist, Professor GD Agarwal died after fasting unto death in an attempt to gain attention of the government to clean the Ganges River.
Although the administrative agencies and development authorities claim to have improved efficiency regarding their works and policies, it has not quite been evident in the Ganga Mission and similar public initiatives.
In the past we have seen environmental movements bringing positive changes to the nation. But with the increase in population and demands of the consumers and the main focus of the governments engaging in economic and military development in the country, the environment factor has been largely ignored.
But it is largely due to the persistent environmental movements that environmental problems have not completely faded into oblivion. It is the political pressure that the citizens create which leads the government to take measures to conserve the ecosystem of our nation. Additionally, pressure from international bodies and partner nations helps bring change to the way the current system works.
As responsible citizens of our country, and the most advanced species of the planet, it is our primary responsibility to ensure the health of earth. Environmental movements have been a bold initiative throughout the history to challenge the norms which have been threatening to degrade the ecosystem.
They not only bring the environmental issues in the focus of the government, but also help spread awareness about them to common man and helps him introspect their outlook towards nature as Former US President barrack Obama had stated-
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”