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Environmental Movements

posted by Madhav Gadgil

India has a long history of protecting, as well as destroying environment, both as part of the folk practices and practices of the ruling classes. India’s rich heritage of conservation traditions evolved in a society that visualized the world they lived in as a “Community of Beings” involving not only humans, but other beneficent elements such as hills and rivers, woods and trees, birds and monkeys, according such beings respect, even veneration. There were, however, contradictions as witness the burning of the Khandava forest along with all its denizens by Krishna and Arjuna in Mahabharata. The conservation traditions have eroded under the influence of the British colonial attitude of man’s “Dominion over Nature”. This perspective viewed natural elements, including living resources as deserving no respect, but only serving the purpose of fulfilling human material needs. The colonial attitude also incorporated contempt for the conquered people, especially the rural and tribal populations that lived close to the natural world and that were repositories of the cultural traditions of nature conservation. The resulting conflicts are well-illustrated by the peasant resistance to construction of the Mulshi Hydel project in the Western Ghats tract of Pune district, resistance that collapsed when Mahatma Gandhi failed to extend support to them. This erosion of conservation traditions has further accelerated after independence as India has fashioned an “economy of violence” obsessed with growth in the Gross Domestic Product at all costs, including degradation of nature and trampling on people’s constitutional rights. India’s conservation traditions can only be revitalized when we accept that respect and compassion for nature and people must go hand in hand, as so well illustrated by the Chipko movement in Garhwal Himalayas. New possibilities are however emerging through our democratic processes that have resulted in a number of constitutional provisions for protection of nature in conjunction with those that empower people to participate in the democratic decision making process. Two key pieces of legislation in this context include the Biological Diversity Act and the Forest Rights Act. This was the focus of the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel which called for improving governance and ensuring that such Acts are fully implemented in their true spirit. While this report stands rejected by the powers that be it has led to a vigorous debate and environmental activism, as witness the setting up of the Kerala Sansthanam Paristhiti Aikya Vedi.

I have worked extensively with many environmental movements in India, both as a part of my scientific research, as also through work on official advisory committees. I have written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.