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American Geographical Society

Environmental Movements in India

Author(s): P. P. Karan
Source: Geographical Review, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 32-41
Published by: American Geographical Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/215779
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ABSTRACT. Grassroots environmental movements following Gandh

olent tradition are expanding in India. These movements differ fr
in the West in that they are concerned with both environmental
and issues of economic equity and social justice. The Chipko movem
Himalaya, Save the Narmada movement in central India, and the S
movement in the Malabar region of southern India are discussed a

DURING the past twenty years people in various regions of India have

formed nonviolent action movements to protect their environment,

their livelihood, and their ways of life. These environmental movements have emerged from the Himalayan regions of Uttar Pradesh to th
tropical forests of Kerala and from Gujarat to Tripura in response to projects

that threaten to dislocate people and to affect their basic human rights to

land, water, and ecological stability of life-support systems. They share certain

features, such as democratic values and decentralized decision making, with

social movements operating in India. The environmental movements are
slowly progressing toward defining a model of development to replace the
current resource-intensive one that has created severe ecological instability
(Centre for Science and Environment 1982, 190). Similar grassroots environ
mental movements are emerging in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. Throughout Asia and the Pacific citizenry organizations are working in innovative ways to reclaim their environment (Rush
Even with limited resources the environmental movements have initiated

a new political struggle for safeguarding the interests of the poor and the
marginalized, among whom are women, tribal groups, and peasants. Among
the main environmental movements are Chipko Andolan (Barthelemy 1982
and Save the Bhagirathi and Stop Tehri project committee (Manu 1984) in
Uttar Pradesh; Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan) in

Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat; youth organizations and tribal people in the
Gandhamardan Hills whose survival is directly threatened by development
of bauxite deposits; the opposition to the Baliapal and Bhogarai test range
in Orissa, the Appiko Movement in the Western Ghats; groups opposing
the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka; the campaign against the Silent
Valley project; the Rural Women's Advancement Society (Gramin Mahila
Shramik Unnayam Samiti), formed to reclaim waste land in Bankura district
and the opposition to the Gumti Dam in Tripura (Fig. 1).

* Field study for this article was done while the author was a research professor at the Toyk

University of Foreign Studies, Toyko, Japan.

* DR. KARAN is a professor of geography at the University of Kentucky, Lexington,

Kentucky 40506.
Copyright (i 1994 bi/ tihe Almerican Geographical Society of New York

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500 Km
300 Mi






Ahmedabad ? NARMADA ?



\ | -"--'*












FIG. 1-Locations of activities of main environmental movements in India.

In addition, there are local movements against deforestation, wate

ging, salinization, and desertification in the command areas of dams
Kosi, Gandak, and Tungabhadra rivers and in the canal-irrigated ar

Punjab and Haryana. Local movements like Pani Chetna, Pani Pan

and Mukti Sangharsh advocate ecological principles for water use. A

ment in the small fishing communities against ecological destruction
along the coasts of India.
These environmental movements are an expression of the socioeco
effects of narrowly conceived development based on short-term crit
exploitation. The movements are revealing how the resource-intens
mands of development have built-in ecological destruction and econ
deprivation. The members have activated microaction plans to safeg

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natural processes and to provide the macroconcept for ecolog

ment at the national and regional levels. In the rest of this arti
the Chipko movement in the Himalaya, Save the Narmada Mo
central India, and the Silent Valley Project in Kerala as case st
nonviolent direct-action environmental movements of grassroo



The word chipko means to stick to or to hug and refers to the meth
used to protect the trees of the Himalaya from commercial timber cutt
who have devastated the forests. The movement's activists embrace the tree

trunks to interpose their bodies between the trees and the axemen. T
Chipko movement is located in the mountainous northern segment of

Pradesh, immediately west of Nepal. The area has long been know

Uttarakhand, a term recently revived by persons seeking self-governm

and perhaps statehood for the region. Persons with this political motiv
few in number and are primarily members of the urban elite. In cont
the members of the environmental movement are chiefly indigenous
sistence farmers, both Indo-Aryan-speaking Hindus of the lower Him
who are called Pahari and, in fewer numbers, Tibetan-speaking Budd
of the higher Himalaya who are known as Bhotiya.
Uttarakhand was a relatively inaccessible land of precipitous slopes,
and fragile soils, and ample water and forests, populated by subsiste
farmers who derived a secure livelihood through their diligence and
in a combination of terrace agriculture and animal husbandry. After

Indian-Chinese border conflict of 1962 an extensive network of roads was

built throughout the region. The motive was clearly strategic, but a significan

consequence was the sudden opening of the region to traffic of all kind
which made its rich supply of natural resources accessible to entrepreneu
in the resource-hungry plains of India. Timber and other products, rangin
from limestone for use in cement, the principal building material in Indi
magnesite, and potassium to rare metals, became the objects of intensiv
exploitation and removal by corporate contractors. Blasting of mountainsid
and felling of trees to make roadbeds and hundreds of vehicles and thousands

of laborers used to build the roads were soon replaced by blasting, felling
vehicles, and laborers employed in extracting the resources. The overall
environmental degradation wrought by road construction-the massive ero
sion and landslides caused by road cuts and blast shocks, the resulting los

of soils, forests, and water sources, and the decimation of firewood and other

forest products by labor crews and military units, together with social an
economic dislocations endured by the local populace-was quickly dwarfed

by the same phenomenon on a magnified scale in the operations of t

extractive industries.

Hydroelectrical sites along the Ganga and Jamuna rivers and their trib
utaries were promptly exploited, with similar consequences. Now, for e

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ample, the largest earth-filled dam in Asia, the Tehri Dam

structed on the Bhagirathi River, one of the two streams th

form the Ganga. This dam will submerge the historic city of Te

one hundred villages and ten thousand acres of agricultu

thousand people will be rendered homeless, and the waters w

unknown number of other people from their economic reso
networks. Widespread protests have been supported by rese
testimony confirming that dam will be silted beyond use in
the projected century lifetime and that the seismic conditions,

the greater-than-anticipated runoff the dam will capture, m

a serious threat to people and resources downstream. Howev
have been to no avail. Significantly, none of the interest g
profit from the project are local. In addition, more than tw
projects are under construction or in the planning process i

When the roads came, other opportunities for profit present

to outsiders. Land previously cultivated by local farmers for su

or devoted to pasture and fodder for livestock suddenly be

for cultivation of luxury and commercial crops. Accordingly, la

firms vied with lesser capitalists in buying up and exploitin

agricultural bonanza at the expense of local people.

The shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Jumnotri, an

sacred to Hindus became accessible to pilgrims and tourists

of travel by bus and taxi from the plains rather than the w
of trekking formerly required. This new form of mass to
capacity of the Himalayan environment heavily by populatin
age routes with hotels, restaurants, shops, and other busine
Iijima 1985). At the same time and often on the same routes
flourished, attracting plainspeople and foreigners alike to

snow views and wildflowers, trekking, hunting, fishing

climbing. The effects of the tourists on the environment
receive little or no attention. The consumption of fuelwood

tating because the demand for fires to cook food for the touris
their shelters far exceeds that of the local residents.

The beneficiaries of these kinds of development are almost exclusively

outside entrepreneurs, their customers, and political patrons. Most of them
are absentee landowners from the plains; a few are expatriate mountain
people; and a very few are elite, educated, wealthy, plains-oriented residents
of the mountains. On the whole local people are not even employed in the
enterprises brought to the region by development. If employed, they are at
most porters, milkmen, guides, or manual laborers.
The usual effect of these development activities has been to deplete the
forests, to erode the soil, to dry up water sources, to preempt firewood,
fodder, and building materials, and to co-opt or destroy much of the viable
agricultural land and pastures. As a result, during the past twenty years
migration of men to the plains has accelerated. Most of these men become

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part of an oversupply of urban unskilled and unemployed. In Utt

villages most of the able-bodied men have emigrated, leaving famil
to run farms with depleted work forces and resources. Village life
ceases to be a possibility under these conditions.
The five million inhabitants of Uttarakhand compose about 4 pe
the population of Uttar Pradesh and inhabit about 16 percent of it
region has virtually all of the forest, mineral, and hydroelectrical
of the state, as well as its renowned mountain tourism and pilgr
tractions. These resources and attractions are exploited with few if an
pensatory benefits to the local residents. The region is administer
Lucknow by a government composed overwhelmingly of plainsm
are unfamiliar with the mountains, their people, and their ways o
Uttarakhand is a distinct cultural area, though small in population
rich in resources coveted and extracted by outsiders. The region
described as a colony within the state and the country that admin
term used for this status is fourth-world colonialism, which mea
tation of an internal minority by the majority.
Exploitation of the forest by outside entrepreneurs with gover
approval has been the source of conflict between Uttarakhand v
the state forest department. This conflict, which includes violent
dates to 1821, when the British instituted the Tribal Forest Settlements in

Kumaon. The conflict has been accompanied by denial of forest use to the
villagers who traditionally depend on its products. The policies have been
rationalized by the long-standing assertion that indigenous agriculturalists
and herders caused deforestation by misuse and overuse, but these practices
rarely could be observed. Trees were not cut for fuelwood; instead, dead
trees, fallen branches, and brush were used. Branches were lopped for fodder,
but trees were felled only to obtain material for house construction and the
making of implements. It is true that new agricultural land was cleared, but
unlike the situation in nearby Nepal, the practice has been closely controlled

by the government, even as roadbuilding programs have facilitated access

by timber and charcoal merchants and other profiteers.
The effects of the timber and charcoal contractors have been massive and

conspicuous, but the local people are blamed for the deforestation. With the
help of Gandhian social workers, local labor cooperatives and small-scaleproducer cooperatives were established by the villagers in each of the Himalayan districts of Uttar Pradesh during the early 1960s. The goal was to
allow the local people to share in the benefits of development. As a result
of confrontations between the villagers and social workers and the timber
contractors, their employees, and forestry-department personnel, a series of

incidents began in 1972 near Gopeshwar in Chamoli district. A local cooperative was denied permission to cut its small annual allotment of twelve
ash trees to use in construction and for tools. The government sold the trees

to a sporting-goods manufacturer to make cricket bats and tennis rackets.

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The villagers were unsuccessful in their arguments to the gov

they adopted Gandhian nonviolent resistance-they attached th

the trees to protect them from the axe. They were successful, and

issued to the sporting-goods manufacturer was canceled.

From that action arose the Chipko environmental movement
a dozen major and minor incidents of confrontation occurred

1970s. Each confrontation was nonviolent and successful. The successes led

to increasing national and international publicity and recognition for th

movement. Going from village to village, the Chipko activists prepared f
each confrontation by informing people of the movement's purpose and
inviting their participation. Workshops and training sessions were accom
panied by rallies and picketing at auctions held by the forest departmen
The movement is diversifying its activities: it now sponsors research on
issues of forest, mineral, soil, and water conservation and publishes the

results. Reforestation and afforestation activities now foreshadow the con-

frontational practices.
By the late 1980s the movement had splintered into two groups that have
broad grassroots support and advocate participatory methods which respond
to local issues in the context of local social and cultural traditions. One group
pursues a strategy that emphasizes ecologically sound development of forests
by local people to meet local needs (Sachs 1984). Activities include smallscale sawmills and other forest industries as part of the program of local

cooperatives. This model is based on an acceptance of current modes of

resource utilization with a new emphasis on conserving and strengthening
the natural-resource base. Technology is viewed as the solution to poverty.
The second group follows the deep-ecology paradigm of environmental
management (Devall and Sessions 1985). It advocates that no trees be cut. It
follows a more symbolic approach to attain its goals-fastings, ritual marches,

pilgrimages-and accentuates its public profile by participating in conferences and mass media. The rebuilding of nature's productivity is seen as the
solution to poverty.

The Narmada basin covers 94,500 square kilometers between the Vindhya

and Satpura ranges in central India. Between gorges flanked by densely

forested basaltic hills, the 1,300-kilometer-long Narmada valley contains large

alluvial plains in Madhya Pradesh. To the west the Narmada River, which
is sacred to the Hindus, meanders through Gujarat, widening into a 25-

kilometer-long estuary as it flows into the Gulf of Cambay. More than twenty-

one million people live in the valley, mostly in villages. Many tribal groups,
such as the Bhils and the Gonds, occupy the forested uplands.
The Narmada valley is the site of one of the world's largest multipurpose
water projects: the Narmada River Development Project, which involves the

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construction of thirty large dams and many small ones on the rive

fifty-one main tributaries. The project will transform the valley and
of its residents and will increase food production and hydropower gen

in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

There has been no detailed assessment of the overall environmental,

social, and technological effects of the Narmada project, but the construction

of dams and reservoirs will displace an estimated one million people and
will submerge 350,000 hectares of forestland and 200,000 hectares of agricultural land (India Today 1992). The Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, which
is under construction, is facing major opposition from tribal groups that hunt

and forage in the jungle canyons and from villagers who are being displaced
by the inundation from the reservoir, which will submerge almost 40,000
hectares of land and 250 villages. So far the engineers have built only part
of the dam and have dug only some 130 kilometers of canals. The reservoir

behind Narmada Sagar Dam will be the largest man-made lake in India,
submerging 91,348 hectares and displacing 120,000 people from 254 villages
(Shiva 1991).
Financial assistance for this massive project came from the World Bank,
which approved the loans in 1985 before environmental-impact studies were
completed. The bank is committed to environmentally sound development
and has issued guidelines for resettlement and rehabilitation of persons
displaced by the dams. Despite its commitment and operational guidelines,
which assert that no affected person should be made worse off by a banksupported project, the bank continued to fund the project. For various reasons

the Indian and state governments could not meet the resettlement and re-

habilitation guidelines, and social and environmental issues went unaddressed (Kothari and Singh 1988). In 1992 the bank decided to cease funding
the project, but the Indian government pledged to complete it (Miller and
Kumar 1993). Nevertheless, the government may have difficulty obtaining
the vast sums needed for completion of the project.
Save the Narmada Movement began in the 1980s as a struggle for just
resettlement and rehabilitation of people being displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam, but the focus has shifted to preserving the environmental integrity and natural ecosystems of the entire valley. The movement has used
the project as a symbol of Indian development planners' fascination with
costly projects at the expense of the environment and the poor. The withdrawal of World Bank funding was a moral victory for the movement.
Field surveys in July 1993 revealed considerable antiproject sentiment
among the residents of the basin in Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat dissatisfaction exists among people whose homes and lands were expropriated without
adequate compensation by the government (Appa and Sridharan 1992). There
was also concern about inequitable compensation: the rich receiving more
than the poor farmers for identical amounts of similar quality lands. The

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World Bank had noted these relocational problems (Scudder 198

attention was given to them. By linking problems of environm

and degradation of the valley with issues of economic equit

justice, the movement forced the bank to withdraw from the pr

and Prakash 1992).

The Silent Valley, one of the few remaining undisturbed rain-forest areas

in India, lies in the Malabar region, the least-developed section of the state

of Kerala, at the southern end of the Western Ghats. Remote from main

urban centers or highways, the valley has experienced relatively little timber

cutting and almost none of the peasant or tribal farming that characterizes
the rest of rural southern India. Many rare species of plants, ferns, and
endangered fauna survive in the valley. During the early 1960s the state
government began planning a dam for the Kuntipuzha River, which flows
through the valley, to generate hydroelectricity as the basis for regional
economic development. The project offers a classic example of the dilemma
between environment and development.
The Kerala People's Science Movement (Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad) is
a network of rural school teachers and local citizens that promotes environmental scientific projects in the villages. The movement acknowledged the
obvious economic needs of the people of Malabar but concluded that the
Silent Valley project would make only a marginal contribution to regional

development. Thus the group opposed the project with a campaign that
brought into sharp focus the ecological consequences, specifically the possibility of extinction of species that had evolved over millions of years.
Villagers in Kerala also learned that new industries and clear cutting of
timber in the upper watersheds of the river were contributing to the disruption of streams and water supplies. The movement began to challenge
the idea that energy generated by the dam would benefit the rural people
of Kerala. Most of the energy from the project was to be exported to industrialized areas of Kerala and surrounding states. The movement asserted that
the local environment would be disrupted with benefits going to Trivandrum, the state capital.
The state government favored the project, but other environmental groups
expressed doubts. After years of activism the movement persuaded the Indian

government to appoint a high-level committee to examine the project's environmental and socioeconomic effects. The committee subsequently rec-

ommended abandonment of the scheme (Swaminathan 1979), which the

state government accepted in 1983.

The controversy over the Silent Valley project marked the fiercest environmental dispute in India and established a precedent wherever a major

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development project, specifically a dam, threatened ecological

example, Save the Narmada Movement cited the decision about
Valley in mobilizing support for its stance against dam project

A main aspect of the three movements is their integrative social effe

on the regions where they are active. They cut across social and cultura
cleavages that might have been expected to be divisive. They unite peop

who differ by sex, age, religion, ethnicity, caste, class, and region by stressi

shared interests in saving the environment. Women have been promine

as leaders and participants. The high status of women in the Himalayan ar

and among the tribal groups of the Narmada valley, including unusu

freedom of action and movement that accompany their role in the subsistenc
economy, is partially responsible for their prominence in the environmen

movement. The women are accustomed to responsibility and leadership f

community survival. Their work involves them directly and daily with
forests and natural resources. They are alert to environmental changes, an

they respond readily and knowledgeably to the need to protect th


Both young and old participate in the movement. Student partici

come not only from Uttarakhand but also from the plains and have
among the most active Chipko workers. They bridge an often difficu
of age, class, region, and social experiences as they join in a common
Likewise the Save the Narmada and Silent Valley movements have d
grassroots support among urban intelligentsia and through linkages
like-minded groups in India.

The integrative nature of the movement cuts across ancient and power
ethnic barriers. The two ethnic groups that populate Uttarakhand, the Pa

and the Bhotiyas, occupy land at different altitudes, but they joined
to protect their forests. The movement also has integrative effects
national level by bringing together people from various regions of a

country and by providing a prototype of method and organization for si

problems elsewhere in India. In 1983 the method pioneered in Uttara

was adopted in Karnataka, in the Western Ghats, by farming people to op

reckless, illegal logging. Known there as Appiko, the movement encou

commercial exploitation and official apathy similar to those fou


During the past century there has been a progressive encroachment b

the state on the rights and privileges of the people to forest resources. T

people have resisted it in various parts of India, mainly through the Gandhia
noncooperative method of protest, well known as forest satyagraha, that was
initially applied to environmental concerns by the Chipko movement dur

the 1970s. This movement had its origin in the politics of the distributi
of the benefits of resources, but it has expanded to include the distribut

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of ecological costs. The three movements provide a model for the resolution
of conflicts over natural resources and a strategy for human survival of
ecological disaster.

Appa, G., and R. Sridharan. 1992. Report on the canal affected people and the downst
of the Sardar Sarovar project. Series in operational research 1, London School of

Barthelemy, G. 1982. Chipko: sauver les forets de l'Himalaya. Paris: Editions L'Harmat

Centre for Science and Environment. 1982. The state of India's environment, 1982. New Delhi.

Devall, B., and G. Sessions. 1985. Deep ecology: living as if nature mattered. Salt Lake City, Utah:
Peregrine Smith Books.
Estava, G., and M. Prakash. 1992. Grassroots resistance to sustainable development, lesson from
the banks of Narmada. Ecologist 22(2):45-47.
India Today. 1992. 15 November:40.
Karan, P. P., and S. Iijima. 1985. Environmental stress in the Himalaya. Geographical Review

Kothari, A., and S. Singh. 1988. The Narmada valley project: a critique. New Delhi: Kal
Manu, B. 1984. Between two sacred rivers, Tehri dam project. India Magazine 4(2):44-51

Miller, S. K., and S. Kumar. 1993. Narmada dam fails World Bank's final test. New Scientis
10 April:5.
Rush, J. 1991. The last tree: reclaiming the environment in tropical Asia. New York: Asia Society.

Sachs, I. 1984. Strategies of ecodevelopment. Ceres 17(4):17-21.

Scudder, T. 1983. The relocation component in connection with the Sardar Sarovar (Narmada)
project. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Shiva, V. 1991. Ecology and the politics of survival: conflicts over natural resources in India. Tokyo:

United Nations University Press; New Delhi: Sage.

Swaminathan, M. 1979. Development of the Silent Valley reserve forest, Kerala. New Delhi:
Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.

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