Nizamabad MP

A brief history of environmentalism in India

By : Kalvakuntla Kavitha

Environmentalism in India has an old history. The Boomi-Sukta, hymn in Atharvaveda has 63 verses devoted to the earth with a discussion of responsibilities and duties of human beings towards its conservation. The Yajurveda has instructed the human being to “Graze not the sky. Harm not mid-air. Be in accordance with the earth.” The philosophical tradition of environment conservatism has been ever-present in Indian history. Yet, the first instance of policy action aimed at environmental conservation in India can only be found during the Mauryan period of Indian history discussed in the Arthashastra (written over 2300 years ago), wherein various punishments were prescribed for cutting trees, damaging forests, for killing animals and for causing pollution.It is to be noted that such a concern for the environment is unparalleled, whether in philosophy or policy, in any other part of the ancient world. Only later in the seventh century, do we see the first occurrence of an environmental law in the west, by Cuthbert of Lindisfarne who enacted a protection legislation for birds on the Farne Islands, in the United Kingdom.

The modern era saw the rise of environmentalism that sprang from intellectuals of the west beginning with naturalists such as William Wordsworth as well as scientists such as the marine biologist Rachel Carson whose seminal work ‘Silent Spring’, contributed much to the spirit of environmentalism, as we know it today. Yet, the early environmental movement had two characteristic features, whichcould even be construed as its limitations. First, it was a romantic movement which lent it popular support, even the adulation of the academia, but it fell short of becoming a policy concern until a later period. The second feature of this movement was that it was a reactive movement, rather than a proactive one. What this means is that it was not until the repercussions of the industrial revolution became apparent, that the government leaders around the world became committed to the cause of environmental conservation. Rampant industrial development in the nineteenth century, while economically ushering the west into a new era, it put to danger the sustainability of our planet. The result was that sustainability and development became mutually exclusive and even competing phenomenon, especially so in the twentieth century.

In the 1970s, while those who considered the solution to be the removal of machines found their ideologues in the likes of Kovel and Lovy who came up with the ‘Eco-Socialist Manifesto’. On the other hand, those who meant to do away with the romantic fervor attached to environmentalism found their ideologues in intellectuals such as Ayn Rand who said “life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.” In essence, a proxy war was being fought among intellectuals on the turf of technology and industrialization while the issue of environmental degradation remained unaddressed in policy. It was, however, a third current of thought – that of sustainable development – that manifested itself into a massive ideology and received support from the intellectuals and policy makers alike. The 1972 United Nation’s Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm was an expression of the same. This conference also sought to rebuff the myth of the mutual exclusiveness of environmental concern and the development agenda whens it declared that “Environment policy must not hamper development” and that “Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself”. It also sought to resolve the predicament of the developing nations with regards to balancing environmental protection with industrial development as it noted that “Developing countries need assistance… and reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management”.

In a developing nation like India, while environmental activism caught pace with the beginning of the ‘chipko movement’, the policy backing to the cause of environmentalism came with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For her, one of the prime causal factors for environmental degradation was poverty; she put up the bold question to the world at the afore mentioned United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm (1972): “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” She introduced the Prevention of Water Pollution Bill (1969), which later was passed as the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1974). This marked a watershed in India’s policy action towards environment protection after which a spate of policies for the same cause ensued. In 1981, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act was passed. After Indira Gandhi’s, death during the Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, the historic Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, was passed by the Parliament intended to act as umbrella legislation on the environment.

It is however essential to note that this first wave of policy action in india took place at a time when globalization and privatization had not opened the indian markets. A new set of challenges emerged in india during the 1990′s when the economic revitalization gave impetus to an indian wave of anti environmentalism.Hence,in a way the dichotomy of economic growth and environmental conservation the west saw in the 1970′s,was now prevalent in india during the 1990′s. The reason for this opposition of forces was that the environmentalists began to be seen as anti-captalists and sympathizers of a communist mode of production, which was already losing its popular ground with the demise of the Soviet Union. Further,the carbon credit system of the Kyoto Protocal in 1997 and the international difference of opinions that ensued following the same, also acted as dialectical brakes between environmental protection and industrial development, which however, in the longer run, have been more beneficial for the world in solving this conundrum of competing motives than any other convention before. While it may not have alwayas been true that the environmentalists were always anti-economic development or anti-capital, they were shown under suchlight by free market ideologues whose arguments, as per Ramachandra Guha, “foud a ready audience among the growing middle class”. At the same time just like the west,in india, there have been successful attempts at resolving such a dichotomy through a commitment to policies based on the ideal of sustainable development. The Ozone Depleting Substances (Regulation and Control)Rules 2000. National Water Policy initiated in 2002, the National Environmental Policy 2006, the setting up of the National Green Tribunal in 2010, along with a multitude of such measures to address ecological concerns demonstration revivalism of policy actions focused towards environmental conservation and improvement.


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