Nizamabad MP

Environmentalism in India, Atharvaveda and Beyond

By Kalvakuntla Kavitha (Nizamabad MP)

Environmentalism in India has a long history. The Boomi-Sukta hymn in Atharvaveda has 63 verses devoted to the earth with a discussion of responsibilities and duties of humans towards its conservation. The Yajurveda has instructed humans to “Graze not the sky. Harm not mid-air. Be in accordance with the earth.” The philosophical tradition of environment conservationism has been ever-present in India. Yet, the first instance of policy aimed at conservation can only be found during the Mauryan period discussed in the Arthashastra, wherein punishments were prescribed for cutting trees, damaging forests, killing animals and causing pollution. It is to be noted that such a concern for the environment is unparalleled, be it in philosophy or policy, in any other part of the ancient world. Only in the 7thcentury, do we see the first occurrence of an environmental law in the west, by Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who enacted a legislation to protect 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 the movement, as we know it today. Yet, the early environmental movement had two characteristic features, which could even be construed as its limitations. First, it was a Romantic movement which lent it popular support, even adulation of academia, but it fell short of becoming a policy concern until later. The second feature of this movement was that it was reactive, rather than proactive. This means is that it was not until the repercussions of the Industrial Revolution became apparent, that the governments around the world became committed to environmental conservation. Rampant industrial development in the 19th century, while economically ushering the west into a new era, brought danger to sustainability of our planet. Sustainability and development became mutually exclusive and even competing phenomena, especially in the 20th 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 An Ecosocialist Manifesto. On the other hand, those who meant to do away with the Romantic fervour 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 industrialisation while the issue of environmental degradation remained unaddressed. It was a third current of thought — that of sustainable development — that manifested into a massive ideology and received support from 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 sought to rebuff the myth of mutual exclusiveness of environmental concern and development agenda when it declared, “Environment policy must not hamper development”. It also sought to resolve the predicament of developing nations with regards to balancing environmental protection with industrial development, noting, “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 came with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For her, one of the prime causes for environmental degradation was poverty; she put up the bold question to the world at the afore mentioned United Nations Conference: “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. During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, the historic Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, was passed by the Parliament intended to act as an 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 globalisation and privatisation had not opened Indian markets. A new set of challenges emerged in India during the 1990s when the economic revitalisation 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 1970s, was now prevalent in India during the 1990s. The reason for this opposition of forces was that the environmentalists began to be seen as anti-capitalists and sympathisers 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 Protocol in 1997 and the international difference of opinions that followed 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 always been true that the environmentalists were always anti-economic development or anti-capital, they were shown under such light by free market ideologues whose arguments, as per Ramachandra Guha, “found a ready audience among the growing middle class”. At the same time, as in 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 demonstrate a revival of policy actions focused towards environmental conservation and improvement. Now that India is gradually growing confident of its economic position and its enhanced role among the community of nations, the insecurities in the minds of the people and policy-makers alike regarding economic deterioration at the cost of environmental protection are dissipating.

In a federal country like India, wherein state governments have a huge role to play in enforcement of policies, it is necessary that the states understand and appreciate the value of environmental issues such as energy conservation, water protection and forest preservation in conjunction with growth strategies so that the idea of sustainable development finds real-life implementation. Policies such as the Telangana Solar Power Policy 2015, Kerala Green Building Policy 2013, Maharashtra Renewable Energy Policy 2015 initiated are a momentous step in this direction, marking the beginning of a ‘green renaissance’ in India. It is a period wherein the Romanticism regarding the environment has graduated into a realistic concern for human survival, of which environmental protection has been identified as a vital part. Secondly, the earlier limitation of environmental policies being reactive, rather than proactive in their scope, has also gradually been rectified in these newer policies. It would not be quixotic to hope that the ‘green renaissance’ in India holds immense potential and that India could emerge as a pioneering example of a developing country that has effectively progressed on the principles of sustainable growth. Let us hope India’s stance at the upcoming UNFCCC Paris Summit carries the same spirit and imbues the world with the same.

Courtesy :

Connect with us

Latest Updates