Indian environmental movements: Why they failed or succeeded, and the challenges ahead

Earth Growth

When the majority of human society feels social stress, it does one of three things—1) accept stress out of a feeling of helplessness, 2) move away from the stressors in the hope that the stress reduces, 3) attempt to reduce the stress or remove the stressor altogether. The third choice is usually the least preferred option as it calls for individual sacrifice and collective effort. But once this choice is made, it turns into a social or a people’s movement, and that brings longer-lasting relief and solutions.

To understand the nature of social stress we need to define the environmental and economic spaces that human society operates within, the stresses they have caused and the consequent environmental and social movements that they have triggered.

Economic and environmental spaces

Since hunting-gathering, the production of goods and services for human society happened in the economic space. Humans are the only species that have created this space. Raw materials and energy are drawn from the environment acting as a “source” space. Wastes, including waste heat, are dumped back into the environment, which now acts as a “sink” space. Though the environment is the same, its source space is located upstream of the economic space and its sink space is located downstream of the economic space.


Inequality happens in the economic sub-system through institutions that allow for the privatization of nature and its products and unequal distribution and exchange of energy between regions and people of different identities, e.g., sexes, castes, etc (explanation for how this happens is provided in other writings).

People have struggled against inequality for millennia. Yet, they succeeded in overthrowing an unequal system only in the early part of the last century in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Since the industrial revolution began 300 years ago, the volume of raw materials being extracted from the environment and wastes being dumped into it has increased exponentially, putting both the source and the sink functions of the environment under stress. Environmental stresses initially manifest as local problems, e.g., scarcity of firewood in Kurnool or drinking water at Kolleru Lake, or high pollution levels around thermal power plants such as Ramagundem. Accordingly, people’s responses are local–they can choose to suffer the environmental injury and allow their quality of life to degrade, or migrate out of the area or fight to mitigate the problem. All three choices entail a cost to people.

Environmental issues arise from injury or the possible injury to the structure and functioning of source and sink spaces of the environment and the processes they support, e.g., geomorphology, climate, biogeochemical cycles, habitat size and quality, terrestrial and aquatic ecology, and human society. Depending on the nature of the injury, environmental issues may arise at the local, regional or global level, or all of them.

The understanding of what constitutes “injury” is where major differences exist between various stakeholders, which gives rise to conflict between them. Environmental issues are different from economic and human rights issues. The latter pertains only to humans but is often intertwined with environmental issues. Environmental injury invariably impacts the economy and human rights as well. For example, if the rainfall of an area decreases it will impact agriculture. In a water-stressed area, the privileged will commandeer more scarce water resources, leaving the less privileged to make do with less water or migrate out of the area, which in turn creates human rights issues.

People’s Environmental Movements in India

The oldest well-known people’s movement to conserve environmental resources in India is the Bishnoi movement to protect the Khejarli forests in Jhodhpur district which dates back to the 18th Century. The more recent environmental movements were inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1960s, pertained to environmental sink issues) and the Club of Rome report (1974, pertained to environmental source issues). Environmental movements began to happen in India in the 1970s, around the same time that they began in Europe and North America.

Amongst the better-known people’s movements that attempted to conserve natural resources are—Chipko Andolan (1973) to protect forests in Tehri Garhwal, Save Silent Valley movement (1978) to cancel a dam construction proposal in the Nilgiris biosphere, Jungle Bachao Andolan (1982) by Adivasis in Singbhum district to cancel government orders to replace sal with teak in the Singbhum forests, Appiko chaluvali (1983) to save the Western Ghat forests, Narmada bachao andolan (1985), which started as a human rights movement to get a proper rehabilitation and resettlement package for dam displacement persons but converted into an environmental movement.

There are many other movements such as organic/natural farming, anti-GM seed campaigns, save lakes and rocks, and animal rights campaigns which fall into the category of movements that attempt to save natural resources.

The recent and ongoing campaign to “Save River Ganga” cannot be termed as a people’s movement as it does not enjoy mass support. However, it can be called an environmental movement as it raises the issue of river conservation by asking for a minimum environmental flow to be maintained in it. Unlike other environmental movements, this campaign used moral appeal to raise its demands and therefore attracted some public sympathy.

People’s movements have resisted environmental pollution and risk in several places, either from existing or proposed plants. The more important movements are—Bhopal (1984) where the MIC gas victims asked not only compensation for their health injury, but also for medical and economic rehabilitation and spill cleanup, Dahanu (1986), where the local farmers asked for the area to declared an ecologically sensitive area in order to stop the local power plant from expanding its capacity, Bichidi (1989), where the local people wanted groundwater pollution caused by a chemical plant to be stopped, Tehri dam conflict (1990), that attempted to stop the Tehri dam from being built in a high seismic activity area, Udupi (1995), where the farmers and fishermen fought a bitter battle to stop the Mangalore refinery from polluting marine waters and proposed thermal plants from establishing themselves, Niyamgiri (1998), where the adivasis opposed bauxite mining to the protect their land which they held to be sacred, Plachimada (2000), where the local people opposed the depletion and contamination of groundwater by Coca Cola and won this battle after a prolonged struggle in and out of court, Shutting down iron ore mining, Goa and Karnataka (2000-2012), where legal battles were fought to  stop rapacious mining in these two states, Nandigram (2007), where people of this village opposed the setting up of a chemical hub and in the struggle 14 persons lost their lives in violence, Singur (2008), where people opposed the building of Tata’s car factory, POSCO, (2008), where people belonging to villages in Jagatsingpur district of Odisha agitated against acquisition of their land to establish an integrated steel plant, Jaitapur (2010), here people have protested against the proposed nuclear power plant, Sompeta (2010) and Kakrapalli (2012), where opposition by local persons to proposed thermal power plants at these villages led to police firings that resulted in the loss of life of 3 persons at each place, Kudankulam (2011), thousands of local fishermen and farmers protested against the nuclear plants being constructed at Kudankulam for fear of the risk of a Fukushima-type accident here, Mandur (2014), where the people of Mandur told Bengaluru Municipal authorities to dispose of the city’s solid waste in the city and not in their village.

Many of these battles were fought not because people understood how these projects may have affected the environment but because people saw the loss of their land and livelihoods as a loss of their security and dignity. This was succinctly put by a woman Adivasi farmer when she said, “I wish to be a farmer and not a housemaid in someone’s home.”

Movements that demand protection of people’s lands and livelihoods are strictly speaking not environmental movements as they do not directly ask for protection of climate, geomorphology or biogeochemical cycles. However, they indirectly serve this purpose, so many movements that have asked for only the protection of land and livelihoods are included in the above compilation.

Several proposed projects are likely to cause major environmental battles. Chief amongst them are—the Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor, compensating farmers for sequestering CO2 emitted by cities.

Only a small fraction of local environmental struggles succeed

Of the people’s movements listed above, and many others not included above, few have succeeded in achieving what they had set out to do, whereas most failed. Environmental movements in India have had a better chance of succeeding when:

  • The battle is against a private entity and the state is not directly involved in the conflict, e.g., battles against the Dahanu power plant and the Bichidi chemical plant succeeded largely due to this reason.
  • Action is taken soon after a project is proposed and well before it is granted an environmental clearance, e.g., the building of the Udupi power plant was halted for this reason.
  • People are united and show their willingness to fight, e.g., proposed projects in Sompeta, Kakrapalli, and Niyamgiri could be stopped only because the people there were united. The groundwater pollution in Plachimada too could be stopped for this reason. The proposed thermal power plant in Udupi could not be built for 10 years as the movement against it was strong. However, 10 years later the movement weakened due to people getting exhausted and some traders siding with the proposed power plant. The Udupi Power Corporation was then able to build its plant.
  • When there is a very strong legal case made out against an offender, e.g., iron ore mining companies in Goa and Bellary were stopped largely through strong legal action backed by good technical data and arguments.

Many environmental battles in India failed for the following reasons:

  • India is a low-price and low-value of life nation. Injury compensation cases have invariably failed for this reason. The failure to get reasonable compensation for the Bhopal gas victims or have them satisfactorily rehabilitated medically and economically and have site cleanup done can be traced to this reason.
  • Local self-governments have weak decision-making power over their environments. Despite several resolutions passed by the Plachimada panchayat opposing the offending plant, the Kerala High Court overruled the panchayat resolutions and gave the offending plant permission to continue its operations. The same story is repeated in several places, including Udupi, Western Ghats, etc.
  • Environmental movements often fail because they lack sufficient technical information and data about the impacts of environmental stressors and therefore do not know what kind of demands to make. For example, antagonists of thermal power plants have never raised demands regarding the impacts of such plants on crop yields, cattle health, monuments, water bodies, forests, and groundwater contamination due to ash pond leachates. Likewise, environmentalists attempting to protect the Western Ghats did not see the relationship between long-range transported acidic gases that will cause forest dieback in the Western Ghats and thus alter water flow in the major eastward flowing rivers such as Krishna, Godavari and the Kaveri, which will trigger conflict between riparian states such as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
  • There is little dialogue and no cooperation between the various types of environmental movements, let alone between environmental movements and other pro-people movements. Consequently, environmental battles have little support from the general public.
  • One of the biggest weaknesses of the environmental movement is its acceptance of environmental law which provides for no public participation in environmental management. The law stands subverted and is almost dysfunctional. Asking regulatory authorities and industry for transparency and to perform due diligence, which are common demands of environmentalists, is meaningless.

Growth and ideologies that support it

Local and global environmental injuries have the same root cause—overuse of the environment for extracting natural resources and dumping wastes. Till the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the harvest of raw materials and dumping of wastes was relatively small. Hence their impacts were visible only locally. With the use of fossil fuels, a dense energy source, the exploitation of nature has grown exponentially. Consequently, human society has now become highly unsustainable. Today environmental injuries such as global warming and peak oil (a term used to depict not just the peaking of oil production followed by a decline, but the rapid exhaustion of non-renewable ores) are visible at the global level.

The two ideologies that have sanctified growth are anthropocentrism and privatization of nature facilitated the development of class society, which in its present form is capitalism. Anthropocentrism prioritizes human wants over the needs of all other species and permits humans to use an increasing share of nature to the detriment of other species. Capitalism permits the bourgeoisie to accumulate surplus at the expense of working people. Both ideologies have sanctified a virtuous circle of growth of human activity for 5,000 years. Human sustainability and equality are inalienably related to each other as both support growth and a disproportionate appropriation of nature’s bounties. The battle for human sustainability and equality are related to each other.

Global tipping points

Peak oil: We have used nearly 40% of the original fossil fuel reserve in the last 300 years, a reserve that nature took 300 million years to make. Oil production has peaked and it will exhaust in less than 50 years, to be followed very soon by gas and coal. Fossil fuels contribute 85% of the world’s commercial energy and none of the other energy sources—nuclear, hydro, biomass or other renewable have the potential to replace them.

Fossil fuel reserves

FuelOriginal resource[2]Remaining reservesCurrent annual consumptionR/P ratio[3]
 ZJ[4]% usedZJZJ/YearYears

Nearly 100 non-renewable minerals, including cadmium, lead, mercury, titanium and zinc will become scarce within the next 30-40 years.  In 10 years, a third of the world’s population will face severe water scarcity and the other two-thirds will be water-stressed.  Fish catch has declined due to ocean desertification.

Peak Curve1

Peak curves for various non-renewable ores

Global warming: The world has increased commercial energy consumption in 2016-17 by 2.2% over the previous year. Energy overdraw has knocked the carbon cycle out of shape and only half the CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere is sequestered back to Earth; the other half accumulates in the atmosphere and is responsible for global warming. If unchecked, global warming will have severe impacts, including creating millions of climate refugees, causing massive food and water shortages, hunger, malnutrition, increased sickness and mortality, triggering mass species extinction, etc. Fixing the carbon cycle will take hundreds of years.

Impact of CC

At the present rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature rise by the year 2100 is likely to exceed 3-4oC. At that level of temperature rise, feedforward mechanisms would kick in and warm the earth’s surface even faster, e.g., the earth’s albedo decrease due to melting polar caps would further decrease the earth’s capacity to reflect incoming solar radiation, which in turn would increase global warming.

Any one of the two tipping points mentioned above; or a third—rampant inequality in the world—could cause civilizational regress or collapse. We are truly in a global emergency.

New outlook for environmental issues

A new outlook is required for tackling environmental issues. While fighting local environmental battles, people’s movements should bear in mind the following:

Issues at the local level:

  • Link environmental and economic issues: The source and sink spaces of the environment are inalienably linked to the economic space. Economic and environmental issues must be dealt with together and not separately. Therefore, while dealing with local environmental issues it is essential to raise issues of inequality as human use of the environment is tilted in favour of the rich. Slogans such as “Keep the climate, change the economy” have already gained acceptance.
  • Link local and global issues: Local environmental issues such as resource conservation and environmental protection must be linked to global environmental issues such as sustainability. Sustainability is both a local and a global issue but can never be achieved at the local level alone just as equality cannot be. Anthropocentrism and capitalism are much too powerful as ideologies for sustainability and quality to take root locally.
  • People-friendly development plan: Environmental movements are largely reactive. They say “no” to a variety of development projects without positing an alternate people-friendly development plan. It is important to posit an alternative people-friendly development plan that will move society towards becoming sustainable and equal while opposing a people-unfriendly development plan.
  • Campaign for laws that give people more control: People’s movements must campaign for laws that will give more control to people to manage their environments. E.g., people’s movements should campaign for environmental impact assessments to be done by impacted populations (bystander populations and unions, where brownfield plants exist) rather than by project proponents.
  • Campaign for the law to define unacceptable impact: Unacceptable environmental impact is not defined by law. Regulatory authorities find it difficult to reject a project proposal, so they give environmental clearances for projects with high impacts by putting conditions. Project proponents are happy with such clearances as they know how to circumvent them. People’s movements should campaign for a definition of unacceptable impact.
  • Shut down the Pollution Control Boards (PCBs): PCBs no longer perform their mandated duties. They should be shut down and their powers devolved to panchayats and municipalities.
  • Monetary demands: Movements should ask polluting and risk-bearing plants to give the High Court of the state in which a facility is located, a bank guarantee. If a facility causes environmental injury, the local population can approach the High Court to make an assessment of the quantum of injury and release an appropriate amount to rectify the injury. PCBs routinely make the industry provide such bank guarantees.
  • Compensation for unequal energy exchange, environmental injury by industry to rural areas, and city CO2 emissions being sequestered by farmlands: There is unequal energy exchange between urban and rural areas. Moreover, plants that produce goods for urban areas, but are located in rural areas, cause significant environmental injury to rural areas. Farmlands also sequester CO2 that cities generate for which no compensation is paid. These environmental services that rural areas perform for urban areas should be valued and farmers paid due compensation. It is estimated that Indian farmers are owed ~Rs 5.8 lakh crores per annum for these services.
  • Movements should train themselves to make common sense rather than technical demands: Technical knowledge of the environmental impact of a project is not as important as common sense. E.g., it is important to demand that proposed projects have “zero risk.” “zero liquid discharge,” display information boards carrying consent conditions and the latest environmental monitoring data, and a maximum vulnerable zone for hazardous storage prominently at their main entrance of plants; and that if a plant is catering to urban populations, e.g., thermal power plants, that such plants should be located in urban areas; ask questions such as how are automatic air quality stations superior to passive samplers, demand that plants that draw water from surface streams should locate their effluent discharge point upstream of the plant location on the stream and locate the raw water intake point downstream of the plant.

The top figure shows the normal location points for freshwater intake and wastewater discharge points, the bottom figure indicates a common-sense solution for switching the intake and discharge points when a water-polluting plant claims it is treating its effluents

Ramappa, an illiterate farmer, did just that when he was repeatedly told that Harihar Polyfibres had an effluent treatment plant that worked satisfactorily, and yet he found that his farm downstream of the plant continued to have low yields. If technical demands are made by non-technical persons, the other side gains the upper hand. What people want is a clean and safe environment and decision-making powers in the management of their environments and a strong demand for this.

Issues at the global level:

  • Sustainability and equality have to be achieved globally: Sustainability and equality cannot be achieved in one region or country, as they are systemic problems. They have to be achieved globally, though a beginning can be made at local levels.
  • Future of technology: Fossil fuels and a range of non-renewable ores will deplete drastically within this century. Technology will rapidly change towards using low-energy systems and materials based on renewable materials that are products of photosynthesis. E.g., plastic will be replaced by materials based on biomass extracts. In making technology choices, people’s movements should bear the above in mind to steer society towards greater sustainability and equality.
  • Eighty percent of remaining fossil fuels should be left in the ground: To minimize the serious impacts of global warming IPCC scientists have warned that temperature rise over pre-industrial times should not exceed 2oC. To achieve this, 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves should be left in the ground. People’s movements should bear this in mind while forming an opinion on proposed development projects in India.
  • Powering down by 55%: To become sustainable, human society must forsake 55-60% of current commercial energy consumption of ~13.75 Gtoe. Half this reduction can be done even without new renewable energy capacities being added if the following measures are taken: a) The world should move towards soft borders, b) Air and private surface transport based on fossil-fuelled vehicles should be forsaken, c) cities, which are real energy guzzlers, should be shrunk to at least half their size.
  • Equality: The reduced amount of 6 Gtoe of global energy consumption should be distributed equally amongst all people in the world. This can be done only if North America (Mexico excepted), were to reduce their energy consumption by 90% and Europe, Australasia and Japan were to reduce by 75%.
  • Discard anthropocentrism and privatization over nature and its products: For a sustainable, equal and peaceful society, anthropocentrism and capitalism must be discarded. Ownership rights should be replaced with usufruct rights. There is no basis for ownership rights over nature (energy and other raw materials are products of nature, not of humans).
  • Sun, the only long-term renewable energy source: In the long run, solar energy is the only viable renewable energy source that can power human society. There are some technical challenges in harnessing solar energy, but many of them can be overcome with greater investment in solar energy.

Cuba and Sri Lanka are good examples for India

Cuba learnt to tighten its belt and do with minimal oil supplies after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 from where it got its oil. Cuban farming went organic and Havana discarded private transport altogether.

Sri Lanka has an average per capita energy consumption that is roughly half that of India, yet they are over 60 ranks above India in UNDP’s Human Development Index rankings, with almost no one under the multi dimension poverty index (India has about half its population under this index). Sri Lanka’s achievement is due to a significantly greater reliance on biomass, a more people-friendly fuel, and a lower population percentage in urban areas as compared to India. These measures have helped Sri Lanka deliver more energy for human development unlike in India where more energy is used for producing conspicuous consumption goods and services for the rich, and profits for the bourgeoisie.

Sagar Dhara is male, upper caste and class, college educated, member of the most ferocious predatory species that ever stalked the earth—humans.

[2] Estimates of resources and reserves are closely guarded information, hence figures for original resources and current reserves are approximations.

[3] Reserve to current production ratio.

[4] Zeta (1021) Joules.

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