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A Brief History: Environmental Resistance in India

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

The unwavering spirit and rich history of resistance and green discourse and activism in India.

Paving the Path with Resilience:  A Brief History of Environmental Resistance in India illustration
Resist to exist by Shagun Soni

The history of India abounds with countless instances of resistance, as is reflected by its trajectory of environmental movements. For the most part, these acts are also struggles for social justice and equity. That is to say that Indian environmentalism concerns not only nature and its elements but also those who are dependent on it, which sets it apart from Western environmentalism. As a result, Indian environmentalism has built a rich archive of green discourse over the years consisting of cases ranging from public and knowledge-based activism to policy-making and legislative efforts.

The earliest examples of such resistance date back a few centuries, with the first one taking place in 1730, wherein 363 members of Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community lost their lives in a tussle to save a grove of khejri trees. The following years saw a similar devotion to the environment in several early grassroots agitations during the British Raj in protests against the commercialisation of forests from 1859 to 1863 and even in the freedom movement. Although, the first widely recognised environmental movement in a liberated India began nearly a century later in 1973 in the form of the Chipko Andolan or Movement.

Having attained independence in 1947, India lived through a period of “ecological innocence”. There was a heavy emphasis on state-induced development that could help India “catch up” with the West during this span. For this reason, India saw a proliferation of multi-purpose dam projects, steel plants and industrial agriculture, amongst other things. This preoccupation with nation-building came at the cost of the environment and countless (often marginalised) communities and led to several protests in light of diminished forest cover, increased water pollution and destruction of nature and interdependent livelihoods.

The 1970s and 80s were marked by movements concerning nature and access to its ecosystem services. The aforementioned 1973 Chipko Movement, too, transpired in an attempt to save trees in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district and was followed by the 1983 Appiko Movement, a reenactment to protect Karnataka’s Kalase forest. Other agitations ensued addressing similar concerns in like fashion such as the 1973 Silent Valley Protests against hydroelectric power plants in Kerala, the 1982 Jungle Bachao Andolan by Bihar’s tribals of Singhbhum, the 1985 Narmada Bachao Andolan against displacement and the decades-long Tehri Dam Conflict in Uttarakhand, to name a few. Although, the focus shifted to more contemporary issues with the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

As a consequence of around 2,000 to 4,000 deaths caused by an explosion of gas tanks storing methyl isocyanate at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, new themes around industrial development emerged in the prevailing green discourse. Many advocates for the cause of the environment started raising apprehensions about industrial risks and safety, accountability, democracy and the role of industrial conglomerates in the process of resource allocation, etc. Not only that, but the 1991 economic reforms in India exacerbated anxieties about the effects of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. They spurred debates around industrialisation or “development” versus the environment and addressed issues of poverty, increased industry extraction, adverse ecological changes and more. Gender, too, emerged as an important theme during this era. Altogether, this led to the emergence of red-green environmentalism.

It was only by the end of the twentieth century that the failed efforts of India’s economic policies became more prominent and their devastating impact got more acceptance. Accordingly, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have primarily focused on unsustainable practices, the resultant climate change and its impacts, human rights and more. Further, the twenty-first century witnessed an increase in the incorporation of global movements such as Fridays for Future and emulations of old movements such as that of the Chipko Movement in Delhi in 2018 and Chattisgarh’s Surajpur in 2022. Lastly, novel acts of resistance have continued like the mass Aarey Forest Protests in Mumbai in 2019.

Despite significant efforts, state policies have largely remained unchanged as they nonetheless give importance to economic growth and development over environmental well-being and community lives. Not only that, but the state has also gone to great lengths to suppress several resistances over the years. The human rights group Global Witness (2016) suggested that India had the highest number of murdered land and environmental defenders in South Asia. Other structural, cultural and ecological episodes of violence, too, have taken place. Although, this is not to discount the efforts made by the government.

In spite of countless obstacles, the spirit of Indian environmentalism stands unwavering. Environmental resistance ensues every day in the small and big acts of passionate individuals, marginalised communities, NGOs and a few other institutions. With such a commitment to resilience and persistence, these acts of resistance make the social fabric of India richer and greener.


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