Epic struggles over Environment in India

Written by: By Rajesh Krishna
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Today being a Environment Day, we bring to you a special story on the major Environmental Movements of Modern India.

"When the rich chopped down their own forests, built their poison-belching factories and scoured the world for cheap resources, the poor said nothing. Indeed they paid for the development of the rich."

As the country pushes for annual economic growth of 9-plus percent, some of the marginalized communities are facing threat of extinction in different parts of the country. These poor people bear the greatest burden of environmental destruction due to unscientific development.

The resistance of the people, most of them adivasis or indigenous people is centered on displacement and loss of land. The lopsided, iniquitous, and environmentally destructive processes of development have propelled the people to go against the state in many cases and this has lead to the emergence of environmental movements in the country. The risks attached to the survival of these marginal people has resulted in the emergence of the movements. OneIndia gives a brief description on some of these epic environmental struggles that took place in the post-independent era.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)

Medha Patkar protestingNarmada is India's largest westward-flowing river and is of immense religious and cultural importance to the people living on its banks. The construction of large dams on this river is one of the most important social issues in contemporary India.

Two of the largest proposed dams, Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar, are already under construction, the former supported by a $450 million loan from the World Bank. Between them the dams will displace over 300,000 people, largely poor peasants and tribals. It will also cause immense ecological damage through the inundation of forests, including prime habitats of rare species. There is not the remotest prospect that the displaced people, the 'oustees', will be adequately resettled, nor that the ecological damage can be compensated for. There are also real doubts, borne out by the experience of large dams, that the dams will yield their projected benefits of hydropower, irrigation and drinking water. The project is set to become another human and ecological 'development tragedy'.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is the people's movement that started against this development in the mid- and late-1980s. It has succeeded in generating a debate across the sub-continent which has encapsulated the conflict between two opposing styles of development: one massive destruction of people and the environment in the quest for large-scale industrialisation; the other consisting of replicable small-scale activities harmoniously integrated with both local communities.

Medha Patkar a graduate in social sciences moved to live among the tribals of the Narmada Valley in the mid-1980s and alerted them to the fate that awaited them with the dams. She was an important catalyst for the formation of the NBA, for which she is one of the principal spokesperson. In a great confrontation between NBA supporters and pro-dam forces in 1991, her 21-day fast brought her close to death.

The Narmada projects are the epitome of unsustainable development. Victory for the NBA over the Narmada dams would be a great achievement for sustainability. A definite reprieve from homelessness and refugee status for several hundred thousand people.

Struggle against coca-cola in Kerala

The Plachimada struggle is more than four years old. Perhaps, no other agitation in recent times in Kerala hasPlachimada Protest attracted national and global attention. What initially began as a struggle for survival of a few thousand tribal villagers in central Kerala, has grown into a people's movement against the most powerful corporate giant in the world, the Coca Cola. This agitation denotes war against US imperialism and the policies pushed by the State and Central Governments in India.

Plachimada is predominantly an Adivasi area with over a thousand families, mostly landless and eking out a living as agriculture labourers. The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd established its unit in 1999 at Plachimada of Perumatty Panchayat in Chittoor Taluk of Palakkad District in Kerala.

Within six months of their operations, all hell broke loose. The water level in the wells and other sources dropped in an unusual manner and the village turned into kind of a desert in a matter of a few months. Within the highly fortified compound of the Coca Cola plant, they had sunk six huge and deep wells that suck up all the sub-surface water leaving the villagers literally high and dry. The long trek in summer months for water became longer. It was then on April 22, 2002, the tribal women marched to the gates of Coca Cola company, and launched an indefinite satyagraha that entered into the annals of history. Police was in full force force but that didn't deter them at all. The agitation became a direct confrontation between the tribal women supported by the activists from all over the country and the world against the Cola giant.

The struggle raised a number of issues and caught the attention of national and international press. BBC and others came, investigated the situation, exposed the lethal content in the chemical discharge from the plant that was causing harm to the soil as well, the High Court and Supreme Court intervened. The Kerala High Court in a landmark judgment against Coca Cola said that the right to water resources was a fundamental right of the people. A Joint Parliamentary Committee on colas and aerated waters set up by the Federal Government in Delhi sharply criticized the excessive drawing of sub surface water for commercial purposes, ignoring the need of the people living in the vicinity

Chipko movement

Chipko Movement From their origin as a spontaneous protest against logging abuses in Uttar Pradesh in the Himalayas, thousands of supporters of the Chipko movement, mainly village women, have won bans on clear felling in an number of regions and influenced natural resource policy in India. The name of the movement comes from a word meaning "embrace". The women practiced satyagraha - non-violent resistance, and interposed their bodies between the trees and the contractors' axes, thus becoming the environmental movement's first tree huggers.

The Chipko movement itself was never an organised protest. It was largely a series of discrete protests by separate Himalayan villages like Reni, Gopeshwar and Dungari-Paitoli. In some cases it was villagers fighting the government and in some cases it was village women fighting their men who would rather cut the trees and see some money without worrying where the firewood would come from.

The powerful social message of Chipko galvanized the existing civil society in India working with poor tribals, women and other marginalised groups to incorporate the environmental cause within their own work. It was not ecology but socio-ecology at work.

Protest against Tehri dam

The Tehri dam is the 8th tallest dam in the world harnessing the waters of two important Himalayan rivers – Bhagirathi and Bhilangana.

The Tehri dam has witnessed continuous questioning and protest by various people, including the notedTehri Dam environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna who has virtually made it his life-long mission to stop the construction of the dam by living at the dam site and by going on periodic fasts. To marshal their case, the Tehri opposition has tried to establish connections between ecological, social and mythical values through scientific studies, environmental campaigns and cultural religious references, thus engaging in a wide gamut of environmental politics.

Tehri dam has been the object of intense protests from environmental groups and the people of this region. The issue of relocation of more than 1 lakh people of the area has resulted in protracted legal battles and has delayed the project. Besides this, environmental concerns regarding the location of large dams in the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayan foothills, there are also concerns regarding the dam's safety. The Tehri dam is located in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a major geologic fault zone. This region was the site of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in October 1991, epicentred 50 km from the location of the dam. There already has been a fatal accident in one of the tunnels in Aug, 2004 when a portion of a tunnel collapsed following heavy rains.

Save Aravalli campaign

The Aravalli Range are mountains in western India running approximately 300 miles from northeast to southwest across Rajasthan state. The northern end of the range continues as isolated hills and rocky ridges into Haryana state, ending near Delhi.

The beautiful Aravali Range area is being ravaged by illegal miners who use explosives which are far more powerful than dynamites, ripping open and tearing apart the ridge. As a result, an invaluable natural heritage is fast giving way to ugly crater, not to mention the tremors that shake the very foundation of our buildings. The casualty is the flora and fauna on the Aravali Hills. The hilly tracts, bubbling with rich ecology once, appears to be barren tracts now. This phenomenon can be witnessed right from the Rajokri village in Delhi (near Delhi-Gurgaon border) to Arjun Nagar Air Force establishment in Nathupur village in Gurgaon.

Rajendra Singh A protest movement under the leadership of environmentalist Rajendra Singh was launched against the destructive consequences of mining in the Aravali hills. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, on the basis of a Supreme Court Order of 1991, issued orders banning mining in the Aravali Hills. With a view to ensuring that this order was observed, Shri Rajendra Singh launched a movement to mobilise people. He also organised an Aravali Bachao Yatra from Himmatnagar in Gujarat to Delhi. Thousands of people participated in this yatra. As a consequence of this mobilisation, the Rajasthan Govt closed nearly one thousand mines in the whole of Rajasthan, 470 of which were in and around Sariska.

Silent valley campaign

Silent Valley is a virgin, fragile forest, nestled in the mountain folds of the Nilgiris in Kerala. It has etymological connotations to the absence of noisy insect cicadas that are generally abundant in tropical rain forests, although now, cicadas form an integral part of the forest. The local names of the valley and the river that flowsSilent Valley through it, resurrect the grand tale of the Mahabharata. In the local lingo, Silent Valley is called Sai-randhi-vanam or Sai-randhiri (synonymous with Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas) and the river is called Kunthipuzha (synonymous with Kunti, mother of the Pandavas).

Silent valley was once a battlefield, when the proposed construction of a dam on the river Kunthipuzha by the Kerala government for its hydroelectric project, constituted headlines in almost every national daily in the late 1970"s. The dam was to submerge the verdant valley together with its prized fauna. The debate between environment and development attracted international attention and continued for over a decade. Scientists, researchers, ecologists and nature lovers, the world over, united to preserve Silent Valley and 'Save Silent Valley ' campaign was launched. Their efforts paid off, when in 1984, Silent Valley was declared a national park. Today, the park is well conserved and has been declared a biodiversity hot spot. Two of its prized animals, the lion tailed macaque and the Nilgiri langur are listed in the IUCN"s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) red list of threatened animals.

Endo sulfan's victims in Kerala

Endo Sulfan VictimTill two decades ago, people of Padre, Perla and many other villages of Kasargode district in Kerala would rush out of their homes in awe and exhilaration at the sound of the 'huge bird' bringing showers from the skies. The villagers were then not aware that what was being sprayed from the helicopter was no nectar, but the lethal poison 'Endosulfan' a pesticide banned by many countries in the world, including Denmark, Germany and Netherlands.

This pesticide was extensively sprayed aerially in the cashew plantations of Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) spread over 2209 hectares in various divisions of Kasargod district. PCK started using this pesticide in 1979 and reports of unusual health disorders started coming from places like Vaninagar, Adur, Mulleria, Padre etc. Disorders of the central nervous system, cerebral palsy, mental and physical retardation, epilepsy and congenital anomalies like stag horns etc became very common. There were also many cases of liver cancer, blood cancer, infertility, miscarriages, hormonal imbalances, skin diseases and asthma.

These disorders were traced to endosulfan. Endosulfan is chemically very close to other pesticides that have already been banned in India and are slated to be phased out globally under the Stockholm Convention 2001, to which India too is a signatory.

A study conducted in Kasargode by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) confirmed the presence of high quantities of endosulfan in the samples of water, earth, fruits, mother's milk and blood. After mass agitations and several studies by various agencies, the use of endosulfan was banned in Kerala in August 2001. The aerial spraying of endosulfan over cashew plantations in Kerala has 'left a legacy of deformity and malfunctions'. Despite the suffering of thousands of victims, 'it took hundreds of deaths, dedicated effort of environmental/public health activists and two decades to force the Kerala government to stop the use of endosulfan'.

In August 2006, government officials finally accepted responsibility to the calamity and offered Rs. 50,000 to the families of 135 people killed by the spraying and established a relief program to care for the survivors. Surgeons with the Endosulfan Victims Relief and Remediation Cell are working to restore the sight of blinded children.

Nature based conflicts, the false developmental policies of the government, the marginalization of the tribal and other underprivileged groups and the environmental degradation are the root causes of emergence of environmental movements in India.

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