On March 27, 1973, a group of peasants in Mandal, a village in the upper Alaknanda Valley, stopped a group of commercial loggers from felling a patch of ash trees by threatening to hug them. These innovatively non-violent methods used in Mandal were emulated by villages in other parts of the Uttarakhand Himalaya, likewise seeking to protect forests in their locality.

It is now 50 years since the birth of what we know as the Chipko Andolan. Chipko was followed by a series of other grassroots initiatives claiming community control of forests, pasture, and water. Analysing these conflicts, scholars argued that they showed the way to reconfigure India’s development path. Given the country’s population densities and the fragility of tropical ecologies, India – so the argument went – had erred in following the energy-intensive, capital-intensive, resource-intensive model of economic development pioneered by the West. When the country got its freedom from British rule in 1947, it should have instead adopted a more bottom-up, community-oriented, and environmentally-responsible pattern of development.

However, the argument further proceeded, one could still make amends. The state and the citizen should both heed the lesson of Chipko and modify public policies and social behaviour accordingly. A new model of economic development was required, which could lift the masses of people out of poverty without undermining the interests and needs of future generations.

A multi-level debate

The environmental debate in India was at its most intense in the 1980s. The debate operated at many levels. It touched on the moral questions raised by the environmental crisis; on the changes required in the distribution of political power to promote environmental sustainability; on the design of appropriate technologies that could simultaneously meet economic as well as ecological objectives. The debate embraced all resource sectors – forests, water, transport, energy, land, biodiversity. The government was forced to respond, by creating, for the first time, a ministry of environment at the Centre and in the states as well. New laws and new regulatory bodies were forged. For the first time, scientific research on environmental questions found a place in our leading centres of learning.

The environmental gains of the 1980s were undone in later decades, largely because of the policy of economic liberalisation adopted in 1991. In many ways, liberalisation was both necessary and overdue. The license-permit-quota raj of the Nehru and Indira years had stifled entrepreneurship and stalled growth. However, while market freedoms enhanced productivity and incomes, one area which still needed regulation was environmental health and safety.

This was particularly true in the case of chemical industries, which pollute the air and the waters, and even more so of mining, which, if unregulated (as in India it usually is), could have a devastating effect on air, water, soil, and forests. Meanwhile, the expansion of the middle class under liberalisation spurred a massive boom in private transport, adding enormously to the consumption of fossil fuels as well as to atmospheric pollution.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the pace of environmental degradation rapidly intensified; and so, ironically, did the attacks on environmentalists. As mining companies devastated forests and displaced tribals across a wide swathe of Central India, those who protested against these crimes were demonised as Naxalites and often incarcerated for long periods, sometimes (as in the case of Stan Swamy) dying in prison. Companies involved in mining and other forms of resource extraction cultivated close partnerships with politicians in all parties, greasing their palms in exchange for contracts and immunity from public scrutiny. Pro-business columnists in the mainstream press energetically joined the scapegoating of environmental activists, dismissing their concerns out of hand.

Fifty years after Chipko, if environmental concerns do at all figure in public debates, they have to do with climate change. With every unanticipated drought, cyclone, flood or forest fire, the number of climate change sceptics declines further. The awareness of the climate crisis that confronts us is particularly acute among the young, the majority of whose lifespan still lies ahead of them.

The consequences of the human-induced accumulation of gases in the atmosphere may constitute perhaps the greatest environmental challenge today. However, it is by no means the only one. In truth, India would be an environmental disaster zone even if climate change did not exist. The highest rates of air pollution worldwide are found in the cities of northern India. Water pollution is scarcely less serious – indeed, the great rivers on which these cities were historically located are biologically dead. Groundwater aquifers are depleting everywhere. Chemical contamination of the soil is at very high levels. Fragile coastal ecosystems are being ravaged by haphazard and unregulated building construction. Large areas of mixed tropical forests are being destroyed by coal mines. Forests that do not have valuable ores underneath them are nonetheless being felled and/or invaded by destructive weeds, these usually exotic to India.

Economic impact

The manifold forms of environmental degradation outlined in the previous paragraph do not merely have aesthetic effects. They impose profound economic costs as well. Air and water pollution makes people sick and puts them out of work. When soils become too toxic, previously productive lands go out of cultivation. When forests and pastures are depleted, rural livelihoods become less secure.

The economic consequences of environmental abuse have largely escaped the attention of India’s most celebrated economists – Nobel laureates among them. However, some of their less well-known – but more grounded – colleagues have been more alert to the question. A decade ago, a group of economists estimated that the annual cost of environmental degradation in India was about Rs 3.75 trillion, equivalent to 5.7% of GDP (see Muthukumara Mani, editor, Greening India’s Growth: Costs, Valuations, and Trade-Offs, Routledge, 2013). Given how much more polluted the air and water now are, how much more toxic the soil and so on, the economic costs today are probably even greater.

It is important to recognise that in India, the burden of environmental degradation falls principally on the poor. The rural residents of the Singrauli area, which supplies a large share of Delhi’s electricity requirements, are themselves largely without power while confronted with life-threatening pollution as a result of coal mining (see AVasudha, “Dark and Toxic Under the Lamp: Industrial Pollution and Health Damage in Singrauli”, Economic and Political Weekly, March 4, 2023). In the capital itself, the rich insulate themselves by using indoor purifiers, these out of reach for the working population.

Chipko’s lesson, that humans need to respect nature and live within its boundaries if they wish to survive and indeed prosper, is being violated everywhere in India today. And nowhere as brutally as in Chipko’s own Himalayan homeland. The tragedy of Joshimath is symptomatic here. From the 1970s, scientists and activists (including the Chipko leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt) issued a series of cautionary warnings against the reckless expansion of roads and hotels, the blasting of tunnels, and the building of hydroelectric projects in this ecologically fragile mountain region. Successive governments have disregarded these warnings – and so has the Supreme Court, which rejected the closely argued and massively documented report by a committee it had itself appointed and gave the green signal to the ill-conceived and potentially very destructive Char Dham Highway project.

The sinking of Joshimath presages further such calamities – yet the state and its contractor allies shall not be deterred in continuing their assault on the people and environment of the Himalaya in the name of so-called development. (See Ravi Chopra, “Joshimath: An Avoidable Disaster”,The India Forum, March 7, 2023, accessible here.)

What makes our current predicament particularly tragic is that we now have plenty of scientific expertise to aid us in carving out a more sustainable path. In the IITs, in the Indian Institute of Science, in non-governmental research centres, India has a cadre of outstanding professionals who can help Central and state governments design and implement, for example, more efficient transport and energy policies without necessarily damaging the environment. However, though the expertise is available, it is rarely, if ever, called upon, perhaps because it shall disturb the cosy relationship between politicians on the one hand and contractors and industrialists on the other.

In a lecture of 1922, Rabindranath Tagore observed that modern machinery had encouraged humans to embark on a “career of plunder [that] entirely outstripped nature’s power for recuperation. Their profit makers dug big holes in the stored capital of the planet. They created wants which were unnatural and provision for these wants was forcibly extracted from nature.”

If these tendencies continued unchecked, Tagore foresaw a future where humans had “exhausted the water, cut down the trees, reduced the surface of the planet to a desert, riddled with enormous pits, and made its interior a rifled pocket, emptied of its valuables.” It may yet not be too late to heed his warnings.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.

The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is [email protected].