Environmental Consciousness Since 1800

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ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS SINCE 1800 Reports in the early 2000's that the Sariska wildlife reserve in northern India had lost all its remaining tigers is indicative of the deepening crisis into which India's wildlife and its environment have fallen. Vanishing wildlife, depleted forests, and polluted air and water are grave ecological concerns in India. The survival of the majestic tiger—king of the jungle and the top of its food chain—is not just a battle to save an individual species but rather an entire ecosystem and a web of life that sustains human life and livelihoods as well.

Concern for humankind and its environment in India dates back several centuries, when such coexistence was widely practiced among India's tribes and indigenous communities. Tribal peoples, or adivasis, inhabiting the vast forests of the Chhotanagpur and Danakaranya regions in central and peninsular India and Garhwal and other parts of the Himalayas carefully nurtured their forests, as their existence depended on these resources. They usually faced little interference from local chiefs and landlords, who little valued forests, other than to practice shikars, or trophy hunts. British rule, however, dramatically altered these relationships and greatly increased forest exploitation.

India's Forests

The British at first showed total indifference to forests. The only threat to forests came from agricultural expansion, which was actively sought to generate revenue for the government. However, the growing timber needs of the colonial rulers for shipbuilding and other purposes soon hastened forest exploitation. The first reservation of teak was established by the British along the western Indian Malabar coast in 1806 to conveniently supply teak for ships built in dockyards in Goa and other coastal locations. Pressure on forests greatly increased with the arrival of the railways in India in the latter part of the century. Forests were recklessly cut to provide for railway sleepers and, before coal mines became operational, as fuel for locomotives.

Such was the demand for timber that the governor-general in 1862 called for the establishment of a department that could ensure a sustained availability of the enormous timber requirements for railway sleepers. As a result, the first imperial forest department was set up in 1864. The Indian Forest Act of 1865 was the first official attempt at asserting state monopoly rights over forest resources and at curtailing the traditional rights of local communities. The 1865 act, to a large extent, dictated all successive forest legislation in British and post-independence India. The provisions of the 1878 Forest Act, for instance, empowered the state to usurp all "valuable" tracts of forest, needed especially for railway purposes, and to retain enough flexibility over the utilization of the remaining forests. The customary use of forest timber by villagers was henceforth considered not a "right" but a "privilege" exercised solely at the discretion of local rulers.

The next assault on India's forests came during the two world wars, when the British found it expedient to plunder the country's forests to service the huge war demand. Approximately 1.7 million cubic feet of timber (mostly teak) were exported annually from 1914 through 1919 to meet the demands of the British military in Egypt and the Middle East. The impact of World War II was even more severe, when a special Timber Directorate was set up in Delhi to channel supplies of forest produce from India's provinces. As a result of the growing military and mercantile demands of the colonialists, social and ecological needs were increasingly overlooked.

Forest management in the post-independence era has not been much different. India's 1952 Forest Policy is striking in its assertion of the state's monopoly right over forests in order to safeguard the "national interest." The policy states that "the country as a whole is not to be deprived of a national asset by the mere accident of a village being situated close to a forest." While on one hand the rights of local communities to forest resources were severely curtailed, overexploitation of forests to supply the high demands of forest industries, especially pulp and paper, grew even further. The forest department argued that the low productivity of Indian forests was due to the government's "uneconomic" and "conservation oriented" approach and called for replacing the existing natural forests with high-yielding industrially useful trees. The National Commission on Agriculture went even further, outlining a strategy for industrial forestry in 1961. A new program of social forestry was also launched to encourage local communities to raise their own forests, usually on degraded wastelands, to satisfy subsistence needs for fuel and fodder, but the program failed.

Emphasis on industrial forestry extended beyond timber when several commercially attractive minor forest products such as tendu leaf (used in making local cigarettes), sal seed, and mahua flower were nationalized. Sale and marketing of these products was handed over to private contractors, not only depriving tribals of their livelihoods but encouraging corruption and misuse of the resource at the hands of middlemen. The resulting alienation of tribals, particularly in central India, has given rise to local protests, sometimes turning to violent conflicts. The recently established states of Jharkhand (meaning "forest land") and Uttaranchal have their roots in secessionist struggles over natural resource rights.

The rapid decimation of the country's wildlife and forests has led the Indian government to enact new legislation: the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 aimed at protecting wildlife in strictly controlled national parks and sanctuaries, and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 contained strict provisions for preventing the diversion of forest land. However, it is the National Forest Policy of 1988 that is credited with being the watershed in forest governance. The new forest policy aims to achieve ecological balance through conservation of biological diversity, soil and water management, and reforestation, while at the same time meeting the subsistence needs of rural and tribal populations. Reversing the earlier stance, the demands of forest industries are now secondary to these social objectives.

Encouraged by the new policy, a new program of joint forest management has been initiated in various parts of the country. The program aims at involving local communities in the management of state forest lands in return for regulated use of forest resources. Villagers are grouped in forest protection committees (named differently in different states) and work with local forest guards to protect specific forest areas. Community management, based on self-agreed rules and responsibilities, has helped curb misuse and corruption and has ensured a steady flow of forest benefits for participating communities. Although the program is viewed as a growing success, it operates on the basis of individual state resolutions (and often the goodwill of local forest officials), and local communities do not enjoy secure access to state forest resources.

Environmental Problems in the Modern Indian State

While deforestation has been a growing concern, India's environmental problems today span a much wider spectrum and are closely tied to its rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization in recent years. Problems of water and air pollution were first recognized when the government enacted the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1981. The 1984 Bhopal gas disaster—in which a toxic leak from the city's Union Carbide chemical plant resulted in the deaths of more than three thousand people—significantly raised environmental awareness and activism in India. It also caused the formulation of the Environment (Protection) Act and the establishment of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as an independent federal department in 1985. The MoEF is tasked with the overall responsibility of administering and enforcing environmental laws and policies.

Despite a greater commitment by the Indian government to protect public health and the environment, policies geared to develop the country's economy have taken precedence in recent years. Market reforms launched in the early 1990s have significantly raised economic growth but have also resulted in a huge cost to the environment. According to the World Bank, environmental damage from unclean air and water and natural resource depletion was valued at U.S.$9.5 billion, or 4.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 1992. A high proportion of these costs are attributed to premature mortality from exposure to indoor air pollution (from burning firewood in poorly ventilated kitchens) and the consumption of unclean water.

Growth in energy consumption in the power, industrial, and transportation sectors has resulted in rising emissions of greenhouse gases—the main contributor to climate change—and other pollutants harmful for human health. While per capita emissions are still small, these are growing rapidly, and India already ranks fifth in the world in aggregate greenhouse gas emissions. Given the country's reliance on low-quality coal—77 percent of electricity in India is produced from coal—and its soaring demand for electricity, carbon emissions are likely to grow exponentially. A stumbling block is artificially low electricity prices that have favored a few interest groups at the expense of those who really deserve its benefits. A commercially viable electricity sector could improve the quality of the electricity supply, improving access especially for rural households who otherwise would have to depend on dirty biomass fuels.

Vehicular air pollution in India's large metropolitan cities is already a serious human health hazard. Airborne particulate matter in New Delhi, the nation's capital, has been recorded at five times the World Health Organization limit. The problem is not due to the absence of sound environmental legislation, but rather a lack of proper enforcement at the local level. Lack of official response led the Supreme Court of India to take matters into its own hands by ruling in 1998 that all buses in Delhi must be run on compressed natural gas, a cleaner fuel. But this has not solved problems for other parts of the country, where buses still use diesel, a far dirtier fuel, although its quality has improved due to government action in recent years. A particular problem, however, concerns the price advantage that diesel enjoys over gasoline, which encourages its rampant use.

Availability of adequate freshwater is important for human consumption, growing crops, industrial use, and for sustaining all other life. But freshwater availability has been declining, both in terms of its quantity and quality in India. Water availability per capita reduced from 5,400 cubic meters in 1950 to 2,400 cubic meters in 1991, and several regions in the country are today water stressed. Following the "Green Revolution" of the 1970s, water demand for modern irrigation greatly increased. Overexploitation of groundwater for irrigation has depleted groundwater aquifers and has resulted in land salinization, particularly in intensively cultivated northern parts of India. In other regions, where agriculture is rain-fed, people traditionally took to harvesting scarce rainwater by building ponds and other water retention structures. Several such structures are in use even today in Rajasthan and several parts of southern India, testimony to indigenous knowledge, though concerns have been voiced about their maintenance in recent years.

An equally serious issue concerns water pollution, both inland and along the vast Indian coastline. The most shocking instance is the pollution of the Ganges, the ancient holy river that flows through thickly populated plains of northern India. Municipal and industrial wastes have been allowed to be freely dumped in the river, rendering it unfit for safe human use. The government responded by launching the Ganga Action Plan in 1987, a multipronged project involving wastewater treatment, urban renewal, riverfront development, and public education to make the river pollution-free. Since then, three other rivers have been covered under similar projects. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has also undertaken the preservation of the country's coastline by regulating urban development and controlling pollution along the coast.

While India's environment faces several challenges, there are also reasons for hope. The significance of the environment is recognized in the country's Constitution. The various environmental laws and regulations have not been sufficiently implemented in the past, but the government is now taking its mandate for the environment more seriously. India is also an active participant in international environmental discussions, having ratified almost all United Nations conventions and treaties on the environment. With a vibrant civil society and a centuries-old tradition of coexistence with the environment, India has a good opportunity to tackle its environmental problems. How well it can balance its environment with the imperative for economic growth and development remains to be seen.

Damanjit Singh

See alsoAgricultural Growth and Diversification since 1991 ; Ethnic Conflict


Brandon, C., K. Hommann, and N. Kishor. "The Cost of Inaction: Valuing the Economy-Wide Cost of Environmental Degradation in India." Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1995.

Gadgil, M., and R. Guha. Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Government of India. "Indian Forest Policy 1988." Available at <http://www.envfor.nic>

Guha, R. "Forestry in British and Post-British India: A Historical Analysis." Economic and Political Weekly (October 1983).

United Nations Environment Programme and The Energy and Resource Institute. India: State of the Environment, 2001. Nairobi and New Delhi: UNEP, 2001.

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Environmental Consciousness Since 1800

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