In March 2021, Uttarakhand witnessed several women hugging trees as a protest against the felling of trees in Bageshwar for the construction of a road. Hugging trees as an act of protest against exploitation of forest resources goes as far back as the 18th century Bishnoi movement in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The members of the community chose to embrace the trees and be sacrificed along with them. The message and spirit of this movement has continued to directly or indirectly inspire several similar movements ranging from Chipko to Appiko to the recent Bageshwar protest.
While emphasising ecological conservation, preservation of biodiversity and green living, these ‘tree huggers’ raise two important issues that are closely related to environment and are often underrepresented in the environment politics discourse: the idea of rational utilisation and the concept of social justice.
What these movements tell us is that environment has to be protected and valued – not only for ensuring a sustainable future for future generations, but for protecting the livelihoods of people here and now and to reaffirm the mutual relation that humans have with the environment.
While this idea may seem as anthropocentric and materialistic at first, it provides an opportunity to make environment protection an everyday concern. This will provide individuals the motivation and will to engage meaningfully with the environmental concerns by shaping the politics around them.
The ‘common man’ of a country like India is largely mired in the concerns of making everyday life easier and is more oriented towards solving short-term goals. The larger issues of climate change and even events like melting of polar ice caps are too distant to be worried with and hence his perception is shaped largely by the immediate concerns of food, clothing and shelter. The goal at present is not to lift this individual above his traditional concerns of unemployment, housing and health but to include environment as part of that ‘traditional’ concern.
The ‘greening’ of Indian politics can take place only when environment becomes an everyday concern, a rallying point for several political parties. ‘Green’ parties have started to appear on the political stage in India, starting with the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (established in 2009) to the most recent addition of India Greens Party (established in 2019). These parties pave the way for a more active engagement with environmental concerns and their inter-linkage with the larger questions of poverty, social justice and participatory democracy.
While it is too soon to assume a rise of green parties in India given the below par performance of green parties like Uttarakhand Parivartan Party and Indian Peoples Green Party in the 2014 and 2019 elections, ‘mainstream’ parties can be encouraged to include environmental concerns.
While history has largely seen parties on the left of the political spectrum incorporating environmental issues in their agendas, recent times have seen parties in the centre and even on the right of the political spectrum incorporating environmental concerns in their manifestos.The two major national parties – the BJP and the Congress – have incorporated environmental concerns in their manifestos, yet not much headway has been made. Similarly, left parties in India like CPI(M) have stated the goal of reduction of greenhouse gases and checking the increasing pollution in their manifesto. However, what mainstream parties fail to understand with respect to environment-related issues is their interconnection with the questions that dictate everyday life of a citizen such as poverty, political participation and social justice.
While several parties may touch the surface of rational utilisation of resources when faced with environmental concerns (for example, the CM of Maharashtra stepping in and ordering a halt on the construction activities in the Aarey forest), they fail to understand the social justice dimension of these concerns. All environmental movements, ranging from protection of forest resources such as Appiko and Aarey to movements against the construction of large dams such as Narmada Bachao Andolan and Save Silent Valley Movement to movements against open cast mining such as Talabira protests, have the notion of social justice at their core. Those who are living and engaging with the environment for their everyday need be given a higher priority than the profit aspirations of the rich and the powerful that try to mask their agendas in the name of development.
One needs to understand that the felling of trees in a forest or the flooding of a valley is not just an environmental issue. And once we identify with the environment on a personal level, the political arena will have to step up to accommodate these concerns.
The question of including environmental concerns in everyday political concerns is no longer a question of ‘why’ but of ‘how’. How can India experience a ‘greening’ of its politics? How can the government and general public join hands to deal with environmental threats? When one comes to an understanding of the relation between environment and justice, the struggle and sacrifice of environmental activists becomes a significant part of our contemporary political discourse.
Ria Kumari works as an Academic Associate in Indian Institute of Management, Indore. Her research interests include environment politics, political systems and processes.
Featured image: A woman hugs a tree during ‘Save The Tree Campaign’ in New Delhi, June 26, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi