A quarter century after the movement emerged in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, it is seen to have lived up to the promise it originally held out.
Internal squabbles and external resistance have weakened many environmental movements, yet the southern version of the Chipko movement has seemingly waded its way through such predictable uncertainties. It has lived up to the promise it made on September 8, 1983, a quarter century ago, when people from villages around Salkani in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka undertook an 8-km trek to lay siege to a tree-felling site in the Kalase forests.
Appiko was born that day and grew quickly over the next three months as the perpetrators of the attempted felling were given a swift and unceremonious send-off. Chanting ulisu, belasu and balasu, meaning ‘save,’ ‘grow’ and ‘sustain,’ the movement spread to other districts in no time as forest-dwellers challenged the tyranny of the state that was bent upon clearing the native tropical forests to pave the way for monoculture plantations.
However, it took six years before the movement succeeded in getting an executive order issued spelling a moratorium on green felling across the Western Ghats. Since then Appiko has been in the vanguard of ecological conservation: from opposing a seventh dam on the Kali river in Karnataka to saving the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, and from taking on ‘Nylon 66’ in Goa to supporting the Chalakudy river campaign in Kerala.
It may have had a low ‘TRP rating’ among contemporary movements of its genre, but Appiko has made a strong sense of its place in history. Working within its limits, but also pushing the limits, it has shown an enormous level of maturity in being politically correct in contesting the development priorities of the state. Its reasonable success rate and continued relevance makes you curious to understand why it clicks.
First, Appiko’s greatest strengths lie in it being neither driven by a personality nor having been formally institutionalised. However, it does have a facilitator in Pandurang Hegde, 52. He helped launch the movement in 1983 and continues to inspire it. In fact, the movement has facilitated the creation of a sociological space where one could find oneself and even relate to it. It was this collective search that led over 25,000 people to protest against the 4,000 MW Barge Mounted Power Plant at Tadadi on the west coast, some three years ago.
Second, Appiko does not have any agenda of its own and is not opposed to any economic agenda. It relies on the spontaneity of public action and reaction to determine its course. This is the way it has been these last 25 years. Thus Appiko has turned into a potent household expression to counter violence against nature. It may seem loose-knit but it has necessarily been an act of culture that affirms the inviolable need to define or be defined.
Yet, the act of culture has not been impermeable altogether. Devoid of any deep-rooted ideology, it lacks firmness in making a distinction between the past and the present, and between the internal and the external. It is this ambiguity that is reflected in Appiko’s critical stand against the proposed Hubli-Ankola railway link that will destroy 2,000 hectares of dense tropical forests, being contested from within its larger constituency.
Does not such opposition from within weaken the movement? Conversely, it reaffirms the fact that the average Indian is fundamentally submissive to external pressures at the cost of one’s autonomy and self-respect. This submissiveness has been further amplified by the fact that over these years the driving force of Appiko enshrined in words like “ecology” and “conservation” has been replaced with words such as “economy” and “consumption."
In the process, the contours of the environment versus development discourse have shifted in favour of individual gains emanating from the economic conversion of natural resources, as opposed to collective survival upon them. No wonder, then, that land, water or forests have increasingly been seen through the economic lens. Appiko is seized of the fact that obsession for individual gains through economic growth, as reflected in the case of the proposed rail link, seeks to brew widespread apathy towards ecological conservation.
Far from being repulsive, Appiko has been responsive to such changes. That leads us to the third reason for Appiko’s relevance, which lies in its capacity to survive on residual empathy amongst its constituency as it seeks alignment with new actors. Appiko has been a mass satyagraha, however, leaving individuals to define what satya, or truth, may mean to each. It is through the non-heroic ordinariness of individuals that this satyagraha has survived. Unlike other movements, Appiko relies on the ordinary individuals because it believes that despite being submissive they are unlikely to be psychologically swamped.
During the 50s, after proclaiming Independence, the Indian government launched so called "development plans" in the Western Ghats of Karnataka state. This area had been declared in fact "backward" and major industries were set up in order to promote exploitation of natural resources. Forests turned to be sources of timber and eucalyptus and teak plantations, while many villages were being displaced by the construction of hydropower plants. The Supa dam, for example, was built over the river Kali in 1976. Large tracts of forests were submerged in the reservoir and many communities displaced.
This is related to conservation efforts in the Western Ghats but the movement grew out of local livelihood requirements and not so much because of a nature conservation ideology.
The local economy depended also on commercial forest products, pepper, cardamon areca nut.
A good introuction to the movement among scholarly articles comes from Manisha Rao (2012)'s work: "the Appiko Chaluvali of Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, India (was a) movement (that) played an important role in saving the forests of the Western Ghats, one of the biodiversity hotspots of the country in the 1980s. The Appiko Chaluvali was a spontaneous movement started by the local communities who struggled collectively against all odds to regain control over productive natural resources and to defend their livelihoods and lifestyles. Some of the larger questions ... are: Is this movement different from other environmental movements? What does this movement tell us about environmental movements in general? ”
According to Manisha Rao (2012), the villagers mobilized more than 160 women, men and children, who walked into the forests in the pouring rain to prevent the felling operations. M N Hegde of Gubbigadde said, "A lot of people came for the movement, women, children, as well as old people. Whether they were Havyaks, Naiks, Goudas or Shudras, we all got together and spontaneously went into the forest to protest against the felling. At the start of the movement, a puja was done to the Van Devata (forest deity)".
Also according to Manisha Rao (2012), there was a direct influence or confluence with the Chipko movement in the northern state of Uttarakhand (started in 1973): "The young boys of the village got together and discussed the issue of felling. Sunderlal Bahuguna was invited to Gubbigadde. In August 1983 Bahuguna spoke to the local villagers about the Chipko movement in the Garhwal Himalayas". Sunderlala Bahuguna is a very well known activist and thinker who animated the Chipko mobilization as well as many other socio-environmental struggles in the Indian Himalayas (i.e. the struggle against the Tehri dam in Garhwal).
The movement turns now three decade old and the struggle is not over yet. The Save Western Ghats Movement has been founded for advocating for Western Ghats to be protected and destructive projects stopped. The second Citizens Manifesto on Western Ghats is an effort that seeks to put the entire issue into perspective, as much for the candidates seeking elections as the electorates of the region (elections happening in April 2014).
The demands are as follows: Western Ghats be declared/protected as Water Towers of South India; Yettinahole and Nethravathi River Diversion Projects, as well as other river diversion and dam projects be halted; to stop destruction of natural forests and mining; bottom-up process of conservation by empowering Gram Panchayats; evolving of supportive policies to practice sustainable ecological agriculture and horticulture; banning of Genetically Modified (GM) crops leading to GM Free Western Ghats and promoting sustainable Tourism and alternate energy that helps build local economies (1).