Between The Lines

Ancient monoliths in Mawphlang sacred grove
Ancient monoliths in Mawphlang sacred grove. Courtesy Wikipedia

Madhav Gadgil


Environmental activism in India comprises two streams; one focusing on Protected Areas and relying on bureaucracy that often uses regulatory powers to harass and extort; this invites resentment by people at the grass-roots. The second focuses on protecting nature to safeguard people’s livelihoods and health; but the protests and lawsuits it relies on have limitations.  I submit that the positive environmental agenda should concentrate on reassertion of people’s rights over natural resources, for it is the people living close to nature who have a genuine stake in maintaining a healthy environment. This policy level agenda should be coupled to an action-oriented agenda of promotion of nature-friendly cooperative economic enterprises in sectors like quarrying and mineral and sand mining.



ndian environmentalism is on retreat before an aggressive developmentalism even as people are becoming increasingly and acutely aware of the environmental crisis. We still have fresh memories of the heat wave of the summer of 2016, the Alakananda floods of June 2013, and the Chennai floods of December 2015, the last two caused by development gone haywire. At the same time, we see growing social violence all around us, violence linked to struggles over natural resources; the death of a staunch anti-quarry activist Anoop Vellolippil in stone pelting by goondas in Kozhikode district and endemic Naxalism fueled by injustice to tribals in the forest and mineral rich central Indian heartland.

Present-day environmental activism in India comprises two broad and distinct streams. The first approach, exemplified by many activists from the venerable Bombay Natural History Society focuses on Protected Areas (PA), and relies on governmental action favouring a guns and guards approach. In its report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (2011) has emphasized that this approach is very often perverted into an excuse for harassment and extortion by a corrupt bureaucracy, as the experience of the Mahabaleshwar-Panchagani Ecologically Sensitive Zone shows.

The second strand of environmental activism is motivated by the need to protect nature to safeguard people’s livelihoods and health. This pro-people, pro-nature school extensively relies on protests and lawsuits before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). However, both protests and litigation have serious limitations.

Thus, today the Government of India as well as the Goa Government, completely ignoring the many protests and lawsuits, are actively reviving mining in Goa, assigning leases to the same mining concerns that were held guilty of serious irregularities by the Shah Commission, and without taking action against any of the politicians and officials who had colluded in the mismanagement.

People at the ground level naturally resent the PA focused anti-people strand in the environmental movement because of the underlying belief that people at the grassroots are enemies of nature, and nature can be protected only through a bureaucratic gun and guards approach. Thus, a disinformation campaign falsely portraying the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) recommendations as being an instance of such anti-people nature conservation effort has succeeded in good measure in turning people against this report.

To confront this challenge, the advocates of the pro-people, pro-nature approach need to focus on issues that touch people’s lives and whose resolution would simultaneously contribute to protection of environment and betterment of the quality of people’s lives. Examples of such issues are extractive economic activities such as mining of minerals and sand, and quarrying of stones, today being conducted in an environmentally destructive and socially abusive fashion.

Indeed recent developments all over the country provide abundant evidence that these, supposedly economic enterprises have degenerated into criminal enterprises, so much so that newspaper reports and TV broadcasts on the excesses committed by the mining mafia, sand mafia and quarry mafia have become an everyday occurrence. With such degeneration, it is clear that the contention that these activities make a genuine contribution to India’s development is a tragic delusion.

A positive environmental agenda should focus on reassertion of people’s rights over natural resources; agricultural lands, grazing lands, forest lands, rivers, lakes and coastal lands and waters, as also rocks and sand and minerals. It is the people living close to nature who have a genuine stake in maintaining a healthy environment and in protecting their environmental resources.

This long term policy level agenda should be coupled to the more immediate action-oriented agenda of promotion of nature-friendly cooperative economic enterprises in sectors like quarrying and mineral and sand mining. If properly organized so as to be accountable to people at the grass-roots, such cooperative enterprises could become a significant source for the creation of satisfying livelihoods on the massive scale required.

It is the people who are sovereign under our democratic constitution, and assertion of their will through the electoral process has resulted in a number of Constitutional Amendments and Acts that have progressively empowered the people, at least in theory, through democratic devolution.


he 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution assign an important role to local self-governments, Panchayats and Nagarpalikas in taking a variety of decisions, in particular, those relating to management of natural resources. The Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act of 1995 takes this further, assigning a vital role to Gram Sabhas, as does the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

But our Governments have been sabotaging these democratic initiatives, as the Niyamgiri developments have so strikingly demonstrated. Hence, the foremost priority for the pro-people, pro-nature activists should be to ensure that our existing constitutional provisions empowering people and protecting the environment are actually implemented on the ground, and then further extended to other areas such as rights of fishing communities.

Fortunately, we have shining examples of how manifold positive benefits can flow from empowering people. Over 900 villages in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra have won Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act over extensive areas. The struggle for these rights has been pioneered by the citizens of Mendha (Lekha), who have coined the inspiring slogan “Dilli-Mumbaime hamara sarkar, hamare gavme hamhi sarkar”.  Beginning with the debate on the Forest Act in 198000s, they became involved in the Maharashtra-wide movement that had as its motto: Jungle Bachav Manav Bachav.

This movement led to their realizing that there was substantial space in our democratic system for self-governance; indeed that was the ideal that we should all work towards. So they injected life into their Gram Sabha, ensured that women came to participate fully in its deliberations, set up a self-selecting study circle that carefully looked at issues of interest to the community, and gradually implemented a number of decisions aimed at sustainable use and augmentation of natural resources arrived at through “sarvasahamati” or consensus.

The assignment of Community Forest Rights conferring security of tenure has injected further vigour into these activities that are now beginning to yield handsome economic returns as well. There is meaningful skill development as people, especially the young are motivated to assess the resource base carefully, plan its sustainable use and conservation, work out the potential of local level industrial processing and appropriate marketing strategies.


otably, they have spontaneously decided to set apart over 10% of the Community Forest Resource areas as strict nature reserves. As early as 20 years ago, Mendha (Lekha) had initiated management of the stone quarry in their community land in a cooperative fashion by the Women’s self-help group. The manual operation of this quarry with stone mettle as the end-product had generated substantial economic returns and employment till the quarry was closed two years ago as the stone resource was nearing exhaustion.

There has, however, been an interesting spin-off. Since the transport by hired tractors ate substantially into the profits, the self-help group purchased a tractor ten years ago with a bank loan, fully clearing the loan five years ago. Today hiring out this tractor is generating significant income for the self-help group.



here are of course many difficulties in organizing cooperative management of community controlled resources, difficulties summed up in Garett Hardin’s work on what he terms as the “tragedy of the commons”. However, as the Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom has shown, through her theoretical as well as fieldwork, there are conditions under which such cooperation will flourish. Mendha (Lekha) is an apt example of how this can indeed work in practice.

Gadchiroli district is a Schedule V area, where tribal land cannot be made over to non-tribals, whether individuals or corporate entities. Around the same time that the self-help group in Mendha (Lekha) initiated their cooperative stone quarry operations, Government of Andhra Pradesh proposed to assign a mining lease in such a Schedule V area to M/s. Hyderabad Abrasives and Minerals (P) Ltd, a private company. This was contested by Samata, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding tribal interests. The Supreme Court finally ruled in this case in favour of Samata in 1997, observing:

 “The further contention that the rich mineral wealth being a national asset cannot be kept unexploited which is detrimental to the national development, is devoid of force. Instead of getting the minerals exploited through non-tribals, by exploitation of tribals, the minerals could be exploited through an appropriate scheme, without disturbing ecology and forest, by the tribals themselves, either individually or through Cooperative Societies composed solely of the tribes with the financial assistance of the State or its instrumentalities. It would itself be an opportunity to the tribals to improve their social and economic status and a source of their economic endowment and empowerment and would give them dignity of person, social and economic status and an opportunity to improve their excellence. ”

It also noted “It is an established rule of interpretation that to establish Socialist Secular Democratic Republic, the basic structure under the rule of law, pragmatic broad and wide interpretation of the Constitution makes social and economic democracy with liberty, equality of opportunity, equality of status and fraternity a reality to “we, the people of India”, who would include the Scheduled Tribes. All State actions should be to reach the above goal with this march under rule of law.” The clear extrapolation of this judgement is that to further the aims of our Constitution, it is advisable to assign mining leases to cooperatives formed by members of the local communities, regardless of whether inside or outside Schedule V areas.


ommunity based cooperative management of natural resources in India has a venerable history. For instance, all along the West Coast, particular Bays have been reserved through tradition for particular fishing communities. Hundreds of members of such fishing communities have been working in a cooperative fashion to operate several kilometer long Rampan or Beach Seine nets.

In independent India, there have been several successful cooperative ventures including the Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Limited from Gujarat, that led to the establishment of Amul (Anand Milk Union Limited) in 1946. Amul, an apex union of thousands of farmers, mostly with small holdings is today a thriving and extremely efficient, very modern, commercial operation.

Another notable success story has been that of Sugar Cooperatives Maharashtra, established in early 1950s under the leadership of Vitthalarao Vikhe Patil, a farmer from Ahmednagar district. There was tremendous skepticism in the initial years about the viability of such a complex operation as a sugar factory by the largely uneducated, small-holders of these dry tracts of Maharashtra. However, the farmers succeeded, a story superbly narrated in the biography of Vikhe Patil, appropriately titled “The fight”.

However, the Sugar cooperatives Maharashtra hold an important lesson. The acts governing cooperative enterprises, and the pertinent rules and bye-laws have not been framed carefully enough to ensure full accountability of the elected management to the sugarcane producers, sugarcane harvest or factory labour.

As a result, these supposedly cooperative operations are now in the grip of a small coterie of crafty political operators, forcing the sugarcane producers who are not being paid adequately or in time to launch major agitations against the management.

More than 94% of the female labour force in India is in the unorganized sector. Their work is not counted, remains invisible and they do not enjoy benefits of any welfare measures. A Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been attempting to organize them since 1972. Today SEWA has more than a million members and their activities range over cooperative enterprises in agriculture, dairy, labour like construction work, and services like banking, health, insurance, domestic workers and cleaners, among others.

Another recent notable success story of cooperative enterprises of women from weaker sections of the society is that of Collective Farming by neighbourhood groups of the Kudumbashree programme in Kerala, an experiment initiated in 2004. This has not only enhanced earnings by these poor women, but also contributed to the food security of their families. It has successfully brought substantial tracts of fallow and cultivable waste land into agricultural use. Above all it has aroused in these women a sense of self-respect.


hile India must, of course, continue to develop modern technology-based industries and services, it is clear that these cannot generate employment on the massive scale required. It is therefore imperative that this modern sector must rein in its adverse impacts on the labour-intensive, natural resource-based occupations and livelihoods and nurture a symbiotic relationship with this largely unorganized sector. This would be best accomplished through organizing the unorganized in cooperative enterprises accountable to their communities.

After all, the history of human evolution tells us that we humans are special in being “supercooperators”.India should aim at replacing today’s free for all society that has bred a “jungle raj” over large parts of the country by a cooperative commonwealth.

There are endless TV debates today on the “jungle raj” with claims and counter-claims of which states are under jungle raj. A good definition offered in these debates is that jungle raj prevails where the state victimizes its citizens instead of protecting them. While there are many accusations and counter-accusations, for instance labelling Bihar, Punjab and Gujarat as harbouring jungle raj; notably enough there is little mention of the jungle raj obviously raging in the mineral rich states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Goa. I have been personally working in the field in Goa for past many years and have vivid experiences of the jungle raj that prevails there today and of how an utterly false picture of what goes on is being very effectively projected.


On 11th August 2017, the villagers of five villages, namely, Singaram, Biriguda, Biriguda colony, Balijodi and Odiapentah situated on foot of Kondinga Hill of Rayagada – Koraput district of southern Odisha, opposing the decision of the government to hand over the Hill to Vedanta company in what is considered a abackdoor policy, passed resolution, “not to give any patta land, forest land and community land to any mining company”. They have circulated their resolution among various organisations and have sent to the government too.

GASS Press Release English on  opposing Kodinga Bauxite mines to Vedatna Co. Press Release

Date : 12th August 2017

It has been the practice of the government of Odisha to handover land and forest of local people without asking their consent to various mining companies either in a back-door policy or using police force or both which GanatantrikAdhikar Suraksha Sangatha, Odisha (GASS) has been opposing.

On 11th August 2017,the villagers of five villages,namely,Singaram, Biriguda, Biriguda colony, Balijodi and Odiapentah situated on foot of Kondinga Hill of Rayagada – Koraput district of southern Odisha, opposing the decision of the government to hand over the Hill to Vedanta company in such backdoor policy, have passed resolution, “not to give any patta land, forest land and community land to any mining company”. They have circulated their resolution in among various organisations and they have sent a copy also to GASS.

Here to remind you that the government of Odisha was intending to give proxy mining lease of Kodinga Hill to Vedanta companythrough Odisha Mining Corporation which came in the media on 10th January 2017. Since then local people of the area have been opposing such move of the government.

The resolution also speaks that the government of Odisha handed over few acres of land to Aditya Birla Hindalco 20 years back for doing mining and constructing alumina plant. “The judgment of honourable Supreme Court on Singur case (West Bengal) speaks that if the land is kept unused then it should be handed over to the original land owner. As because the Aditya Birla company has not yet started its work so those land should be given back to its original owners”, the resolution speaks. (Odia copy of the resolution attached)

Koraput and Rayagada districts are coming under scheduled area of the constitution. The tribals and dalitsliving in three blocks, namely, Kashipur, Laxmipur and Dashamantapur, depend on streams coming from this 428.31 hectares stretched Kodinga Hill for drinking and cultivation. Agriculture is the main economy of all people of the area. They also worship Kodinga Hill as their god.

The government of Odisha had signed MOU with Hindalco in 1993 permitting later for extracting bauxite from this 81 million ton – deposited -  bauxite hill. Now the government has given mining lease to ‘Odisha Mining Corporation’, a government of Odisha Unit, to transport bauxite to Lanjigada alumina plant of Vedanta with help of sub-lessee Maitri Company. Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan, Odisha is opposing such transfer of proxy-mining lease to Vedanta Co. We demand,

1. The government should cancel all mining lease with Vedanta and OMC for mining bauxite from Kodinga Hill and the government should take permission of the local community before taking up any decision. 

2. The local community should be provided individual land patta and community rights as per Forest Rights Act, 2006.

Dr. Golak BiharinNath

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n 2010 the Goa Government constituted the Goa Golden Jubilee Development Council and I happened to be one of its members. At its first working meeting Government officials made a presentation about Goa’s economy, stating that agriculture was declining with nobody wanting to continue in the occupation if they could help it. As a corollary, the possible damage by mining was a matter of little concern; indeed the farmers were happy to sit at home enjoying the compensation paid by the miners. Everybody but I concurred. The other distinguished members of GGJDC were scientific or technical experts, administrators, and entrepreneurs, completely detached from the life of the people at the grass-roots.
As a professional field ecologist I demurred and said that I would like to verify the facts on the ground. So I got in touch with residents of several mining villages and arranged to visit six such villages, spending the night in the houses of the farmers, sleeping with them on the floor, trying to understand the ground realities. It was clear that while a fair amount of agricultural land of Goa is not being cultivated, there are large numbers still wishing to continue in agriculture, partly because of lack of alternative employment, but also because for many of them farming is a satisfying choice. Their agriculture and community life is very adversely impacted by mining; they are not being paid any reasonable compensation by the miners, and, certainly do not wish to remain idle. In fact, Shah Commission on illegal mining that was subsequently appointed has observed: “But no inspection has been carried out (of the mines over decades in accordance with Part IV. Section 24 of the MM(DR) Act, 1957) resulting into fear-free environment which has caused loss to the ecology, environment, agriculture, ground water, natural streams, ponds, rivers, biodiversity, etc.” As a result of Shah Commission report mining was suspended for several months.

The Goa Government then claimed that some 1 lakh 25 thousand people had thereby been rendered jobless, and floated a scheme for their relief. Obviously, this is either a deliberate exaggeration, or crass ignorance, for a far smaller number actually applied to claim relief.

Three of the friends I made in this process included Bismark Dias, Hanumant Parab, Ravindra Velip, all of them highly respected and socially conscious members of their communities. I have been deeply disturbed that of these three Bismark has died recently in mysterious circumstances and both Hanumant and Ravindra have barely survived brutal attacks.


avindra Velip comes from Cauvrem village whose Gram Sabha has unanimously resolved to establish a multi-purpose cooperative society; whose manifold objectives include mining. The villagers demand that if the mining, suspended because of serious irregularities is to be resumed, it should be handed over to their cooperative which will ensure that mining is conducted in prudently, without damaging the environment while ensuring that the benefits actually reach the weaker sections of the society. This is evidently a most desirable alternative, one that is very much in conformity with our Prime Minister’s slogan: “We will make development a people’s movement.”

Yet the Government of Goa refuses to register the Caurem village cooperative society without citing any valid reasons. So I went along with Ravindra and two other activists of Caurem village to Vaikunth Mehta National Institute of Cooperative Management in Pune. The experts at this institution all agreed that the Caurem proposal was sound and that there were no hurdles in the Acts relating to Cooperative Societies going ahead with their proposal. Indeed as mentioned above, Supreme Court had recommended such a measure in its 1997 judgment in the Samata case.

Notably, Shri D N Bhargava, one of the country’s most respected mining engineers and former Director-General of the Indian Bureau of Mines has strongly supported such an idea in a letter written to Indian Mining and Engineering Journal on April 19, 2016.

It is unfortunate that the Adivasis have experienced environmental degradation due to mining, particularly the decrease in availability of water. Naturally therefore they have stood up against mining.  This should not however cause any concern as the mineral resource would remain in the ground for mining in future as and when the local community finds in it the potential of transforming their quality of life. In my opinion, this could be possible if concerned authorities consider a people-centric approach, give up the idea of granting mining rights for major mining projects and instead promote the idea of granting mining rights to the local community.

He continued: “ The Government as a facilitator may provide them expert technical and managerial support and enable the community to get engaged in labour-intensive mining.  Such a project would not require much capital investment.  There is no need for investing on drilling and blasting; it could be out-sourced to contractors. Also transport could be arranged on contract by owner-driven trucks.  The community will only spend on the purchase of crow-bars, pick-axes, hammers and tagaries. Marketing would also not be any problem as demand for iron-ore will only grow further. I am suggesting (that) this approach could be adopted in respect of sand mining, and mining of lime-stone and bauxite. A beginning could be made from the areas where the local communities come forward to accept it as an opportunity of improving their economic condition and the quality of their lives. I consider that it is much easier to control environmental degradation in case of labour-intensive small-scale mining.”


uite clearly, from all perspectives reserving mineral, stone and sand mining exclusively for the cooperative sector, ensuring that the cooperatives are made fully accountable to local communities is a most desirable alternative. It is not only compatible with our avowed aim of establishing a Socialist Secular Democratic Republic, but with the philosophy of the Father of Nation, Mahatma Gandhi as so well-articulated by his economist disciple, J C Kumarappa in his landmark work, An Economy of Permanance: “Therefore, self-interest and self- preservation demand complete non-violence, co-operation and submission to the ways of nature if we are to maintain permanency by non-interference with and by not short-circuiting the cycle of life.”

Cooperative mining is an alternative that is likely to attract widespread support at the grass-roots level. It is this fear of an upsurge in popular demand that would come in the way of prevailing economy of violence that seems to have driven the Goa Government to arrest Ravindra Velip on flimsy excuses with the authorities obviously conniving in an attack on him at night while he was in police lock-up. Fortunately, Ravindra has survived and the Caurem village community is steadfast in its resolve to march on its nature-friendly, non-violent, cooperative path.

Mahatma Gandhi and Kumarappa insisted on revival of rural industries, mainly dependent on agricultural produce. It is time now to promote  other newly emerging village industries  based on mineral resources like iron, manganese and bauxite ores, sand and stone, and revive village industries based on forest resources that had been destroyed by taking away resources like bamboo and handing them over to paper mills at throw-away prices.
I believe that Indian environmentalists would be well advised to embrace such a constructive cooperative action programme as a key component of their agenda in the coming years.

Madhav Gadgil Madhav Gadgil is an eminent ecologist who founded the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore where he was a professor for many years. He was head of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel set up by the Environment Minstry in 2010 , He has been the recipient of various awards notably Padma Sri in 1981 and Padma Bhushan in 2006. But his report on the Weatern Ghats of 2011 that suggested, among other things, 64 per cent of the Western Ghats be deemed ecologically sensitive areas and that participative democracy be the guiding light for environmental protection did not find favour with state governments; the union environment ministry appointed another committee headed by Kasturirangan whose diluted norms state governments and, of course the Centre, happily accepted.





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