Save the Western Ghats Movement

The Save the Western Ghats Movement (SWGM) was a landmark event in environmental activism in India. It was one of the first of its kind in the country and became the model for numerous campaigns all over India.

In October 1986, PS organised a national consultation on environment, during which it was decided to organize a march along the entire length of the Western Ghats, to focus attention on the urgent need to halt the process of degradation that was threatening to create irremediable damage to the entire area. The goal was to create an integrated Ecological perspective providing for both environmental protection as well as the rights of the rural communities. Later, Peaceful Society was appointed the Coordinating Agency of the entire event as Central Coordinator.

Organizational Structure

The march had two Joint Coordinating Agencies, one for the Northern Districts, in Gujarat and most of the Western Maharashtra and another for the Southern states of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

A National Advisory Committee was formed, with the renowned anthropologist, Prof. K.C. Malhotra as the Chairperson and with eminent persons in various related fields as members to provide support and advice.

The actual March planning and management was the responsibility of the Central Organising Committee with Kumar Kalanand Mani of Peaceful Society as Central Coordinator.

In the field there were the parallel regional structures for the Northern and the Southern stretches of the Ghats. There were two broad divisions, one the March Committee to look after the logistics of and during the march itself, the other the Field Committee which had overall charge of preparations and planning and of monitoring the activities of the various Regional and State Committees. Each of the States in turn had their own sub-committees to look after the different activities like environmental studies, mobilising communities, publicity etc.

All the committees were very active and shared responsibility with greater effectiveness. The scale of preparations was immense with compilation of data on various issues, surveys of ‘hot spots’, which were specially vulnerable or critical, articles and statements in the press, liaison with local organizations and institutions for active participation and support of various kinds.

 

Southern Marchers entering into Goa

Peaceful society played a leading role in this process of planning and mobilizing and was actively involved in

  • Ensuring government cooperation and support. (The Department of Environment, Govt. of India provided a grant for organizational expenses.)
  • Mobilizing action groups and NGOs for a broad based participation
  • Getting the support of Universities, academics and intellectuals and influential persons in the literary field.
  • Forming of the various committees as different levels.
  • Publicity and PR
  • Getting the support of Universities, academics and intellectuals and influential persons in the literary field.
  • Forming of the various committees as different levels.
  • Publicity and PR
  • Monitoring preparations for the March from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu.
  • Monitoring the actual march logistics and trouble shooting during the March
  • Hosting the final meet at the end of the march.

The March: November 1987 – February 1987

The March was a 100 days event, which included 95 days of actual travel along the entire length of the Ghats plus 5 days of Conference and meetings in Goa. The march was in two teams, one starting from Navapur in the North and the other from Kanyakumari in the south. Representatives from over 160 Organizations and thousands of individuals participated in the march, the number sometimes swelling to several hundred at any one time for shorter stretches. There were over 600 meetings conducted during the course of the route

The marching teams and the associated meetings generated tremendous enthusiasm among all sections of people all along the route and the entire nation as well. The enthusiasm of youth and their eagerness to be involved was especially heartening. There was extensive media coverage not only in the local press but also on the national and even international level.

The enthusiasm in Goa itself, where the March was planned and finally culminated was even greater. Here there were 4 teams starting from each of the corners of the State and as they marched to the final meeting place, the Ramnathi in Bandora where Peaceful Society’s main office was located, there was a great sense of excitement and enthusiasm in the entire area.

All the teams converged on Bandora where there were three days of sharing of the participants followed by a 2-day conference on “ save the western Ghats”. The entire group of over 700 marchers then marched to Panjim for a final rally, where thousands more joined them.

The total expenses for the March was estimated at over Rs. 3 Crores but almost all of this was raised by the local committees and groups. The actual budget of the Central Organising Committee was of about Rs 4.8 lakhs, out of which Rs. 3.8 lakhs was a grant from the Department of the Environment of the Government of India. At the end of the march Rs 28,000 was returned as unspent!

A Lost Opportunity?

The SWGM was a landmark event in the environmental sector, on par with other key movements like the Chipko Movement and later on the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Even today it is hailed as a truly historic event and has been the inspiration and the model for many other similar movements and marches all over the country.

The immediate effects of the March were tremendous, with immense support generated all along the route march and elsewhere. The enthusiasm of the youth from all classes of society for the goals of the march was remarkable. Unfortunately, the movement was not able to effectively capitalize on this enthusiasm and translate it into a force for a more sustainable and comprehensive alternative development process rooted in the local environment and based on the active participation of the people. There was no effective follow-up because the participating agencies and individuals were not able to reach a consensus on an action plan.

With hindsight, PS feels that it could (and should) have played a more proactive role in the post march period. It did in fact propose a plan but was not able to swing the others behind it and in the interest of solidarity backed away from imposing its view, as might well have been possible. Even if the group as such was not willing to go along, it feels that it would have been able to implement the plan in some of the States at least.

The PS plan was to go back to the communities all along the march route with a three stage program for environmental change for the better while simultaneously building strong and effective people’s organizations to sustain the achievements of the march and post march development.

The first stage would be a massive afforestation program. This was a non-controversial agenda which would therefore be broadly acceptable to all, including the government and Forest Department Officials, and which would have great impact on the environment as well. At the same time, local groups would be empowered and trained to manage the plantations and also build capacity for micro planning to use the products for local needs.

At the end of two years, this would be presented to the government as an alternative model where local communities could manage (and fund) their own development process at the village or area level. And in three years this could become the basis for a local Self-governance Structure.

While these ideals could not be given reality after the SWGM, they nevertheless remained alive in PS activity through the next few years and finally found another ‘avatar’ in the Swaraj Movement. A key learning was the need to ensure that movement leadership was not with the “elite”, no matter how committed personally, but remained with the people at the ground level.

Impact of SWGM on PS

For a variety of reasons, if there was one event, which could be said to be the determining factor in PS’s history, it is undoubtedly the Save the Western Ghats March. The impact was both internally, on the future shape and direction of PS’s work as well as externally, in the opportunities for involvement and cooperation with other groups and organizations.

  • Awareness of Opportunity in people’s enthusiasm and readiness for sacrifice especially on the part of the youth. Though PS felt that it had lost a great opportunity in channelising the enthusiasm generated through the march, it made sure that this would not happen again and the effect of this is seen in the present major involvement of the Swaraj Movement.
  • Linkages with likeminded organizations in and out of Goa. PS had worked closely with local communities and numerous institutions all over the state and the relationships developed during the time of preparation and the march resulted in many fruitful joint ventures in the subsequent years. This was especially so with regard to environmental issues and the March generated both awareness of and enthusiasm to tackle related problems in Goa.
  • Realization of PS capability for organization,
  • Mobilizing people and linking with other organizations. PS had played a leading role in the march preparation and the actual march organization and this developed both confidence and skills which has stood it in good stead in alter years
  • Awareness of efficacy of joint programs. Networks with other like-minded organization s now became one the key characteristics of PS’s work.

The Goa Afforestation Program: Though PS was not able to implement its plan for a comprehensive afforestation program all along the Western Ghats; it did implement it on a small scale in Ponda, Canacona and Pedne Taluka Goa as a follow-up program. The program was for schools & colleges and was a great success over three years.