Man and Environment in India: Past Traditions and Present Challenges
Dr Anirban Ganguly

Civilisation has been at times described as a ‘type of relationship.’ In his classic ‘Civilisations: culture, ambition and the transformation of nature’, historian and scholar of civilisations Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, chose to look at civilisation through the dimension of man and his environment. Armesto defined it as a type of relationship: ‘a relationship to the natural environment, recrafted, by the civilising impulse, to meet human demands.’ Armesto also argued that ‘civilisations commonly overexploit their environments, often to the point of self-destruction.’ Civilisations, at times, attempt to transform the world for their ends and in the process work towards trying to ‘denature humanity.’

Indian civilisation, on the other hand, has been known as an ‘eco-friendly’ civilisation. At least in the past it did express a profound awareness of the need to evolve a balanced pattern in the man-environment interaction and certainly not work towards ‘denaturing humanity.’ In order to calibrate this man-environment interaction, ancient Indians divinized nature and layed down well formulated guidelines to define and nurture this relationship free of exploitative propensities. Examples abound since its early history; it would be relevant to take a look at some of them.

The Rig-Veda establishes the symbolism of this close kinship when it says: ‘Heaven is my father; my mother is this vast earth, my close kin.’ Taking forward this environmental tradition the Atharva-Veda contains the hymn - Bhumi Sukta – in praise of the earth and invokes a balance: upon the immutable, vast earth supported by the law, the universal mother of the plants, peaceful and kind, may we ever walk for ever.’ The elaborate Vedic ritual of ‘Athiratram’ had, as its precise objective the generation of a positive impact on man and the environment and continues to be performed to this day with the same fervour and faith. Surapala’s Vrikshāyurveda, for example, discusses in detail trees, tree planting and various other topics connected with plant-science including the treatment of sick-trees.

In one of its profound ecological perceptions the Mahabharata, in the Bhisma Parva, refers to the earth as an ‘ever-yielding cow’ provided its resources are developed and managed with balance and control: ‘if Earth is well looked after, it becomes the father, mother, children, firmament and heaven, of all creatures.’ The Mahabharata also compares the tree to the universe; it says that he who ‘worships the ashvattha [peepal, holy fig tree] worships the universe.’ The tree was seen as a symbolic representation of the universe with a single trunk and its multiple branches of manifestation. The Bodhi tree (ashvattha or peepal), under which the Buddha achieved his realisation has been always seen as the symbol of ‘the universal consciousness.’ The wish-endowing symbol was that of the tree –the kalpavriksha or kalpataru – the mystical tree that granted every wish just as nature showered its bounty on all. Tree worship, as findings reveal, was in fact known even in the Harappan culture. Trees and plants continue to play an important role in Indian rituals and customs to this day, especially in rural India.

This deep ecological consciousness pervaded the entire Indian civilisational mindscape and saw expressions from across the land. The legendary philosopher of Tamilakam, Thiruvalluvar, talks of nature as man’s fortress. If he destroys her, he remains without protection.

Even in the affairs of the state, the administration and the ruler were directed to preserve and promote environmental welfare. In the Arthasastra, Kautilya suggests the need to develop abhayāranya or abhayavana, forest and animal sanctuaries, where trees and animals would both dwell free from the fear of slaughter. Kautilya also prescribed the post of a forest superintendent and penalties for poaching and causing damage to forests, especially productive ones.

The sacred grove tradition was an intrinsic part of the Indian ecological imagination and tradition. There was the kovilkādu in Tamil Nadu, kāvu in Kerala, nandavana or daivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maharashtra. Preserved for centuries in the outer precincts of the village these sacred groves gradually grew into rich ecological repositories and are facing threats of decimation today because of population pressure and neglect.

The Indian environmental tradition was conscious of the need to protect nature and to harness it within prescribed limits. Harappan sites at Dholavira, for example, demonstrate the elaborate techniques employed for water harvesting and storing. The initial structure of the Grand Anicut on the river Kaveri, erected by the great Chola King Karikala who ruled around 180 C.E. diverted the Kaveri waters without ‘impounding them’ and is believed to have irrigated 30,000 hectares during that period. Temple tanks served the dual purposes of ‘ritual ablution’ as well recharging of the groundwater level.

The Arthasastra’s directives on water indicate that it was regarded as a ‘collective, not a private commodity’ and was considered extremely precious. Tanks were built through joint efforts of all stakeholders and the period that saw the construction or renovation of tanks received tax reprieves. Fines were also prescribed for a number of acts that adversely affected water bodies, ‘for obstructing or diverting a water course’, for ‘damaging embankments’ etc.

The river in Indian civilisation was also endowed with divinity and was a cosmos by itself with ecological, social and spiritual dimensions. They were classified according to their sacredness and capacity to spiritually elevate man. The seven sacred rivers of India continue to remain a vibrant symbol signifying Indian civilisational continuity as well as unity. Like the sacred forests and groves, rivers too in the Indian context assured the seeker of spiritual height and perfection. Circumambulation of the river Narmada – a 2600 km route – was considered one of the most sacred acts in the Indian spiritual tradition. Rivers in the Indian tradition were not regarded as ‘merely flowing mass of waters,’ but rather as ‘life-bestowing, life-nurturing, and life protecting divine mothers.’ The Satapatha-Brahmana and the Rig-Veda both abound in references to the sacredness of rivers and their organic link with man and his civilisation. Rivers were ‘implored for protection’; were referred to as the very breath of the people, seen as the sources of plenitude and were prayed to for granting people ‘nourishment and delight.’ Venerated as divine beings they were treated with deference and sensitivity.

The situation is obviously different today. Pressures of modern life and an increasingly materialistic mode of living have, to a large extent, served to severe these age-old organic links in India between man and his environment. The Department related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Forest in its recent report (May 2012) referred to this long-standing relation when it said, that ‘Environment in ancient India was not an entity isolated, apart and independent from mankind.’ The isolation of environment, it observed, was a ‘modern day phenomena arising out of crass commercialization, careless technology, unplanned urbanization, unbridled human greed, phenomenal population growth’ etc. It noted that the ‘Relationship between people and the environment/ecosystem in ancient India had been one of harmony, coexistence, mutual care and concern – the two supporting and complementing each other in their own way.’ Such an approach saw the embedding of the attitude of care and respect for the environment in the Indian way of life.

Recognising the uniqueness of such a tradition and upholding it as a symbol of a collective environmental consciousness that could still guide eco-conservation efforts in the present age, the Committee, interestingly, observed that, ‘Worship and reverence to various elements of environment – the earth, air, water, river, tree, forests, mountains, etc by personifying them not only signify how crucial and vital these were considered for our existence by our forefathers but also guide us how best to preserve and protect our environment even in the absence of regulatory regime [and] environmental governance.’ Awareness of these, it argues, would unravel the centrality of environment in the Indian civilisational vision and scheme. The Committee’s ‘rueful’ indications were that memories and practice of these past ecological traditions and perceptions were being gradually lost and one may add discouraged by official neglect and overruling.

Much remains to be done in the areas of environment and environment conservation and a brief survey of some the Committee’s principal findings and recommendations may be useful in appreciating the magnitude of the challenges in the area.

Delayed Finalisation of Plan Outlay

The first observation of a ‘surprised’ Committee was pointed at the delay in the finalization of the XIIth five year plan for the Ministry. ‘Even when the first year of the Five Year Plan’ has set in, the Planning Commission is yet to finalise the plan. The Committee expressed its ‘serious concern over the delay in finalization of the XIIth Five year Plan outlays’ of such an important Ministry and directed the Planning Commission to ensure that ‘such sort of delay does not recur in future and outlays are finalised well before the beginning of the Plan period.’ In view of the ‘lurking challenges that climate change poses’ before the nation, the Committee recommended that the proposed outlay of Rs.47586.00 Crores that the Ministry has forwarded be given ‘serious consideration.’

Consistent Reduction in Budgetary Allocations

In a move that seems to have become a pattern with the present policymakers, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has seen a consistent reduction in its budgetary allocation. The Committee took a ‘very serious view on the consistent reduction of Budgetary Allocation for such an important Ministry, like, the Ministry of Environment and Forests during the last two years.’ The Committee also noted ‘with concern’ that the share of the Ministry ‘in the Central Plan has consistently been declining in successive Plan periods.’ The surveyed statistics are hardly inspiring – the VII plan had a percentage share of 0.83 for environment and forests, the X plan saw a reduction to 0.67 per cent and the XI plan saw a further climb down to 0.41 per cent. The share of the Ministry in the Annual Plan 2012-13 has now become ‘a dismal 0.37 per cent.’ It was a ‘very disturbing trend’ that ‘needs to be reversed’ the Committee emphasised with alarm. On the other hand the Ministry was also asked to gear up its fund utilisation drive.

Lack of Adequate Resources for Pollution Control

Dealing with environment and ecological issues, the Committee felt that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) constituted way back in 1974 continues to face major constraints such as ‘shortage of technical staff, scientists and lack of quality laboratory facilities.’ It asked the CPCB to improve its internal working and enhance its coordination with the SPCB and directed its members to ‘regularly visit various places and hold discussions with concerned SPCBs so as to have a first hand experience of ground realities prevailing in the country.’ The Planning Commission was again upbraided because ‘despite justification and persuasion’ it did not allocate ‘adequate resources for prevention and control of pollution.’ The Committee was unhappy to know that State governments were not ‘according due priority to environment’ and in majority of States, it was ‘almost a non-issue.’

Deteriorating Health of Rivers

On the issue of river pollution and deteriorating water quality, the Committee made certain scathing observations. It brought to light the fact, that despite huge financial outlays and investment the ‘quality of Ganga water is going down day by day.’ Although the Ministry had launched 53 projects for reducing pollution in the Ganga under the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) Programme since 2009-10 in 42 towns of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal at an estimated cost of Rs.2598.48 Crores, the Committee was constrained to observe that the Ministry was making huge investments in the process of ‘cleaning the Ganga, the Yamuna and other major rivers of the country with the assumption that monitory investment is the sole parameter of abatement of pollution in rivers.’ Despite efforts to clean the Ganga that started with the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85) under the Ganga Action Plan and a number of schemes that followed such as the Ganga Action Plan-II the ‘end result is for everyone to see’, the quality of water in the Ganga has not stopped declining. As per information furnished by the Ministry, a total amount of ‘Rs. 39225.95 Crores has been incurred on the Ganga Action Plan-II, starting with the Eight Plan (1992-97). A similar story of huge funds allocated and little achieved has also emerged in the case of the Yamuna, one among the sacred seven rivers of India. The Committee did note that in spite of efforts made and a ‘huge investment incurred under various schemes/projects, pollution, level in both the rivers, i.e. Ganga and the Yamuna [and the Committee, at least here, did not take into account the other major river such as the Narmada] continues to increase unabated.’ It especially deplored the ‘pathetic condition’ of Yamuna which has ‘virtually turned into a ‘Nala’ to carry sewage falling into it from drains.’

The quality of the Ganga water was also bad and at several important downstream locations such Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna the issue continues to be a major concern for environmentalist as well as the common man. On this issue the Committee made a significant observation – one that brings us back to the civilisational link between man, river and his larger environment – when it said that the failure of Government schemes lies in the fact that the Government has so far only focused on the ‘engineering centric approach to solve the problem’ neglecting the ‘social engineering problem.’ It observed that the time had come ‘when we should integrate engineering centric approach with social centric or society centric approach through which people living on and around the banks of the rivers are involved and assimilated in the Mission Clean Ganga.’ One wonders why a serious effort in this direction has never been made especially when such private and local initiatives have evolved in these areas as well as around some of the major rivers in the country. Perhaps because these local, tradition inspired conservative efforts use an earthy and religious idiom that they are usually ignored or overlooked by the more engineering centric and urbanized technocrats in tune with Western conservation methods and models.

The other issue of concern that the Committee highlighted and one which leads to increased river pollution and choking was the encroachment of catchment areas. The catchment area of the river Yamuna, as a case in point, has been ‘encroached upon and diverted for construction and developmental activities.’ An encroached catchment sees a drastic reduction in its capacity of retaining water/rainwater and therefore the Committee recommended that the Ministry take urgent steps ‘to stop encroachment and illegal commercial activities on the catchment areas of all major rivers…’ The progressively dwindling natural flow of rivers has also affected their health and has reduced their ‘assimilative capacity.’ For the Yamuna the capacity has almost come to naught, for the Ganga it is going down, and according to those working on the ground to save the mighty Narmada, that river has already stopped flowing along a 437km stretch, almost one third of its total length.

State of Forests: Much remains to be done

Referring to the latest State of Forest Report 2011, the Committee noted that there is a decrease of 367 sq.kms in the country’s forest cover in comparison to the 2009 assessment. For achieving the target of having 33 per cent of the geographical area of the country under tree/forest cover as mandated in the National Forest Policy, 1988, the Committee has argued that there needs to be a much greater increase in the outlay in order to intensify forestry efforts. Commenting on the Green India Mission project, to be launched in 2012-13 under the National Action Plan for Climate Change with the aim of increasing forest/tree cover across 5 million hectare over a decade at a cost of 46000.00 Crores, the Committee observed that it did not receive satisfactory replies from the Ministry on basic queries such as land identification for the Project. It doubted the seriousness of the Ministry on the preparation for the successful completion of such a grand project. Overall the Committee did not appear to be satisfied with the Ministry’s efforts in increasing the green cover and in protecting the forest cover in the country.

Making Afforestation Mandatory in CSR Programmes

The Committee also made an important observation, it reiterated the recommendation of the 210th Report on Demands for Grants 2010-11 which had directed the Government to make it ‘mandatory for the public sector undertakings/major industries in public and private sectors to spend 50 per cent of the money being spent towards corporate social responsibilities (CSR) for massive afforestation’ under the guidance of the Environment Ministry. It was noted that no action has been taken till date on the issue and the Committee expressed ‘serious displeasure over the fact that the Ministry has miserably failed in taking appropriate follow up action and capitalising on the recommendations of the Committee for arranging additional resources for massive plantation.’ It was dismayed to see that the recommendation was taken ‘so passively, nonchalantly and casually’ when experiments involving major public sector companies like NTPC, HPCL etc have been successful. Why the Ministry chose to ignore such a dynamic proposal remains unclear.

Wildlife Conservation Requires More Funds

The other surprising development that has come to light is that while the population of tigers in the country has registered an increase by ‘almost 20 per cent as per an estimate’ due to the efforts made under the centrally sponsored and by now famous Project Tiger, the allocation made under the project since 2010-11 ‘has been on the decline.’ The 219th Report had directed the Ministry to convince the Finance Ministry ‘to enhance allocation of funds for wildlife preservation schemes.’ Even after a lapse of 16 months the recommendation seems to not have been considered or acceded to. Expressing ‘deep anguish’ over the state of affairs and on its recommendation being taken so lightly, the Committee has directed the Planning Commission to give ‘serious consideration to the need of the Ministry for adequate funds for preservation and conservation of wildlife’ and found wholly unjustifiable the Commission’s move to reduce the Ministry’s proposed demand of Rs.1276.30 Crore for the Project Tiger to Rs.167.70 crore. This itself, speaks volumes on the attitude of official India to wildlife conservation and support.

Non-serious Implementation of Biodiversity Act 2002

Another issue that came to light and which reflects the lack of official vision and approach when it comes to the Environment is the non-serious effort made to implement the Biodiversity Act 2002. The Biodiversity Act 2002 had established the National Biodiversity Authority at the national level, the State Biodiversity Board at the state level and the Biodiversity Management Committee at the Panchayat level with the objective of promoting conservation and ‘sustainable use of India’s rich biodiversity and associated knowledge with people’s participation.’ Ten years down the line, much remains to be done both at the Central and State level in order to implement the Biodiversity vision. The Committee mentioned that three states, Bihar, Maharashtra and J&K have not even set up their respective state biodiversity boards even after a decade. It called upon the Government to take make serious efforts to implement this crucial and futuristic piece of legislation.

As the report reflects; large and vital areas cry for a greater dynamic vision, action and effort at implementation. Innovative schemes and working mechanisms seem to be urgently required. As the Committee put it, ‘engineering centric approaches’ alone are not working anymore. Perhaps a people-tradition-civilisation centric approach to environment is the crying need of the day. Our, habitually ignored, or nearly lost civilisational vision and traditions of Environment conservation and rejuvenation, may provide a much needed clue and direction.

But is ‘official’ India even trying to look up that path?


  • Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilisations: Culture, Ambition and the Transformation of Nature, New York: The Free Press, 2001.
  • R. Shamasastry trans. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Bangalore: Government Press, 1915.
  • S.K.Lal, Rivers in Hindu Mythology and Ritual, Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2007.
  • I am grateful to Shri Michel Danino for sharing his presentation on ‘Nature in Indian Culture and Traditions’ 2010 and for having discussed this issue on a number of occasions.
  • 224th Report on Demands for Grants (2012-2013) of the Ministry of Environment & Forests, New Delhi: Rajya Sabha Secretariat May 2012.

Published Date: 26th July 2012

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