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Sociological Insights into Human-Nature Relationship and Environmentalism in Northeast India

by Mahmudul Hasan Laskar

Environmentalism through environmental activism began with the first ever ‘Earth Day’ held on 22nd April, 1970 in United States of America. That was a successive event of many protests movement against the environmental destruction across the globe. First Earth Day was followed by Tasmanian Green Political Party that emerged in 1972. Tasmanian Green Political Party was the outcome of vibrant Australian Green politics erupted over the issues like, Tasmanian Hydro-electric Commission’s proposal of damming the Serpentine and Huon Rivers and preserving the Lake Pedder, the most beautiful wilderness of Tasmania. Green activism continued its opposition to another proposal of damming Franklin and Gordon River system. Green parties then emerged in Western Europe and North America. Important point here is that Green ideology-based politics has raised the issue of environmental rights along with human rights, ecological and social justice and wilderness protection. This is the benchmark of environmental activism that may be enhanced further only if environmentalism ideology gets embraced widely.

The harmony of human-nature relationship in the dense forest covers of northeast India

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Human-nature relationship, environmentalism ideology and environmental activism in northeast India

Environmentalism ideology here refers to belief and practice in maintaining equilibrium between natural environment and manmade development. To explain further, environmentalism ideology is a set of principles that deals with the rights of nature to get nurtured naturally and the constructive concerns regarding disruption in ecology made by manmade development. Constructive concern is a concern for real action not just for slogan based publicity stunt at media. Environmental activism is the patterned action to oppose disruption in natural environment and protection of nature and wildlife that maintains consistency in building a network of participants.

Environmentalism through environmental activism is hardy visible in northeast India, even though protests related to environmental issues are organized from time to time. Such protests are the evidence of indigenous people’s consciousness regarding their inevitable attachment with nature. Protest against damming Siang River (Brahmaputra) in Arunachal Pradesh was led by the Siang People’s Forum (SPF) and Lower Siang Dam Affected Peoples’ Forum (LSDAPF) and protest against damming Subansiri River in Assam (a tributary of Brahmaputra) was led by All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS). But these organizations lack proper Green agendas in their policy and action framework, so ultimately got suppressed by state machinery and bureaucratic mechanism. The greatest strength and pre-requirement of environmental activism is the participation of common people, who have long history of attachment with nature and ecology. The indigenous and common people should be guided by environmentalism ideology in the activism. Dam building is nothing but the disruption of Brahmaputra or Siang river’s natural flow, forests, wildlife and natural ecology. Here problem is that plan is made prior to assessment and then involving academician, activists, and ecologists to find out the feasibility in execution of the plan of damming. How come a destructive strategy is beneficial through theoretical assessment?

Hydroelectric projects at Siang basin was the most destructive initiative for North East India. It was planned that Siang River would convert into a three-stepped reservoir by building three large dams. It has been reported that the dams alone will affect more than 18,000 hectare of forests (more than 15,000 sq kms). The forests are rich in more than 100 species of orchids, 16 species of rhododendrons, 14 species of Bamboos and 14 species of canes and overall 27 RET species and 46 endemic plant species (Dandekar Parineeta & Thakkar Himanshu , 2014).

Northeast India is a wilderness heaven that has an old history of carrying rich natural resources and inhabitants. Subsistence based sustainable economy has been very viable source of livelihood of the inhabitants. Some examples are sericulture, agro based industries, rearing of cattle and many more. Sericulture is completely sustainable and environmentally viable economy of the region. It is traditionally practiced by rural artisans with indigenous knowledge. Northeast India and particularly Assam is endowed with plants and silkworms required for four types of sericulture__ Mulbery, Oak tassar, Eri and Muga. Muga is the most precious and rare silk in the entire world. Primary host plants for Muga silk worm are Som, Sualu etc. World famous Muga silk produces at the looms in Sualkuchi and place is known for its great skill of weaving. Promotion of sericulture can be considered as livelihood oriented environmentalism but it has been striving for survival due to the overriding emphasis on tea plantation, oil drilling and coal mining. According to a study conducted in Sualkuchi by the author, weavers are facing the problem of proper market and resources for silk production. According to a loom owner in Sualkuchi, host plants mainly prevail in upper Assam, which needs very specific ecology and a pattern of land use. But due to commercial tea plantation, the plantation of Muga host tress and rearing of cocoons have reduced to marginal level.

There is hardly any environmentalism ideology in policy formulation of the state and industry on one hand and non-governmental environment protection groups on the other. Calculation of benefits and loss of infrastructural development is just ‘cumulative impact assessment’ by the implementing agency. It is merely finding out the proportion of benefits and loss through quantitative data. But ecology and indigenous people’s rights over nature cannot be treated as economic indicators rather be considered as natural state of affairs.

Disruption in Human-nature relationship

Human-nature relationship even undermined the concern regarding manmade natural hazards like flood. The most remarkable example we can put is the regular flood situation in Majuli and inhabitant’s adaptation to flood as way of life. According to a local resident of Majuli (a research scholar working on wetlands of Majuli), inhabitants have now accepted flood as their fate. They even enjoy it too through fishing and boating. People are not conscious that the flood in Brahmaputra is a global phenomenon. Flood in Brahmaputra occurs due to manmade alteration and manipulation in the natural flow of river; that is damming of river, melting of ice glacier in the Himalayan ranges due to climate change, deforestation across Brahmaputra basin and many more. Academicians and experts too are not dealing with the actual source of flood rather just making recommendations for damage control and repairing of loses.

Irony is that civil society of Assam becomes vibrant activists in social media during flood. Social media becomes a platform of photography competition on ‘relief distribution scenes’ captured by the cameras of so called social workers and civil society. Flood victims are vulnerable not beggar or subject of marketing the self-image of leaders, activists or civil society. After flood vanishes, everything becomes normal and social media activists start finding other trend to involve in.

There is need of very strong green ideology, a form of environmentalism ideology to protect the natural assets of Assam, the unique and rear rainforests and more importantly the ecology of the region. Technical and bureaucratic processes are nothing but the adjustment and accommodation of the mining project through paper works. It is the replica of what Rohan D’Souza (2008) stated about damming rivers as colonial legacy of capitalism of water. I would say coal mining or any industrial activities in and around the forests is the capitalism of nature.


Dandekar Parineeta & Thakkar Himanshu (2014). Cumulative Impact Assessment Study of Siang Basin in Arunachal Pradesh: Serious shortcomings; pro large hydro bias. South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, 18 February.

Laskar Mahmudul Hasan (2020) Basics of Environmental Sociology. Eastern Book House Publishers, India.

About the Author:

Mahmudul Hasan Laskar is Assistant Professor in the department of Sociology, University of Science and Technology, Meghalaya. He has authored two books, Basics of Environmental Sociology and India and Sociological Theory, besides publishing research papers on social stratification, social exclusion and inequality. He is the editor of the blog “Sociological Study” and founder of the YouTube channel “Sociology for Life”.

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