This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Youth Ki Awaaz. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

What Does It Mean To Be An ‘Environmentalist’?

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

By Pranietha Mudliar:

“…In the first few months of 1973, the ‘ecological question’ made a dramatic re-entry into national life. In the space of a mere few weeks 3 events occurred:”

It is with these words that Guha goes on to describe the Project Tiger, a paper by B.B.Vohra on soil and water conservation and the Chipko Movement in a distant village which marked a watershed in the history of environmentalism in India. These 3 unconnected events shook India out of its post-independence industrialisation stupor and created an environmental consciousness in the nation.

This question of what it means to be an environmentalist has plagued me since I joined my Masters for Environmental Science. For me, the woman peasants in Mandal were the finest environmentalists because they had the courage to stand up and probe the questions of justice, fairness, sustainability and equity.

Till the 1960s environmentalism was the pursuit of the rich because during that time America saw the emergence of the post-materialistic society and the urban middle class could devote time and thought towards the degradation of their ecological bounty. But India followed a very different path towards environmental action. India in the 1970s saw the environmentalism of the poor emerge. Nature based conflicts (land and water) were played out in India because they formed the crux of livelihood and survival of the marginalised (the peasants, displaced tribals, fisherfolk, etc). The Narmada Bachao Andolan was a movement where tribals resorted to action by taking the Gandhian path that was most familiar to them- hunger strikes and dharnas.

But there is a hitch in this too. Environmentalists have a set of war cries with which they have come to be associated with over the past 4 decades. No dams! No mines! No industries! No nuclear power! No displacement! Climate change! They are perceived as anti-development and as a threat to the growth of the nation. Environmentalists have often been dismissed as hypocrites and elitists who sit comfortably in their plush air-conditioned homes wearing “save the planet” t-shirts. They have been guilty of creating mass hysteria as demonstrated in the recent alarmist claims that the Himalayan Glaciers were melting due to global warming. This claim had no factual basis and was retracted by the IPCC. Radical environmentalists such as Greenpeace put up startling claims in July 2009 such as “Ice free summers in the Arctic by 2030”. They had to admit within a month that their claim was false and misleading and they did it only because they as a pressure group have to ‘emotionalise’ issues. This is when environmentalists lose credibility and invite ridicule.
Vedanta, Posco, the airport at Navi Mumbai and the Lavasa projects generated a lot of heat in 2010. They came to a stand still and then again progress unabated. But it showed the country the lax ways of the government machinery in conducting impact assessment studies and giving clearances. Since the past 5 years, locals at Jaitapur have been protesting the nuclear power plant (the largest in India) and the government even while admitting that the compensation given is not enough is also ever ready to forcibly evict people. People are becoming poorer by the minute to satisfy our needs of energy, coal, cement, paper, steel, etc. It is not development when it is achieved at the cost of depriving the poor of their livelihood. Nevertheless, this does not mean that building infrastructure has to be viewed as separately from the environment. The challenge lies in reconciling these 2 objectives by taking into account the will of the people involved. We are after all known to be largest democracy in the world!

The environmental movement in India has seen environmentalists compartmentalised into conflicting groups which are always at loggerheads with each other. There are the hard core wild life conservationists such as Valmik Thapar who demand that wild life habitats be cleared of all human settlements while there are social ecologists such as Madhav Gadgil who speak for the tribals and forest co-existence. Such divisions between environmentalists only worsen the issue at hand with no clear cut policy in sight. Only too recently on 7th Feb, 2011, there was the glaring example by the MoEF when it declared certain zones as ‘critical wildlife habitats’ and called for clearing the tribals out of the forests. This triggered protests in BRT, Karnataka and Kaziranga National Park, Assam. Only after civil society organisations pointed out the many lapses with regards to the social, ecological and technical identification of the zones, the relocation of tribals was dropped and the guidelines were withdrawn on 4th March, 2011.

While researching for this essay I was struck by the fact that without the usual quota of protests and strikes the government never realises the repercussions of its actions. Why is it that they always have to wait for someone else to point out the lacunae in all its grandiose plans? Will it not be easier for the government to conduct an honest evaluation by taking people into confidence instead of wasting much of it’s time and energy in sanctioning projects, clearing forests, forcibly evicting people and then backing down again when people protest. In extreme circumstances the government waits for abductions, suicides and murders to realise the consequence of its actions as demonstrated in the recent protests over the dam on the Chata river in Jharkhand. And by then it is too late and much too little- the damage is already done.

As a student harbouring any notions of activism was seen as being unscientific. We are trained to think objectively and always be neutral in our emotions. Being objective worked fine with me. But it was the neutral stand that heckled me. How does one take a neutral stand towards the functioning of the society? Is it possible to remain a silent observer and not raise a voice at injustice. That is when I made my choice of wanting to inform as well as speak up when there is a need. And yes, I will also take sides if the need arises as I believe that greater harm comes out of being just a mute spectator. For me, this is what it means to be an environmentalist.


Guha, R. (2006). How much should a person consume? Thinking through the environment.
Gadgil, M. (2001). Ecological Journeys. Science and Politics of Conservation in India.
Narain, S. (2011). How to approach environmentalism. Down to Earth.
Moyna (2011). Secret Dam. Down to Earth.
The Hindu, 28th November, 2010. “Its paradoxical that environmentalists are against nuclear energy-Jairam Ramesh’-Vinaya Deshpande
India Today, 9th January, 2011. “Maharashtra CM to host ‘Open House’ on Jaitapur N-project on Jan 18”
India Today, 1st March, 2011. “N-power plant: Maharashtra govt arrest Jaitapur activist”
Guidelines for Declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. F.No. 1-9/2007WL-1 (pt) Dated 9th February, 2011.
Withdrawal of Revised Guidelines for determination of Critical Wildlife Habitat. F. No. 1-39/2007 WL-1 (pt) Dated 4th March, 2011

List of Abbreviations
IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
BRT: Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple

You must be to comment.
  1. Chiteisri

    Great piece here Pranietha – nice to see the strong AFS voice!

    1. pranietha

      Thanks Chitesri!

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

Similar Posts

By Soumya Sinha

By Krithiga Narayanan

By Ali Qalandar

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below