Introspection on the environmental education in India’s North-East

Article by Nayani Sarma

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, scholars, journalists and activists from India’s north-eastern region have been regularly writing about environmental problems faced by this region. With its specific geographical features and vulnerabilities, each of the eight states regularly faces different ecological issues throughout the year. Scholars have argued that the development of this vulnerable region requires sound socio-ecological planning along with effective mitigation strategies to combat the damage to our ecology and society. However, one may ask: how much of these concerns get reflected among the subject disciplines of the region’s education system? Is environmental education an integral component of the teaching and learning and research across the disciplines of higher education in the region? How are the understandings and practices of environmental conservatism promoted among the students and youth of the region? What is the role of educators in critically engaging their students with the environmental concerns of a given region? Given this set of questions, this article seeks to explore the possibilities of the link between higher education and environmental awareness among the youth and its implication with respect to India’s northeast.

The summer of 2020, apart from being a peak season of a pandemic in India was also rife with huge social media online protests against the draft EIA notification 2020. Particularly, in India’s northeast, students, young activists, and people from various walks of life came together to raise their voices and file petitions against the changes proposed by the draft which were deemed as both anti-environment and anti-people. It became a nationwide online movement in the two months for which the draft was made available for public comment. However, once the deadline for public comments on the draft ended, the movement simmered down. Since then, it’s been a year of minimum follow-ups and discussions among the concerned youth regarding the draft EIA 2020 and its happening.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA), one of the successful policy innovations of the twentieth century for environmental conservation, can be defined as the study or decision-making tool to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment. Curriculum wise, as a student of social sciences, I first came across EIA as a concept in Environmental Economics (a paper in my masters) but it wasn’t until 2020 that I focused on understanding the impact and necessity of EIA in the context of India’s northeast. Like me, many of my peers from the region were somehow compelled to learn about the environmental concepts and laws of the country in the process of raising concern over the problems in the new draft proposed by the govt. Personally, it delighted me to see the growing awareness and engagements among the younger generations in those two months. Sadly, as the movement subsided, these new learnings were once again shelved as mere social media posts and failed to get any of the expected long term momenta one had hoped for from the region’s youth. One must wonder then: Why did the movement fail to gain long term momentum in India’s northeastern region? Why did it become necessary to educate the youth and the older generation about the EIA and its relevance to our region to raise their voice against the new draft?

Every year the region’s population faces floods, earthquakes, erosions, landslides, flash floods, deforestation, man-animal conflict and so much more. Environmental problems are so common that it’s a part and parcel of our lives in these states. During my graduation and masters in a college of Guwahati (which was an hour away), we regularly commuted in the city-buses irrespective of the day’s weather conditions, braving heavy rains, flash floods, extreme dust pollution etc. In retrospect, while we complained incessantly about these difficulties among ourselves, these concerns never found a voice in the curriculums we were following in our classrooms. I pursued my bachelor and masters in Economics which followed the Gauhati University curriculum that primarily emphasized on theoretical and, for the lack of a better word, rote learning. There was no topic on the economy of Assam or that of India’s northeast in the graduation syllabus. Even the subject of my pass course, Political Science, followed the same pattern of writing notes and passing exams without any reference to the political history of Assam or our regional leaders. The course content in masters which allowed for some leniency, with subjects like Indian economy and environmental economics also failed to locate any of its discussion of policies or theories in the context of Assam or India’s northeast. We did have a compulsory paper on Environmental education which even included a field trip but it was like a non-credit course. And the syllabus was limited to understanding general topics like different types of pollution, differences between types of waste and other basic stuff.

One must be thinking by now why am I writing about the problems and backwardness of the syllabus of subjects like Economics and Political science in the context of environmental education and the EIA. Several studies of the last decade have pointed out that there is a strong correlation between the intensity of environmental education and environmental knowledge of students, but this is partly because of environment education itself and partly because due to the intrinsic motivation of committed students who voluntarily participate in environmental education, primarily at the university level. It is imperative here to note that students who ultimately form the future generation of a region have a major influence on the future state of the environment. The incorporation of sustainability issues into education is highly relevant. It becomes a challenge for higher education institutions to integrate different perspectives and encourage its students to develop environmental knowledge and provide them with tools to develop sustainable consumer behaviour and everyday pro-environmental activities. Given this insight and my experience as a student, it seems that in India the focus has been only on developing environmental knowledge among the students. An increase in knowledge about environmental problems may raise people’s concern and awareness, but this doesn’t necessarily result in behavioural changes towards the environment. Further, environmental knowledge about one’s particular geographical knowledge is also not seen as an integral part of our major disciplinary knowledge. For instance, the theories of Economics that I learnt in college failed to contextualize the ongoing exploitation or need for the sustainable development of Assam’s natural resources to meet the demands for the development of the state. Similarly, issues of man-animal conflict, creation of hydroelectricity generating dams on the rivers of the state, deforestations conducted to create land for habitation and industries – all of which are major socio-economic issues pertaining to the environment and the natural resources of the region we inhabit never found a space for discussion in our syllabus.

One may argue here that colleges and universities should stick to teaching and learning core theories and methods instead of vying for integrating everything in the course curriculum. The same set of people will also blame the institutions for not keeping up with the changing times and their failure to produce socially responsible citizens. The public imagination and the reality of being an environmentally conscious citizen in bio-diverse region like ours are very difficult to define.  The insidious thing about such a discussion is that it fails to throw light on the real responsibility of the educators who carry the responsibility of improving the syllabus and fail to contextualize the teaching and learning to suit it according to regional needs. The critical role of educators of the higher education system of India’s northeast, let alone Assam, is yet to be discussed openly in the context of the region’s environmental conversation and sustainable development.  Further, it is almost hypocritical to expect the new generations of tech-savvy youth to simply learn everything from the internet and raise their voice which cannot bring long-term policy changes affecting India’s northeast.

The point I wish to make is that any and every discussion of the environment and its problems are largely embedded in the region’s social, political and economic realities. Anthropocentric behaviour that has become a root cause of our times’ major environmental problems cannot be studied and pursued in academics without factoring in its interdisciplinary nature. As such, colleges and universities need to develop frameworks of holistic environment education if one wants to fight against problematic environmental laws and policies that are often formed on the behest of industrialists and business tycoons who have no reason to care for the problems of the common public.

About the Author:

Nayani Sarma is a Doctoral Candidate of the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. The focus of her PhD research is the evolution of universities and higher education systems from early twentieth-century colonial India. She holds an MPhil degree in Educational Studies and a Master degree in Economics. Her areas of research interest include the subdisciplines of Economics and Education, and Transcultural History, Intellectual History and History of Ideas. In the long run, she wants to pursue a career in academic research and work for the development of the education sector of her country.


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