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Environment: will the new government be any more responsible?

By Ashish Kothari

What does the new government need to do to tackle environmental degradation head-on? Ashish Kothari an environmental manifesto

Some NGOs have expressed the hope that with the Congress coming back to power, there is some hope for India's beleaguered environment. This includes the hope that Sonia Gandhi will continue the pro-active environment policies of her mother-in-law when she was prime minister, and help to revive the focus on wildlife and biodiversity conservation in particular. Is this hope justified?

Tackling India's environment crisis is likely to be a difficult proposition for any government. For one thing, it is unclear how much real power the central government has, what with the growing power of regional parties and local community institutions on the one hand, and international forces like the United States, WTO, IMF and World Bank on the other. Secondly, the challenge of meeting the 'developmental' needs of India's people is massive and urgent; this includes in particular water, health, education, infrastructure, energy and employment. None of India's major political parties have displayed particular initiative in showing how this challenge can be met not only in balance with the natural environment, but in fact by enhancing the ecological security of the country. So would the new Congress government be any different? And if it is serious, what should its core agenda and approach be?

Ecological bankruptcy

In the 1970s and 1980s there seemed to be a growing concern for and action regarding the environment, including some far-reaching laws and policies, and strong people's movements like Chipko and Silent Valley. But the early-1990s saw the introduction of new economic policies of globalisation and liberalisation, and thereafter the government and corporate sector began systematically diluting environmental regulations. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore: policies and regulations relating to farming land, tribal land, forest land, and water bodies, were all subjected to either dilution or willful violation. The horrifying bulldozing of adivasi settlements in Orissa this year, and the killing of tribal activists in Kashipur (Orissa) last year, to make way for mining, are not isolated examples of this new phase. Not surprisingly, the late-1990s and early-2000s have seen a spurt in the diversion of forest lands to non-forest purposes, and a major increase in the number of 'development' projects being given environmental clearance. Many or most of these are on the basis of flimsy and sometimes even fraudulent environmental impact assessments, which the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have turned a blind eye to.

The political class was not the only one to give short shrift to the environment. The media too has shifted its focus to business and fashion (other than the conventional spotlight on politics and sports), providing relatively less space to environment. The middle classes in India were happy with the easy availability of all the world's consumer goods, and even while some may have been worried about the social and ecological impacts of globalisation, they by and large did not engage in significant opposition to it. Only mass people's movements, trade unions, and some fringe NGOs raised the alarm about economic policies. Amongst these, trade unions unfortunately continued to ignore environmental issues, while most NGOs remained insensitive to the concerns of the labour and working class. This divide was most sharply demonstrated in clashes relating to wildlife protected areas, where only a handful of NGOs pushed for an integrated approach combining conservation and livelihood security. It was also reflected in a series of far-reaching environment-related judgements of the Supreme Court, applauded by most environment NGOs who could not gauge the disastrous social impacts of these judgements on forest-dwellers, fisherfolk and farmers. The fact that both the working class and the environment are being exploited by the powerful industrial and corporate sector has not yet resulted in what could be a strong united front between the two.

In all, the last 15 years or so has seen a strange paradox. On one hand, conflicts related to natural resources have grown manifold, particularly on sharing of water, access to forests and land, massive take-over of resources by the corporate sector, the cancerous spread of mining, and so on. This is much too visible to ignore. On the other hand, ecological consciousness seems to have reached a political nadir. This was amply symbolised in the depressing lack of environmental sensitivity in the 2004 election manifestos of both the BJP and the Congress. The former had one tiny section on environment, the latter not even that; and in both, the need to move 'development' towards greater sustainability was conspicuous by its absence.

Is there hope?

The ecological decline of the last decade or so does by no means imply that all hope is lost. Indeed, perhaps the more stark the destruction gets, and the more it becomes clear that natural resource degradation goes hand in hand with the loss of livelihood options for millions of people, the more the chances of people responding. Though the official moves towards 'decentralisation' a la panchayati raj have hardly been inspiring (remaining mostly on paper), there have been significant moves of assertion by communities themselves. Whether it is the resistance of villagers in Plachimada (Kerala) against a Coca Cola bottling plant that was taking their groundwater and poisoning the land, or the increasing use of the mandatory provision on public hearings by people affected by industry and dams, or the growth of legal challenges to destructive 'development' by citizens, or the regeneration of forests and wetlands by thousands of villages across India, or the increasing number of farmers switching to organic cultivation....these and many other initiatives show that rural and urban communities are indeed taking matters into their own hands. And at least some governments are responding, by granting greater powers to local bodies, promoting organic farming, or bringing in other progressive policies and schemes. Individual government officials too have shown how the system could be different, by sticking their necks out against destruction, or promoting alternative water harvesting, clean energy sources, and participatory forms of decision-making.

The question then is: can the government recognise these signs of hope for their true worth, and help spread them to other areas so that the problems of environmental degradation can be tackled? What does it need to do, to turn the situation around?

An environmental manifesto

Taking India towards natural resource stability and security, requires that the crisis facing land, water, forests, and air be tackled head-on. No one can claim to have all the answers, and there is no magic environmental blueprint that the new government could follow, presuming it wanted to. But if it is serious, it needs to at least consider the following elements of a saner approach to the use of natural resources and the natural environment.

  • Regeneration of land and water, which are degraded to abysmally low levels of productivity over more than 60% of India's area. This cannot be done by centralised bureaucracies, but by empowering and providing resources to rural and urban communities. The amazing regeneration of forests under joint forest management over millions of hectares (even though villagers have hardly been given decision-making powers), or of wetlands through decentralised water harvesting, is proof enough of the capacity of communities to make miracles happen. Indeed, such regeneration is potentially the single biggest source of employment, as highlighted by the Planning Commission some years back. With this, the government could tackle three critical issues at the same time: the ecological crisis, raging unemployment, and the declining productivity of our land. There are considerable resources being put into 'wasteland development' and watershed programmes today, but these need to be much more in the hands of local people, and need to emphasise local solutions building on available indigenous knowledge, planting or regeneration of local species, and sensitivity to indigenous farming practices.
  • Preparing local to national land and water use plans, one of whose primary focuses should be to delimit ecologically and agriculturally sensitive areas where no large-scale destructive 'development' activities would be allowed. Such plans have to be made by or through full consultation with relevant communities, and be long-term, so that decision-makers cannot tamper with them at will. Special focus is needed on protecting adequate areas for wildlife and biodiversity. The schemes relating to panchayats, for instance, could promote such land/water use planning, building up to the district and state level planning processes. Madhya Pradesh has, for instance, issued guidelines on integrating biodiversity and environment into the district plans prepared through the Zilla Parishads, an initiative worth following in its implementation phase.
  • Undertaking a serious review of 'development' policies and programmes, including macro-economic policies, schemes relating to infrastructure, health, water, and so on. India does have a system of environmental impact assessments being mandatory for most 'development' projects. However, there is no such assessment required for entire sectors, eg of the irrigation sector, or the power sector, or say of policies relating to agricultural subsidies. If, for instance, the power ministry is making plans for the next five years of power generation, such plans should be subjected to environmental impact assessment. Similarly, water projects for an entire basin should be assessed together, rather than each project individually, because they have synergistic impacts that can go way beyond what can be gauged from looking at each project separately. Secondly, much greater public involvement is needed, including support to help people organise themselves for public hearings, and to scrutinise the project documents. Third, the entire system of EIAs needs overhauling, as it is currently ridden with fraudulent, biased, and scientifically inadequate work.
  • Building the true value of nature and natural resources into plans and budgets. For instance, forests in the Western Ghats are not only valuable from the point of view of the timber and non-timber forest produce they contain, but also for the enormous water security they provide to the plains in Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Goa, and Tamil Nadu, not to speak of their potential genetic values. Yet none of these values are integrated when decisions are taken about land use in the Western Ghats. On the contrary, cutting trees for timber appears as a positive contribution (as revenue) in the budget figures, and there is no corresponding debit entry on the resulting loss of ecosystem benefits!
  • Moving towards genuine decentralisation. This means real power to the people, not only on paper. It means that decision-making regarding natural resources shifts to local people (whether in villages or in towns), that their effective rights to common property are recognised, and that their consent has to be taken when someone from outside plans a 'development' project or other intervention affecting these resources. Of course, such rights of local people have to go hand in hand with effective responsibilities for conservation and restrained use, for respecting the rights of wildlife to survive, and so on. There is no automatic guarantee that local people will be more conservation-conscious, especially in today's times when external markets and politics has entered every village and town. Often, the capacity to manage resources has itself declined, or communities are so ridden with inequities and political divisions that an organised initiative is difficult. These are some reasons why governments and NGOs remain critical elements of the answer, provided
  • They behave more as supporters and shields against destructive external forces, rather than as masters of local people. But this is the true meaning of decentralisation, not some token steps like panchayat elections and direct financial disbursements to local bodies.
  • Focusing production and consumption much more on the local than on the national and international. This means moving away from an export-led economy, into one that emphasises low-cost local production of goods and services, first for the people of the region, and then only for those outside. Of course there would be exceptions to this for products that are found only in a few areas. But at least for the basic necessities of life, such 'localisation' should be possible. For instance, rather than the ridiculous practice of shifting wheat from Punjab and Haryana and a couple of other places to the whole of India to provide in the Public Distribution System (PDS), the stress should be on procuring local food from local areas, and putting these into the local PDS shops. This would provide the incentive to local farmers to continue producing indigenous foodgrain, and would make healthy diverse food available to consumers. Such an alternative system is working wonderfully in several dozen villages of Zaheerabad area of Andhra Pradesh, and there is no reason it cannot work elsewhere in India. Couple this with a much greater focus on organic farming, and there is a real possibility of a true agricultural revolution that could benefit small farmers, while regenerating and retaining the productivity of land and water.
  • Actively discouraging and heavily taxing luxury consumption, which has shot up since the early-1990s. India's environment (or the earth's for that matter), simply cannot absorb the enormous consumption of items that are directly dependent on natural resources, such as luxury minerals, or which cause serious ecological damage, such as the dozens of varieties of cars crowding urban streets.

The above is only a sprinkling of the steps needed to save India from heading further into ecological and livelihood collapse. This article does not pretend to provide a comprehensive blueprint. But the above steps are critical, and are all eminently manageable if the government has the will.

One of the main tests of this 'will' is going to be: how much is the government willing to question the economic policies that have brought in globalisation and industrial liberalisation? As some analysts have astutely pointed out, the stunning electoral results of 2004 are at least partly a result of a very strong vote against such policies, which had never really benefited the majority of India's population. The Left parties have already warned against pursuing some of the policies of privatisation, though there does not seem to be much of an environmental reasoning in their stands. In any case, this analysis of the election results should be heeded by the new government.

Note, however, that the new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was the main architect of the new economic policies back in 1991. He has this time around said he would pursue 'reforms' (code for continuing economic globalisation) with a 'human face', having seen that indeed the masses of people may not have benefited. But he needs to go further, and reverse the equation....the policy should now be to focus on basic human needs, and pursue 'reforms' only to the extent they meet such needs. And in doing this, he and his government need to be ever-mindful that human welfare can be assured only if nature, and natural resources are themselves secure. To paraphrase the wise words ascribed to an American native chief: when all the animals and plants and soils are gone, destroyed by human hands, will we eat money?, May 2004