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Happy New Year?

By Ashish Kothari

We are beginning 2008 with a heady mix of tigers, tribals, state terrorism in the guise of 'development', and the occasional triumph of the public will. What will prevail as the year unfolds? A new monthly column by Ashish Kothari on the politics of biodiversity will assess whether we're moving further towards, or away from, ecological suicide

2008 came with a flurry of news on the environment front. To take a small sample from the first two days of the year:

  • Several critical tiger habitats were notified across the country.
  • The Tribal Forest Rights Act was operationalised.
  • Environmental clearance was given for uranium mining in Meghalaya.
  • The Goa government announced the scrapping of all Special Economic Zone (SEZ) projects in the state.

Any keen observer of India's environment could be forgiven for wondering whether, as the sun set on 2007, there was cause to cheer or reason to despair.

That is more or less the focus of this series of articles. Every month I will examine recent news and events, and assess whether they point to our moving further towards, or away from, the ecological suicide that we seem so bent on committing.

So let's start with these four news items. What do they tell us?

On the face of it, the notification of critical tiger habitats should be welcome news. Our national animal, the star with stripes, is said to be on the verge of extinction. Actually, it's been said to be on the verge for a few decades now, but perhaps for the first time we are getting a somewhat reasonable count of the numbers that remain, and the news is not heartening. All-India figures are not yet in, but estimates from a number of sites suggest that there are far fewer tigers left than official statistics till now have revealed. Given this, it is indeed imperative that the few remaining tiger habitat cores be secured against destructive human activity as soon as possible. A tool for this has been provided by the 2006 amendment of the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), which mandates the declaration of critical tiger habitats that can then be made inviolate (free from disturbing human activity).

So far so good. If state governments that have notified such areas are indeed serious, then the tiger has a future in at least some parts of India.

But there is a serious flip side to this, which could prove to be its undoing. There are reportedly 273 villages in the areas that have been notified as core areas of 28 tiger reserves, and the government plans to relocate them. So a piece of news that sounds wonderful to the rest of the world suddenly becomes terrifying if you happen to be one of the residents of these villages. For, despite state government assurances, there are some processes mandated by the WLPA that have simply not been carried out: consulting the villagers, determining whether their activities are inevitably detrimental to tiger conservation and that co-existence is simply not possible, and then seeking their informed consent for relocation. There is a very real danger of forced or induced displacement.

Now if you are not particularly concerned about human rights, this will not matter. But even as a wildlifer, it should. In the last four decades, top-down, undemocratic wildlife conservation policies have made millions of enemies out of ordinary people eking out a living in ecosystems that have been unilaterally declared "protected" for wildlife. No consultation, no consent, only overnight imposition(s) of serious restrictions and harassment.

The backlash has been visible across the country, sometimes in mild forms like non-cooperation from the same communities that earlier helped protect the forest, sometimes in severe forms such as open clashes between the villagers and forest staff. If critical tiger habitats are sought to be imposed in a similar callous manner, in an atmosphere of increasing politicisation and mobilisation of grassroots communities, it could rebound terribly on the tiger itself.

Which brings me to the second news item. More than a year after it was promulgated by Parliament, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 was operationalised on January 1, 2008. The Rules for this Act were notified on this day. No other law in Indian history has evoked such strong and polarised views amongst environmentalists and human rights activists. Since it first emerged as a Bill in 2005, some wildlifers have opposed it tooth-and-nail while some human rights groups have backed it to the hilt. In the ensuing din, a quieter bunch of conservationists and rights activists, who have tried to take the middle path, have been sidelined. Their message was simple: establishing the rights of communities that have long resided in or depended on forests is absolutely imperative, but this must be done with full responsibility and accountability towards conservation. Indeed, a law like this could become a powerful tool in creating conditions and institutions on the ground for communities, NGOs, and government agencies to work together in order to secure forests, as also forest-based livelihoods. Unfortunately, the Act became a theatre of the absurd -- what with a handful of powerful actors on both 'sides' of the debate influencing its text, and changes in successive versions see-sawing with no clear direction. The final Act was a hodge-podge that no one was happy with.

The 2008 Rules do nothing to clear the confusion. And so we have legislation that will, in places, create ecological havoc (already reports from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and elsewhere indicate that political parties are misusing it to incite fresh encroachments into forests), in places empower communities to protect forests (many in Orissa, for instance, are planning to use it to get legal backing for community conserved forests), and in places secure important natural ecosystems by declaring them 'critical wildlife habitats' in which no diversion for any other purpose is allowed at all.

The mess of environmental governance at the Centre is nowhere better shown than in the timing of the above two news items. There appears to have been a race between the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to get their notifications in first. Presumably, the prime minister's office (PMO) prevailed upon the latter to give in by a day, thereby ostensibly allowing tiger habitats to be secured against the demand for granting rights that the Forest Rights Act would encourage. The jury is still out on whether this is valid. All villages that are within critical tiger habitats could perhaps still claim their rights to land and forest resources, and there appears to be nothing in the Wild Life Protection Act that can bypass the procedures required under the Forest Rights Act. Whether this is good or bad for the tiger remains to be seen...

If state government officials behave a bit more sanely than those at the Centre on the matter, this could become an opportunity to win the trust and goodwill of a few tens of thousands of people within tiger reserves, by involving them in management, providing them full benefits, and, where they agree to relocate, offering them a rehabilitation package that puts all previous relocations to shame.

Hopefully in a future piece for this column I will be able to provide an assessment on whether such wisdom does finally prevail.

Meanwhile, however, I turn to the final two news items. One of the crucial missing items in the heated debate on the Forest Rights Act was, in fact, the one that should have been the most important. Often in the past, when wildlifers and human rights activists have not seen eye-to-eye, they have nevertheless combined to fight a common enemy: the juggernaut of what we call 'development'. The campaign against some big dams, including Bhopalpatnam-Ichampalli, Silent Valley, Narmada, Athirapalli, Polavaram, and the many monstrous projects coming up in northeastern India, are examples. Unfortunately, when the situation now begs for such collaboration it has waned under the attack of the Forest Rights Act debate. And laughing all the way to the bank are India's and the world's biggest mining, construction, industrial, and infrastructure companies.

Like never before in our history, the country is being opened up to commercial interests. In our bid to reach double-digit economic growth, the oft-repeated slogan 'development at all cost' is coming true in the most tragic ways. The 'costs' are being borne by the environment, and by the country's poorest people who live off the natural environment: adivasi and other small farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, craftspeople. In the 15-16 years since India entered a phase of 'globalisation' (ushered in by our current prime minister when he was finance minister in 1991), there has been a rapid increase in the amount of forest and other natural ecosystem lands being diverted for industrial and 'developmental' purposes. For instance, nearly two-thirds of all forests cleared for mining since 1980 has been in the most recent one-third of that period (1997-2005).

The news on clearance for mining in Meghalaya is only symptomatic of this larger trend. Some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in what is considered a globally important biodiversity hotspot are threatened. Which is why the last news, from sunny Goa, is indeed something to bring cheer to the environmental movement. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have been enormously controversial ever since the central government brought in legislation in 2005 enabling their creation. SEZs are exempt from many of the legal and administrative requirements that you and I as citizens are subject to. They are being set up in the most ecologically sensitive areas, such as our coasts, and are resulting in significant displacement of villagers. At several dozen SEZs, local people are protesting, in some cases so powerfully that the government has simply not been able to do any work on them. Citizens in states like Goa have been particularly vocal, and it is to the credit of the state government that it has rightly gauged the public mood and sought permission from the Centre to scrap all 15 SEZs in the state (three of which had already been notified).

Public resistance, indeed, is one of the biggest hopes of 21st century India. The NIMBY ('not in my back yard') phenomenon that is such a powerful part of the environmental and consumer movement in Europe and North America is rapidly entering India too. Neighbouring China faced over 85,000 protests in 2005, most of them against forcible land acquisition or displacement due to 'development' projects (see file:///C:/AK/akartcl/Violence%20of%2010%25%20growth,%20article%20as%20pub.
%20on%20Infochange.htm). Similar statistics are not available for India, but judging by the almost daily news of protests in various parts of India -- who hasn't heard of Singur, Nandigram, Polavaram, Sethusamudram, Narmada, POSCO, Vedanta, and a myriad others? -- we can't be far behind.

That's the good news.

The flip side is that the government too is getting harsher in dealing with such public protest. Police firing took place repeatedly in 2007, with several activists killed or injured even while taking part in non-violent protests. Prominent activist Binayak Sen has been in lock-up, on flimsy grounds, in Chhattisgarh for several months now. His crime? Daring to challenge the state government's poor human rights record relating to 'development' projects and political protest. But every time the government retaliates like this, public concern grows and the resolve of those who are struggling against injustice gets stronger. One can only hope that India will not deteriorate into some kind of low-grade civil war between, to use the cliché, an increasingly dispossessed and ecologically impoverished Bharat and a glitzy, billionaire-filled India propped up by air-fresheners. Today a vast middle class aspiring to the lifestyles of the rich and famous masks the growing disparities between these two worlds. But they may not remain a cushion for long if current trends continue.

So here we are, beginning 2008, with a heady mix of tigers, tribals, state terrorism in the guise of 'development', and the occasional triumph of the public will. What will prevail as the year unfolds? Will tigers survive another year? Will people living in these areas agree to move out, and will they get good rehabilitation? Or will they insist on staying and working out co-existence strategies? Will the Forest Rights Act deliver on its promise of wiping out historical injustices? Will it lead to a greater stake in conservation, or in forest destruction? Will people in the northeast manage to resist the onslaught of big dams and mining that is being planned there? And will other states follow Goa's bold example and scrap the SEZs that threaten to take us a little closer to civil war?

Watch this space.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008