Deteriorating Environment DEPLETION OF RESOURCES
Growing environment imbalance has affected both the rich and poor but through a balanced cooperation between every level of society and government, miracles can happen
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 the 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 shown particular initiative in demonstrating 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 NDA government be any different? And if it is serious, what should its core agenda and approach be? Disappointed by the ecological track record In the 1970s and 1980s there seemed to be a growing concern for the environment, resulting in some far-reaching laws and policies, and strong people’s movements like Chipko and Silent Valley. But the introduction of new economic policies in 1990s also saw the government and corporate sector begin systematically diluting environmental regulations. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore: policies and regulations relating to farming land, tribal land, forest land, and water bodies. All were 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.
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, to which the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have turned a blind eye. Government 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 less relative space to environment.
The better off in India have been happy with the easy availability of the world’s consumer goods, even though some may have been worried about the social and ecological impacts of globalization. In the meantime, mass people’s movements, trade unions, and some fringe NGOs have raised alarm about the economic policies. Amongst these, trade unions unfortunately continued to ignore environmental issues, and equally many environmental NGOs have 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 many who could not gauge the disastrous social impacts of these judgements on forest-dwellers, fisherfolk, and farmers. The fact that both workers 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 have seen a strange paradox. On one hand conflicts related to sharing of water, access to forests and land have grown manifold, in many cases due to the take-over of resources by the corporate sector. The cancerous spread of mining is one such example.
These conflicts are much too visible to ignore.
On the other hand, however, ecological consciousness seems to have reached a political nadir. This depressing lack of environmental sensitivity was amply symbolised 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. Yet some positive signs! By no means does this imply that all hope is lost. Indeed, the more stark the destruction, the clearer it becomes that natural resource degradation goes hand in hand with the loss of livelihood options for millions of people. This leads to greater chances of people responding. There have already 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 up against destruction, or promoting alternative water harvesting, clean energy sources, and participatory forms of decision-making. Concern for environment : A definite agenda!
The crisis facing land, water, forests, and air needs to 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, even presuming it wanted to. But if it is serious, it needs to at least consider the following elements of a saner approach. Regeneration of land and water, which are degraded to abysmally low levels of productivity over more than 60 per sent 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, or of wetlands through decentralised water harvesting, despite inadequate power-sharing in such programmes, is proof enough of the capacity of communities to make miracles happen. Indeed, such regeneration is potentially India’s 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 ‘wastelands 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, with a focus on delimiting ecologically and agriculturally sensitive areas where large-scale destructive ‘development’ activities would be disallowed. Such plans have to be made by or through full consultation with relevant communities. They have to be long-term, so that decision-makers cannot tamper with them at their own will. Special focus is needed on protecting adequate area for wildlife and biodiversity.
The schemes relating to panchayats 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. In relation to the above, 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.
By Shailendra Chauhan