Despite the PM’s doublespeak, civil society and community organisation groups should demand that he stand by his commitments.
The Indian Prime Minister’s address to the recently concluded Conference of Parties (COP) on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), at Hyderabad, is a classic case of doublespeak. Listening to his assertions regarding India’s commitment to conservation and livelihoods, one would think the country is in the right hands. But this is deceptive, for the policies of his government are taking the country further away from ecological sustainability and social equity. If the PM is serious about what he said, he needs to make fundamental changes to the government’s economic policies and governance structures.
The deep chasm between the PM’s assurances and his government’s actual actions is evident in a number of passages from his speech. For instance:
What the PM said: “We believe that the treasure trove of traditional knowledge should be used for the benefit of all humankind rather than for private profit. We will continue to work to strengthen our institutions to record this knowledge, to value its science and to provide benefits to its custodians.”
What the government does: Displaces and dispossesses forest-dwelling adivasis, fishers on our coasts, pastoralists, and other holders of traditional knowledge, by taking away their lands and resources for corporate profit, thereby destroying the basis of traditional knowledge.
What the government also does: Drags its feet in amending the Biological Diversity Act to empower communities in protecting their natural resources and traditional practices, and fails to implement the provision of the Act that mandates protection of such knowledge. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library — that the PM mentioned with pride — is a poor substitute for living, evolving knowledge that only local communities possess.
What the PM said: “We have legislated a Forest Rights Act that lends legal sanctity to the rights of forest dwellers, who are often the best friends of the biodiversity that resides in these magnificent forests.”
What the government does: Dithers in implementing the Forest Rights Act, with thousands of community rights claims pending across the country; worse, continues to violate the FRA by clearing projects for forest land diversion for mining, dams, etc, without first recognising forest-dwellers’ rights and without seeking gram sabha consent.
What the government also does: Displaces forest-dwellers from tiger reserves in complete violation of the FRA.
What the PM said: “We will have to adopt similarly innovative approaches to deal with the issue of protecting fishermen’s livelihoods.”
What the government does: Clears hundreds of power projects, ports, chemical industries, tourism complexes, and other projects which are destroying coastal and marine biodiversity, and the livelihoods of fisher communities.
What the government also does: Shelves a proposal for a fishing community rights legislation made in 2010 by the Minister for Environment and Forests.
What the PM said: “We need to build a movement to conserve traditional varieties of crops.”
What the government does: Continue to push a model of agriculture based on large-scale monoculture, chemicals, and dependence of farmers on corporations, including clearing genetically modified seeds like Bt Cotton.
This and other cases of hypocrisy and doublespeak are characteristic of India’s decision makers, and will remain so till the blind pursuit of economic growth ‘at all costs’ is changed to ecologically sustainable and socially equitable models of human well-being. Thousands of communities across India are demonstrating that such models are practical and achievable. Yet even the Hyderabad Pledge of $50 million that he announced, to great applause, is aimed at strengthening “national and state-level mechanisms” — not for promoting decentralised, community-based approaches.
Worse, these millions are nothing compared to the billions that the government is spending on ecologically destructive activities. The PM would have earned far greater applause, not only from those sitting in the COP hall but globally, if he had announced changes in how some key sectors are funded. For instance, he could have committed his government to redirecting the unsustainable subsidies given to chemical fertilizers towards organic agriculture. Or he could have been bold enough to redirect funds away from coal-fired thermal power stations and towards decentralised renewable energy sources. Or he could have announced substantial increases in funding and facilitation of community-level management of natural resources. Most important, however, are policy shifts that put environment and livelihoods and equity at the centre of decision-making, rather than mere financial allocations to biodiversity mechanisms.
Nevertheless, given that there is quite a bit of useful language in the PM’s speech, civil society and community organisation groups should demand that he stand by his commitments. These include clear and stronger rights for fisher communities, conservation of traditional seeds, promotion of new models of conservation, and other steps necessary to implement India’s commitments to its people and to the international agreements it has entered into.
Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune.