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Making peace with Earth?

Critical problems facing water, forests, land and biodiversity are rarely addressed by those in power. As another World Environment Day comes around on June 5, ASHISH KOTHARI and NEEMA PATHAK weigh the pluses and minuses in the eco-balance sheet.


DOES India's stunning electoral verdict provide any hope that the world's second most populous country will move towards the path of making peace with the earth? How was our performance vis--vis the environment in the last year, and can we look forward to a resolution of pressing water, land, forest, and urban problems in the coming one?

Predictions are hazardous business, as all poll pundits will have realised to their chagrin this month. But past trends can be analysed, and tentative conclusions can be arrived at. And like a wise American native once said, the further back you pull the bow, the further ahead your arrow will go... so it's perhaps time we looked not only at the last one year but took a quick glance at the last few decades.

A bit of history

The destruction of the natural and human environment was rapid in the last century and a half, especially during colonial times when forests were considered to be commercial and industrial raw material, and land was viewed as a revenue-generator. Most grievous was the damage done when governments took over common property, causing the breakdown of sophisticated community-based regulations and institutions. This trend continued post-Independence, not only with centralised management but also with a major attack on forests, water bodies, land, mineral-rich areas, and other natural resources for the purpose of economic growth. Between Independence and 1980, for instance, we lost 4.2 million hectares of forest to non-forest activities.

Growing people's and NGO movements, and greater ecological awareness among the political and bureaucratic classes began to change the picture in the 1970s. A spate of environment-related laws and policies came in, a central ministry was set up, and movements like Chipko seeped into our collective consciousness. This continued in the 1980s, with a significant reduction in diversion of forests for non-forest purposes, increase in protected areas, the growth of a strong fisherfolk movement against industrial fisheries, growing alarm over chemicals in agriculture, and so on.

The last decade

Come the 1990s, and the slide began again. Our governments took a conscious decision to "open up" our economy to globalisation. This meant a shift from domestic economic growth to a reliance on imports and exports, easier avenues for domestic and foreign companies to invest in India, and so on. All good news for the corporate sector and upper classes aspiring to become part of the global consumer bandwagon, but terrible for the environment and for the several hundred million people directly depending on natural resources for survival. Environmental regulations began to be loosened (e.g. the repeated dilution of the Coastal Regulation Zone stipulations, to allow tourism and other "development" along sensitive coasts). The entry of powerful foreign actors, including companies like Monsanto and Cargill with the world's worst environmental and human rights records, pushed the public interest further behind. Politicians and industrialists clamoured for loosening of the Forest Conservation Act and environmental clearance procedures under the Environment Protection Act. The attack on natural resources was complemented by one on related human rights. In Orissa, for instance, adivasis have been brutally killed or thrown out of their ancestral lands to make way for private mining companies, in complete connivance with the Government. Laws relating to land ceilings and protection of farmland have been relaxed, to allow industrial scale farming, tourism, and other commercial activities that benefit only powerful villagers or outsiders.

Statistics show the startling decline. From 1980 to 2003, about 847,000 ha of forestland was diverted for non-forest use. Of this, about 382,000 ha or 45 per cent was in the period 1999-2003 alone.

The decline of environment as a national focus since the 1990s is manifested in the 2004 election campaigns of the major parties. The Bharatiya Jananta Party (BJP) and the Congress manifestos had scarcely a few sentences on environment. Their key stands on liberalisation and industrial development displayed an acute ignorance of the importance of safeguarding India's water, land, forests, and biodiversity.

Possibly the only major positive trend in the 1990s and early 2000s has been the constitutional move towards decentralising powers to panchayats and gram sabhas. Environmental manifestations of this include a notification to make public hearings mandatory for identified development projects. But decentralisation has been a classic case of contradictions. On the one hand, politicians could not ignore people's demands for a say in decision-making, as it was evidently an election issue. On the other hand, actual decentralisation would have meant loss of the actual power of politicians and bureaucrats. So effective legal, financial, and political powers have rarely been given to local bodies. The Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act was enacted in 1996, but progressive provisions such as ownership of adivasis of non-timber forest produce, have so far been implemented only in one or two States. A globalising economy seems to demand more and more mega-projects like the Golden Quadrilateral expressways and the River Linking scheme, which simply cannot be reconciled with decentralised decision-making.

Nor has decentralisation adequately translated into an environmental agenda, though it has the potential to do so. Communities have shown that with an appropriate mix of local decision-making, adequate information, institutional capacity, and external support, they can conserve and manage natural resources. They can question the pollution of their rivers, the ripping of their soil for mining, handing over of their forests to industrial giants, and scrapping every bit of life from their coastal areas using trawlers. The rapid spread of joint forest management, or of community-based watershed management, has shown this potential even though these programmes do not yet have full sharing of power. But contrary to this experience, the government has, in fact, further centralised powers in the bureaucracy as in the case of the new programme on Forest Development Agencies. It therefore came as a surprise when the same government issued a circular that purports to provide land rights to disputed "forest" lands to adivasis, in February 2004. Very soon, however, it became clear that this was an election gimmick; with the Vajpayee government issuing massive adverts proclaiming their revolutionary step to provide adivasis with forestland rights. The Supreme Court was quick to detect the impropriety of the circular, and clamped a stay on it.

The Supreme Court, in fact, seems to have emerged as the champion of environmental concerns, taking a number of far-reaching judgments relating to forests and wildlife. Undoubtedly these judgments have shamed the government into some action. Unfortunately, the Court has also shown lack of sensitivity to the millions of forest-dwellers that depend on forests, or fisherfolk that depend on the seas. Nor has it shown itself to be very consistent in its ecological zeal, for in the same breath it has cleared the destructive Narmada and Tehri dams, and virtually directed the government to come up with plans to implement the River Linking project across India. Anyone who is too enamoured of the Court's apparent concern for tigers and trees should sober up to the fact that if implemented, this project alone will threaten dozens of critical wildlife habitats.

Signs of hope

As always, the many signs of hope brightly flickering around the country dispel the gloom. On April 27, 2004, the people of Melakottiyur in Tamil Nadu turned up in hundreds for a public hearing regarding the setting up of a hazardous waste landfill. The district collector had to postpone the hearing because the venue they had organised was simply not large enough to accommodate the 600 residents who had come... and the people told him that next time, he should make arrangements for 1,000 people!


True environmental democracy means village level consultations like the one initiated by this meeting on a proposed hydel project in Himachal Pradesh.

Over the last two years, a village in Kerala has also shown that it can stand up to the might of a corporation like Coca Cola. Upset by the company's disregard for local water availability and quality, the panchayat of Perumatta has refused permission to the company to withdraw groundwater, and the local courts have so far upheld this decision.

Hundreds of tribal villages in the country are moving towards self-rule, declaring that their village assembly is the decision-making body for all local activities including on natural resources. Many have declared part of their surrounding environments as people's protected areas, banning destructive extraction of resources or hunting. At Kolavipaalam beach in Kerala, villagers are fighting against sand mining, which is threatening turtle nesting sites. Tens of millions of hectares of land and water is now back under some kind of community management.

On agriculture, a number of States such as Uttaranchal have perceptibly moved towards organic farming. This is both bowing to increasing pressure from farmers and NGOs, as also with an eye "cashing in" on the natural skills and conditions in these States. At the home front, too, consumers in many cities are slowly waking up, and purchasing organic food, natural colours for Holi, herbal medicines, and the like. Urban authorities in Chennai, Delhi, and some other cities have finally made water harvesting in buildings mandatory.

Some international events too show hope: the resounding challenge issued by several "developing" countries at the Cancun World Trade Organisation meeting, against the enormous subsidies provided by rich countries to their farmers, a bold programme of work on protected areas (with a powerful orientation towards initiatives involving local communities) at the Convention on Biological Diversity, the growing consumers movement in Europe and elsewhere against genetically engineered food, and the gathering of over 100,000 people in a powerful, if somewhat chaotic, challenge to the global economic order, at the World Social Forum at Mumbai.

All these signs of hope do not, as yet, add up to a coherent alternative. But they do signal a growing trend towards ordinary citizens taking decisions into their own hands, and disenchantment with the current economic and political system that is so ecologically destructive.

The new government at the centre will have to heed the critical problems facing water, forests, land, and biodiversity, move towards genuinely decentralised approaches to solving these problems, and explore more sensitive models of development. Only then can it go in the direction of fulfilling its promise to take India to stability and prosperity.

The writers are members of Kalpavriksh-Environmental Action Group.

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