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Born in Yamnang, a sleepy little in Sikkim's west, Chamling got involved in rehabilitation of landless people after completing school. "In fact, I donated some of my own land to settle landless people" he says, recalling his days as an activist. Transition from social work to politics came naturally, more so when the state was witnessing the movement for democracy. " I used to earn my living as a government contractor in those days," he says, "but soon politics got me in its throes completely." Chamling was 25 when Sikkim became a part of India in 1975. "It was difficult to keep out of politics at that time," he says.
In 1982, Chamling was elected the sabhapati (president) of his village panchayat. He won his first election to Sikkim Legislative Assembly from Damthang in 1985 on a Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) ticket. In the 1989 Assembly Chamling won from Damthang with a whopping 96.26 per cent of the votes cast going in his favour. As a minister in the Nar Bahadur Bhandari-led government, Chamling handled industries, information and public relations and printing.
Soon, differences cropped up between him and Bhandari. In 1992, he was dropped from Bhandari's cabinet as well as SSP. "He was dropped because he was seen as a rival to Bhandari in SSP" says Jigme N Kazi, editor, Sikkim Observer. A year later, Chamling formed his own party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). But with Bhandari breathing down his neck, Chamling was forced to go underground in June 1993, only to resurface during the assembly elections the following year.
He returned to the assembly in 1994 with an absolute majority and was elected chief minister. Chamling, however, wears an uneasy crown. The masses see him as a man with the right intentions and vision but lacking support from his people. Tashi Pema, a school teacher in Sikkim, put it succinctly: "He is too sweet and simple to handle them, but if you spare the rod, you spoil the child and that is exactly what is happening here." "He is a man ahead of his times" says Chukie Topden of Concerned Citizens of Sikkim, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), "and his steps will be appreciated a decade from now."
Many people believe that the common people might not elect him chief minister the next time around. They do not approve of many of the conservation and environment laws Chamling has introduced.
The masses see his efforts at conservation as whimsical decisions, "Commitment to environment is fine, but for Chamling all this is part of a strategy to generate support for himself at the national level. What has he done for the common people? Has any of the steps he has taken made life easy for the common person?" asks Tara Nima, an agricultural labourer from Rangpo town. Common people complain that prices of essential commodities have gone up in leaps and bounds in the state and the government has done nothing to address it.
REVIEW OF WORK
"The negative work of the previous Sikkim Sangram Parishad
government's 14-year rule is still haunting us. But I do not
want the greenery that is still around us to degenerate
completely. Prevention is better than cure," says chief minister
Pawan Kumar Chamling. He has passed several laws to protect
the environment. But only on paper. It is this lack of implementation that mars his projects to protect the environment.
Among the series of environment-related programmes
that the chief minister has initiated in Sikkim-are: a ban on use
of plastic bags in the state capital Gangtok; large-scale
afforestation; integrated pest management; joint forest
management-cum-integrated watershed management;
grazing ban in forests; and scrapping of a hydel power project
and of also the army's G-firing range.
Chamling is seen as someone who has a vision but cannot
carry it forward for the lack of team support. MLAs of his party
are not convinced about his vision, though he keeps insisting
that he is trying his best to educate them. At a recent public
rally, he said, "As long as these bureaucrats criticise me, It
means that I am with you. The day they start praising me, take
that to mean that I have lost touch with you." Environmentalists in Sikkim generally laud Chamling's zeal to involve
community participation in the conservation and development process despite tremendous political and bureaucratic
opposition. "But he also loves to play the martyr," observes
Rajiv Rai, president of Concern Sikkim, a NGO, adding,
"He keeps saying in public meetings that he receives no
support from his party legislators and bureaucrats in addressing environmental issues and that he is fighting a lone battle".
There is severe water crisis in the chief minister's constituency
Damthang, in southwest Sikkim. "It was not like this 20 years
ago," says Rajiv Rai, president of Concern Sikkim. "Arbitrary
marking of trees by the forest department and felling of trees
by smugglers has led to a situation where the loss of tree cover
has resulted in drying up of streams," he says,
Immediately after coming to power, Chamling declared the
area drought-prone and urged people to work towards conservation and afforestation. He has not started an afforestation
programme per se but has been telling people the importance of
forests in public speeches and pamphlets. He took out a
pamphlet that spoke of bringing about Harit Kranti (Green
Revolution) through afforestation, conservation and grazing
ban in forests. The forest cover of the state is 3,129 sq km,
which constitutes 44.1 per cent of the geographic area. According to
the State of Forest Report 1997, there was a net increase of
2 sq km during 1993-1995. The credit, however, should not go
entirely to Chamling; the forest cover increased even during the
tenure of former chief minister Nat Bahadur Bhandari.
But what probably tilts the balance on his side is the
effort to educate and involve the masses. In all his public
speeches, he has focused on increasing public awareness and
has tried to motivate them to participate in the afforestation
and conservation process, say local NGOs.
Cattle rearing is one of the principal occupations of several
communities living in Sikkim. Extensive rearing of livestock is
done especially by communities living in the higher altitudes.
And grazing is the principal source of animal feed. Livestock is
maintained in substantial numbers. As no serious attempt is
made to cull unproductive animals, Sikkim has witnessed a
drain of biodiversity due to overgrazing.
When Chamling came to power in 1994, he banned grazing
in forests. But this was not because he understood that the ecologically-sensitive alpine forests and biodiversity were at risk.
It was more out of an observation that over the years animals
reduce the productivity of the forests. "I have seen what grazing
does to forest,. Earlier, the forest could sustain itself because
the livestock population was small. But now the cattle population almost equals the number of people in Sikkim. At least
that is what the 1991 Census Says," quips the chief minister. As
an alternative, lie proposed stall-feeding. The grazers
have taken the matter to court. But even at the cost of his
popularity, Chamling has refused to lake the order back.
Environmentalists and NGOs welcome the ban but say
there is no scientific evidence to prove that it was warranted. "The ban should have been preceded by a proper study on the effect of grazing in Sikkim forests. It was an arbitrary decision that came from his own observation. And here the bureaucrats
are to blame. They did not brief him properly," says Chhezung
Lachungpa, a forester and president of Green Circle, a NGO.
The orchards of Lachen district, once the highest producers of
apples in the state, have hardly produced any apples in the past decade. The reason: indiscriminate use of pesticides and
chemical fertilisers to fight apple-scab during Bhandari's
regime. "Pesticides and chemical fertilisers have never been
popular with farmers in Sikkim. In fact, Sikkim is one of the
lowest consumers of pesticides in India," says Chamling.
In 1994, the Bhandari government had initiated an integrated pest management (IPM) project in East Sikkim. The I 0-week training-cum-demonstration programme for
farmers was extended to other parts of the state by Chamling.
At present, farmers' field schools (FFSs) have been set up in 12
villages. These help farmers recognise their friends (predators,
parasites and pathogens) and foes (chemical pesticides and
fertilisers). A total of 41 agricultural extension officers and 360
farmers have been trained at these schools from 1994 to 1997.
The project, however, does not cover all the villages in
the state. Besides, other crops like ginger, cardamom and
mandarin orange, which are large revenue earners for Sikkim,
are yet to be included in the IPM project.
In May 1998, the chief minister introduced the joint forest
management (JFM)-cum-integrated watershed management
programme in the state. "Though in the planning stage, it has
already generated a lot of interest among the people, especially as they are being involved in the planning process in a large
way," says S B Singh Badoria, conservator of forests, Sikkim.
Sikkim has 30 watersheds. Afforestation under JFM and
watershed management will be done through a four-tier
system that will involve local people, NGOs, panchayats and the
forest department. A rural appraisal programme was conducted to spread awareness among the people about the project.
"People are being asked to draw the maps and point out rivers,
streams, houses, important sites and landslide-prone areas,
Officials then convert the rudimentary sketches into scientific
maps. And as we are heavily depending on local knowledge,
there is greater participation and less conflict," says Chhezung
Lachungpa, president of Green Circle. However, the efficacy
of the project will be judged only after its implementation.
Pawan Chamling became a hero of the masses in 1994 when he
scrapped a major hydel power project in Rathong-Chu in west
Sikkim after Rs 15 crore had been spent on it. "For that single
act, Chanding will be the hero of environmental activists in the
state," says Chukie Toptlen of the NG0 Concerned Citizens of
Sikkim (CCS). "Chamling had been very adamant about carrying on with the Rathong-Chu project till his political adversary Bhandari started backing the movement to scrap the project,"
says Jigme Kazi, who obviously sees political motivations.
There is a glacial lake in Rathong-Chu and the area is
ecologically fragile. "We used to hear up to 36 blasts a day
when the work was in progress. It would have been disastrous
if the project was completed," says Pema Namgyal of CCS.
But many feel scrapping the project was not a deliberate
effort to stop environmental degradation. It would have
submerged a Buddhist monastery. Moreover, Buddhists in
Sikkim believe the glacier is the home to many of their deities.
The monks as well as the common people were against the project. "You could say that the chief minister played to the gallery
by scrapping the project. Yet, apart from the social tension that
it avoided, it also saved the environment," says Namgyal.
However, the restoration work at the project site is yet to
start. A committee, which had been instituted to plan the
restoration work, has just submitted its report.
In 1992-93, there was a proposal to construct a G-firing range
by the army on forest land in north Sikkim. "But the area is
ecologically-sensitive. It is rich in biodiversity, and though the
army was ready to compensate us with land elsewhere, the
species that we would have lost would not have been regenerated elsewhere. Especially medicinal plants and herbs," says
S B Singh Badoria, conservator of forests, Sikkim.
Besides, the forest is the habitat of rare animals such as
the snow leopard, the musk deer, the Tibetan wild ass and
various species of rodents. Local NGOs like Green Circle
also agitated against the firing range. Chamling stepped in.
At his personal initiative and canvassing, the programme was
finally scrapped in 1997.