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The debate that took place recently on the
Taper industry's demand to access state
forest lands for industrial plantations takes me
back to a key, yet, unresolved governance
issue. The very first edition of Down to Earth
had carried a debate on the environmental
impact of the policy of liberalisation, between
the proponents and opponents of the new
economic regime. There, I had argued that its
impact will be determined by the provisions
made for adequate governance systems for
deciding upon the trade-offs that any capital
investment or development activity will bring
about, and keep them under control.
But the government is simultaneously liberalising the entrepreneur, as well as tightening its control over most of the natural
resource base, including the forests, water
resources, grasslands and the atmosphere. As
liberalisation increasingly spurs entrepreneurial activity, there will have to be some mechanism to decide upon the checks and
balances needed for an equitable and sustainable use of natural resources.
There has been no liberalisation in this
area, and the government's track record is
absolutely atrocious. It has put all these
resources at the command of industry and the
rich and the middle class, without insisting
upon any discipline, or charging them the true
cost of their consumption. The result is that
our air is getting more and more polluted, so
is our water, and our forests are no better off.
Land degradation continues apace.
Sadly, no speaker emphasised the need for
a new governance system'for these lands. The
ministry of environment and forests' support
to the industry is an archetypal case of the
state swinging the natural resources in favour
of the rich, without forcing them to pay for
the resources being put on their platter.
The paper industry argues that the new
policy of liberalisation means that even state-
owned forest lands should be made available
to it. But this is completely fallacious, as the
eminent economist C H Hanumantha Rao
has pointed out. If liberalisation means allowing market forces to control industrial development, then the decision to support industrial plantations on state forest lands goes
totally against that philosophy. It will destroy
wood markets and lead to a state-determined
wood economy. If industry grows its own
wood, why should it buy wood grown by tribal communities, as part of joint forest management programmes, or from the farmers?
Checks and balances in the use of natural
resources will never emerge unless the concept of state property - promoted by the British - is given up. The country's commons should by law become-community
property. The state should intervene only in
cases where the communities fail to meet
specified objectives, or harm other
communities. The communities have a vested
interest in sustainable management of the
environment and the natural resource base,
because it is their habitat, their survival base.
Let no one think that comm -unities will
oppose development. Most of them will
strongly favour it. But they will also learn fast
if they undertake wrong development paths. I
am, therefore, convinced that the best way to
move towards a liberalised economy is not
just to liberate the entrepreneur, but also to
empower local communities. The former will
not then negotiate the use of natural resources
with the politicians and bureaucrats, who
have no-interest in these.
While so much has been written about the
paper industry and its demand for state forest
lands, have you noticed that almost no forest
officer has come out openly on this issue,
especially one who is opposed to this? I can
understand the fears of serving officers. But
what about the retired ones?
I know that community empowerment is
not a perfect solution to achieve environmental sustainability. It will fail in many, many cases. But I am certain that it will fail in fewer
cases'than the present governance system
does. And the communities will learn faster
from their own mistakes. I am, therefore, certain that it is the best sirategy we have, or will
ever have. If we don't -move in this direction
there will be other similar cases of state action
distorting natural resource@use, destroying the
environment, and adversely affecting those
dependent on it. This is the biggest lessmi I
have learnt from the recent debate.
Liberalisation must not just mean entrepreneur empowerment, but also community empowerment, so that the people will find
their best checks and balances. So, what do
you think: will those political parties which
oppose the new economic policy take up this
issue as their forthcoming election agenda, or
will they just rant and rave in favour of
untrammelled state power?