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A FEW months before he was unceremoniously shifted to the
ministry of textiles, India's minister for environment and
forests Karnal Nath had told a staff member of the Centre for
Science and Environment that while usually it @s the job of
officials to brief a minister, the opposite was the case in his
ministry. Kamal Nath himself had been briefing his officers,
since almost all his senior staff had been replaced by new faces
over the years.
True to form, his hasty replacement in September was preceded by a reshuffle of most of his top officials. Three new
additional secretaries, 4 newjoint secretaries and several other
middle-ranking officials had joined the ministry in the past
few months under a working secretary who himself was just
about a year old in the ministry.
The importance of the role of the ministry in developing a
legislative and policy framework for the promotion of environmentally sound development in the country and in negotiating various international environmental agreements has
always been apparent enough. But the manner in which the
department lost most of its experience and expertise in one
grand sweep displays the administration's lack of appreciation
for the dangers plaguing the environment.
Detractors will claim that it is not difficult to recoup lost
expertise and experience- The claim has an element of truth to
it, but there is a proviso: the country has to have the luxury of
time and resources at its disposal. Decisions (which have been
pending) on issues of forest management, affecting millions of
people in the country, will necessarily be delayed further as the
new incumbents in office will need time to grasp the essence of
An example is the fate of the draft bill on the Biodiversity
Convention, which has become uncertain as the minister and
the specific official dealing with it have been replaced in one
go. Organisations working in the public interest, which had
spent their resources to brief the minister and his officials on
problems related to Tchri dam, land use policy, the Forest Bill,
preservation of the traditional knowledge of tribals etc will
now have to wait further for crucial decisions. The fledgling
nature of this ministry, combined with the weak institutional
memory of our government departments, will probably force
these groups to write off their past work and make a new start
almost from scratch.
Today, the ministry of environment and forests (mu:) is
facing a grave challenge : it has to stonewall the efforts
shifting of liability and burden of solution to global environmental problems onto India and other developing countries.
It also has the mandate from the Indian populace to push a
global proactive (as opposed to reactive) agenda. The NIEF
negotiates on behalf of the country on half-a-dozen internationat treaties, like the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer,
the Biodiversity Convention, the Basel Convention on
Hazardous Waste Trade and the World Trade Organization's
negotiations on environmental impact of international trade.
The irony ties in the fact that all these treaties, schedule
have their meetings by December, will suddenly find In&
concerned officials and minister changed.
The meeting on the Basel treaty in September had lixil
at the crucial issue - vital to economy and environment -4
trade in metal scraps. The Montreal Protocol meeting, to
held in late November, will review the rights and respo'14
ties of developing countries including India. The clim
change negotiations continue later in October to Jol
India and other developing countries' demands for
agreement by 1997 to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions. I
biodiversity treaty in November will consider the issue
access to genetic material for the developing world and4
sharing of technology.
In these negotiations, expertise (not only in handlinlq
issue at hand, but also in the various actors and inter,
involved), more than political clout, has been leading the
in the last few years. It takes
years to acquire this kind of
skdl. No Wonder the industrialised countries, which dominate the discussions, prefer to
be led in them by seasoned
minds and much visible faces.
Environmental management requires a cross-sectoral
response from the Indian
society on longterm strategic
policy development in global
negotiations and on immediate operational activities to
solve our current problems
and needs. It cannot be left in
the hands of short-lived officials who leave before gaining
or passing on any information or expertise.
One action the new minister, Rajesh Pilot, could take
to prevent this from happening is by establishing an advisory body to the ministry
which could serve as a thinktank for providing objective,
strategic and scientific advice on national policies, strates
and programmes. This body should compose of experl
specific relevant fields, and with an abihty to bridge scientm
environmental, technological, economic, social and pol
The body should be above the wheeling-dealing of pg
politics and have a longterm mandate to provide a forurn
integrating expertise on global environment managem I
This will be one waythe critical resources of the societycan
optimally used for keeping our environment officialdom