Aiding agenda

Foreign aid funds have often been suspect for many commentators, who see it asopportunities for pushing the donor's political and economic agenda on the recipient developing countries, whose elite often use it to retain power without sacrificing anything.

There is a lot of truth in this critique, but few have attempted to analyse how bureaucracies, and especially natural resource bureaucracies, can misuse it for continuing with their past natural resource management strategies, which were ineffective, anti-people, non-participatory and, hence, expensive.

Recently, we stumbled upon two such instances. A few months ago we had organised an open debate, between representatives of the paper industry and environmentalists, on the proposal mooted by the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) to allocate 2.5 million ha of state-owned forest lands for captive industrial plantations (see Down to Earth, Vol 4, No 7). It was at that debate - and quite by chance - that we learnt the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had offered a us $ 100 million credit line to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, to finance private companies to undertake captive industrial plantations. Our campaign would thus throw a spanner in the ADB'S works.

Hardly any forester of eminence, retired or serving, has publicly opposed the proposal, because it will open up vast opportunities for employment for them - pre- and post- retirement. No forester has yet critiqued the scheme from the point of view of an overall strategy to afforest one-third of the land, which is the government's stated policy.

Over the last decade or so, the inexpensive participatory approach of Joint Forest Management has been reasonably successful, transforming degraded forest lands at very low costs. Why then is the forest bureaucracy demanding that the paper industry access its materials from farmlands?

It is now abundantly clear why there has been a resurgence of demand for captive plantations. During the debate, eminent economist C H Hanumantha Rao had wondered why industry was pushing this expensive scheme, when it could procure wood at lesser cost from farmers. I guess the ADB loan, which would be much below market interest rates, would make the high-cost option attractive.

The second case I wish to report comes from the World Bank (WB) and that green fund called the Global Environment Facility, operated by the United Nations Development Programme, the UN Environment Programme and the WB. These august institutions are about to give India's wildlife bureaucracy a largesse of US $200 million, about Rs 200 crore, to undertake 'ecodevelopment programmes' around seven national parks.

We know this strategy means that the park people will first be thrown out, and then given survival palliatives - firewood instead of biogas, and possibly some fodder dole. The self-reliant people will turn into dole-dependent paupers. The doles will last only as long as the donors are meherban and have biodiversity conservation on their funding priority list. Then, having lost their traditional livelihoods, the displacees will be at the mercy of a penniless and couldn't- care-less bureaucracy.

How much money will be needed to implement ecodevelopment programmes at the same scale of investment in the country's 500-odd sanctuaries? Probably Rs 2,000 crore. Do the exalted MEF bureaucrats have that kind of money? If not, then what is this anti-people experiment all about? The availability of easy foreign money has made it convenient to continue with business- as- usual - with expensive, economically inappropriate, and socially unjust ways of doing things. In that sense, foreign aid plays a very negative role. It mollycoddles the vested interests in the South, and takes off the pressure on them to develop pro-people, inexpensive strategies.

These are just a few 'green boondoggles. I have described. As green funding grows, we can be rest assured there will be many more. As C Rajagopalachari once said, all these government projects will soon become 'jeep projects' (subserving the bureaucracy's vested interests). And our great politicians, solely committed to their vested interests, will keenly wait and watch. The environmental movement, however, has to act as a watchdog and force the bureaucracy to recognise that it cannot feather its own nest at the expense of the people and the environment.

Down To Earth