The NGO movement in South Asia has come a long way in the past 10 years. Last month, a panel discussion between some of them emphasised introspection and self-repair
DO CIVILISATION and environmental devastation have to be synonymous? Going by the mess Earth is in, it would seem so. Environment has, however, become a buzzword, and behind all the hoopla that such an honour brings are pockets of concern and damage control.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India, organised a panel discussion on behalf of the International NGO Forum, which gave South Asian environmental NGOs an opportunity to interact and assess their successes, failures and the challenges on the horizon. It also prepared the groundwork for the formulation of a proactive regional agenda, to be followed up at subsequent meets.
The participants came from a number of South Asian countries and included Iftikhar Ahmed (Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad) and Khawar Mumtaz (Shirkatgah, Lahore), Pakistan; Anil Chitrakar (World Conservation Union), Nepal; Atiq-ur-Rahman (Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies), Dhaka; Deepthi Wickramasinghe (Mihikatha Trust Fund, Dehiwala), Sri Lanka; Anil Agarwal and Ravi Sharma (Centre for Science and Environment) and Ashok Khosla (Development Alternatives), India; Lawrence Surendra (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific -- ESCAP, Madras), India; Vinod Raina (Eklavya) and Shyamala Krishna (Centre for Environmental Education, Ahmedabad), India.
Eva Charkiewica, (Alliance of Northern People on Environment and Development (ANPED), Poland, and Todura Oshida (People's Forum), Japan, were observers.
Here are the meaty parts of the proceedings of the South Asian Consultation held on January 24, 1995, in New Delhi.
Anil Agarwal: How effective have we been as environmental NGOs in South Asia? If we look at the area of education and awareness, South Asian NGOs have done a reasonably good job. In the past decade or so, there has been a tremendous increase in the awareness of the environmental situation and recognition that something needs to be done about it. Over the past 20 years, the doubts about environment coming into conflict with development have been resolved. The relationship between poverty and environment has been well understood.
But what we are really doing in terms of policy analysis is largely restricted to what one would call a 'situational analysis from an ideological perspective'. I think the need of the times is for the NGOs in South Asia to become really active in policy analysis, to be able to find answers at a macro level, answers that can be implemented in our societies.
I am far more conditioned by the situation in India than that in the neighbouring countries. But my understanding is that the relationship between the government and the policymaking system in our parts is relatively different from that in the West. Even the structure and manner in which the bureaucracy is constituted is very rigid here.
The second area we need to consider is firefighting. There are a lot of success stories, but also an equal number of failures. During the past decade, for example, in India we had the Silent Valley campaign. Then, there is the ongoing campaign on Narmada, which has been reasonably successful as of date.
I am not very clear as to where the balance between success and failure really lies. In India, definitely, we did succeed in stalling a policy initiative relating to the introduction of a Forest Bill in 1982. That was one time when the NGOs got together and were able to influence both the political and the policymaking systems. The Bill was eventually dropped.
The problem has resurfaced in 1995. There is a fresh move to introduce the Bill, and we will have to see the outcome of the current campaign.
In the mid '80s, there was a strong move by Indian industry to push the government into giving it large areas of public forest land for plantation purposes. Many groups in the country resisted the move. Finally, this whole idea was given up, and the forest policy announced in 1987 clearly warned the industry that it would have to look for its raw material from the farmer's fields, and not from public forest lands. These would be reserved for ecological purposes and for the requirements of the poor local communities. But once again in 1995, that policy has been reversed.
In the past 15 years, we have had a few successes, but we have not been consistent. We get together and rally around on specific issues, but then we go through a phase of disorganisation, when every challenge that comes up requires a fresh initiative to get organised and question the system.
If we look at the ideological content of what we have been saying, there is a lot to moan about. We have been unable to infuse any of the values that we would like to see in our societies. In fact, the trend in almost all our countries is quite to the contrary. Nor are we making any movement towards the kind of consumption patterns we would like to promote.
Again, our concern for equity, whether in development or environmental policies, remains very poor. The same is true of the issue of participation, despite all the work that has been done on developing models of participation by NGOs. The lessons of that experience are not getting incorporated into our policies -- for instance, in the management of protected areas or sanctuaries, where environmental regulations are the most rigid.
Atiq-ur-Rahman: The NGOs in Bangladesh are now a massive sector and performing quite well. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) is the second largest employer in the country with 37,000 fulltime employees. But our interactions with the politicians are not very encouraging.
The problem is a difficult one. Are we being taken for a ride by the government? Are we being used as a cheap, cost effective delivery system?
The Bangladesh government did prepare a national environment action plan, but we did not have access to it. The World Bank told the government that it could go ahead with the plan only if the NGO community supported it. Whether we should be a party to delegitimising our own government processes remains a moot question.
There are fundamental issues involved here. Theoretically, the government should represent the people in a democratic world, and NGOs should represent the people or serve the people, though not in the electoral sense of the term.
Recently, we carried out an exercise for our National Environment Plan. We organised workshops all over the country, dividing it into agro-ecological zones, and asked the people to define their priorities. We considered this inviolable, because you cannot challenge the priorities of the grassroots section.
But it is very difficult to carry out the plan through the existing bureaucracy, with the present system of accountability of the government and its own procedures of linking the people's needs to a plan. It is a question of forwarding our own proactive agenda. This requires intensive research, and the Grameen Bank is an example of this. Earlier, preliminary research used to be fruitful, but now it has become a PhD producing factory for the North.
My own organisation is a totally self-funded project, so we do not have any core funds. This makes choosing our own priorities extremely difficult. A core fund of 10 to 20 per cent is essential for us to work for sustainable development. This is a crisis that NGOs are encountering all over South Asia. Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank is setting up a village-based, ultra-modern telephone company and servicing system by buying 200,000 cellular telephones for the villagers. They will rent these out for their local community service. So the Gramin Bank is changing policy through direct intervention.
Iftikhar Ahmed: In Pakistan, the government is introducing a new bill in Parliament which limits NGO activities. It proposes strict criteria for registration, monitoring, and accountability. It is clearly a political move and the NGOs are opposing it collectively.
Information networking requires a lot of research and analysis, and the dependency of South Asian NGOs on their Northern counterparts must be eliminated.
The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) received a jolt when we successfully stopped the import of a polluting chlorine plant from Denmark. But the whole exercise clearly revealed that we had not done our homework in terms of information. It was Greenpeace which fed us all the information that enabled us to win the battle.
Khawar Mumtaz: We are working in complex societies where governments sometimes want the NGOs to be their extension, like agents, and at other times, to control them. When we talk of NGOs in the region, I think one of the most important issues is their autonomy.
In Pakistan, human rights activism is extremely sophisticated and well developed, in the sense that there are extensive networks across the country on human rights issues. But we still do not have that kind of base in the environmental movement and that needs to be built.
To give you an indication of the kind of problems we face: we have a National Conservation Strategy (NCS) which is very broadbased and critical of the government. It has been adopted and commitments to review its practices have been made by the state, but the system has not changed in terms of practice.
Networking is the most effective thing. Our organisation in Pakistan acts as a hub, networking among women's groups in the country as well as for the entire Muslim world.
Anil Chitrakar: In Nepal, we are so good at managing crises that we are not adept at managing successes! For instance, the district forest officials simply cannot manage the flood of applications for community forests. Either their office is just not geared to handling them, or there are not enough forests for the people.
Another point is that a lot of the NGOs we work with are now ready to try and replicate their successful work on a cross-boundary basis. Our musk deer go into Tibet, the gharial go down to India, the water flows into Bangladesh. So there is a possibility of cutting across political boundaries and recognising the larger ecosystem.
Vinod Raina: I think there are certain regional issues which require immediate attention. The NGOs of Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan should set up a parallel process and discuss their river basins. None of these governments has a solution to the environmental and development aspects of these basins and the Himalayan ecosystems. I think that there is much room to talk about regional cooperation on marine ecology in the Indian Ocean as well.
Shyamala Krishna: Last December, at Bangalore's Centre for Environment Education, we held a seminar on toxic waste. As a fallout of the seminar, we have already begun the process of documenting hazardous industrial pollution. We have not yet formed a network on toxic waste in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region and we would be happy to form such linkages.
Lawrence Surendra: We are constantly tailing the agenda set for us by the North. With the World Social Summit coming up, I see this pathetic procession of NGO meetings taking place, but they have no clue about what is happening. The level of preparation is poor, and therefore the level of participation is equally dismal. To improve the level of democratic participation, people should have a higher level of knowledge. I think it is possible for some consortiums, say Centre for Science and Environment and Development Alternatives to hold small NGO "capacity building" workshops.
Again, the debate on biodiversity is of a low level because people are not briefed about the conflict involving biodiversity and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT).
Deepthi Wickramasinghe: Sri Lanka's drawback is the ineffectiveness of research, surveys and information gathered by NGOs. The government thinks that the NGOs are talking without proper background information. We should work together to change this attitude. This would mean marshalling hard facts to support our views and ideas, and to suggest alternatives to the government.
Lawrence Surendra: From my personal experience I find that quite a lot of policy effectiveness comes actually by designing training programmes and interacting with the farmers. They are asking basic questions about GATT and biodiversity, and even people who have worked on these subjects for 5-7 years are unable to answer them. This is an area where we have not been very successful.
The other aspect is that we tend to be dismissive about academicians. They are slow to change and maybe 10 years later GATT and biodiversity will be included in university syllabii.If we make a conscious effort, this can be changed by involving some of the open university systems.
Ashok Khosla: I think it is a question of how we go about conducting the activities we espouse, whether grassroots action, policy research, advocacy, shouting slogans, or digging wells. It requires the kind of professional attitude and technical soundness which NGOs often find themselves very uncomfortable with.
The main issue is: how do we strike this tricky balance between what we have got to do and what needs to be done? In our relationships with governments and other NGOs, it is very important to raise the level of consistency in our messages between what we ourselves do and what we preach, in terms of money and support technology. That will automatically help to raise the credibility of the NGO community as a whole.
Five years ago, when we in India were tinkering with Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), we thought that these important policy issues would have a great impact on the lives of ordinary people. At that time, we thought that we would not be able to communicate these terms because they were very complex concepts.
Over the past 5 years, with a very large network of groups, there has been some success in bringing these concepts into discussions with people. Thousands of small groups and meetings in the rural areas of India have made it possible for people to understand what these public issues are. There is a lot to learn from this because it gives us clues on how to handle policy issues with people's interaction in a big way.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of our intervention will finally depend upon whether the NGOs are able to turn policy issues into political issues. Till it remains a NGO discussion issue, it is not going to matter much.
Ravi Sharma: I will tell you about CSE's experience of working with industry on the Montreal protocol, which deals with the preservation of the ozone layer. Environmentalists working in tandem with chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) manufacturers may seem scandalous, but it has produced amazing results on several fronts -- because once we began working together, industry realised that there was a certain commonality of interests.
We received a phenomenal amount of information about multinationals operating in the field. Indian industry feels threatened by multinational interests. It was very useful information for an environmental group like ours, as well as for Indian industry. This fetched us a lot of media publicity, too.
Although industry itself may not be able to influence parliamentarians, politicians do get interested when industry is involved. This may not take the form of lobbying for industry, but it seems they notice those issues much more than issues of a general nature where no specific sector of the society is involved. It also works as a good strategic alliance against the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy does respond sometimes.
Khawar Mumtaz: Lobbying and communication are our definite strengths. In Pakistan, especially during the military regime, we built up very good systems of campaigning and advocacy. That explains the success of our campaign against importing the chlori-alkali plant from Denmark. We got the media behind us, we lobbied with the senate standing committee on environment as well as with the people who were going to import the plant.
But a major lacuna in organisations like ours is the lack of scientific information. That is a gap that needs to be filled because if we are going into the field of environment, we need not only social support, but a lot of technical information.
Iftikhar Ahmed: Our experience in Pakistan is that the government is open to work on public policy research and analysis. Every time we have gone to the government, it has asked us what we would like to be done. If we cannot tell them that, they will not do it.
For example, we have been asking for a revision of the Environmental Protection Act. They told us to give them a new draft on how we would like to restructure it. So instead of having planned key issues of public policy, it has to be formulated to begin with. There is thus a great need to have a public policy research agenda.
Anil Chitrakar: I would like to share with you our campaign experience of the Arun III dam. In 2 years, we have been able to take the issue right up to the board of the World Bank because we were able generate reliable data. If we were to challenge the least costly generation expansion plan produced by the World Bank, we would have to have inherent analysis capacity. Otherwise we would not be able to sit across a table with the Bank's team, who are paid about US $ 1,000 a day to generate these models. So, it is a lot of hard work.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.