Ecological poverty

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Monday 15 January 2001

India's politicians never seem to think ahead. They have created three new states out of some of the poorest regions of India -- Uttaranchal, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand -- without any idea of how would these states survive economically without a huge and permanent largesse from the Centre. If the new chief ministers get stuck in the same old mould, we will hear more cries of neglect from the Centre. In a country where politicians love to talk about poverty but know precious little about how to deal with it, an obvious question to ask is: What will be the economic development strategy in these states?

The answer lies in redefining poverty. The leaders of these states have to recognise that it is 'ecological poverty' that plagues these states more than the 'economic poverty' that economists love to dwell upon. They need a strong and healthy natural resource base that can help the poor to improve their own natural resource-based enterprises like agriculture, rearing of animals and forestry. These states don't need economists. They need good environmental managers; in fact, better managers than what the rest of the country has ever seen. This needs a redesign of governance and the mindset of officials to serve ecological development. As a first step, the new chief ministers should declare themselves the chief environmental officers ( ceo's) of their states.

Why do I say this? Firstly, all three are largely forest states. Each one has a large population heavily dependent on forests. But large tracts of land have already been deforested. In Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, autocratic management of forests has seriously alienated the people and Naxalite movements have gained ground with support from the local populace. Therefore, the first challenge for these states is to get the people involved in regenerating their forests in a way that they come to 'own' these forests and are interested in their sustainable management. Beginning with greater control over minor forest produce that would increase their income -- something along the lines of the recent Van Dhan programme started in Bastar district -- the people could plant trees on deforested tracts and earn substantial returns at a later stage.

Secondly, agriculture in these states has to be nursed back to health. All the three new states receive high rainfall, an annual average of more than 1,000 mm. Yet agriculture remains poor. A major programme for community-based rainwater harvesting, followed up with a more comprehensive watershed development programme, can significantly improve productivity. Agriculture in these states might never become like it is in Punjab with an overflowing surplus. But there is no reason to believe that each village cannot become self-sufficient in food, with possibly even a small marketable surplus. At a later stage, with the health of the resource base improved, farmers can turn to high-value crops for distant markets.

Thirdly, all the three states are rich in biodiversity. They need programmes not just to conserve their eroding biodiversity but also to put it to good use. Farming of herbs can add value to agriculture. Uttaranchal can take the Kerala route in using its herbal wealth to develop a large Ayurvedic healthcare industry for its local population as well as for the bigger market. Fourthly, the scenic beauty of the three states, especially Uttaranchal, is of greater ecological value. Managing tourism without destroying the environment is not something that the Indian administrators know nothing about. Uttaranchal has always had good tourism for religious and recreational purposes. But each of its towns -- from Joshimath and Gangotri of the first kind to Mussoorie and Nainital of the second kind -- is today a cesspool of dirt, filth and pollution, like the rest of urban India. Moreover, tourism in India has rarely been organised for the benefit of the local people.

But it is unlikely that the ceo's of the new states will focus on any of these natural resources. Forest, water and biodiversity management don't have powerful lobbies. The existing lobbies will focus on activities that benefit contractors and companies, which will lead to exploitation of minerals, and in making roads. Governments in India love to talk about poverty but usually serve the interests of contractors and companies. The trouble is that both roads and mineral exploitation can easily destroy the natural resource base of the poor -- forests and biodiversity, in particular -- unless there is a strong governance of these resources which involves the local people instead of alienating them.

Therefore, the ceo's, if of the right mind, have no choice but to focus on ecological poverty, decentralised natural resource governance and a people's movement for land-water-forest management. The people will then be their friends. But their own corruption and the standard autocratic ways of their officers will be their biggest enemy. If they are able to show leadership they would not have just benefitted their own people but set an example for the rest of the country's political class on how to deal with poverty. This will not be a small achievement.
-- Anil Agarwal

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