Getting it all wrong

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 29 February 1996

SOME institutions, especially the big ones, never learn. In the corridors of the World Bank (WB) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), there is great excitement about the eco-development project that is being formulated to saw India's national parks and sanctuaries. The nearly Rs 118-crore project will focus on eight protected areas (Buxa, Gir, Nagarhole, Palamau, Pench, Periyar, Ranthambhore and Simlipal). And critics are being dismissed, saying that they do not know when a good thing is being presented to them.

Exactly the same point of view was expressed to me nearly 12 years ago by John Spears, the then forestry adviser to the WB, and Cathy McNamara (Robert McNamara's daughter), who was working with the US Agency for International Development on forestry. Everybody was really excited then about the just-launched WB social forestry projects. I expressed my doubts, saying that much better afforestation models, based on people's management and control, were being developed in India itself - by people like Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Priya Ratna Mishra - and that the WB model would not work because it was too dependent on the forest bureaucracy working as the overlord. They were all taken aback. Spears, trying to be funny, asked back, "So, are you against all aid?" I decided to be equally rude. "No, not really," I said. "But I am, when it is given in a mindless manner, as in this project." I added, "Today, you have the power of money. So you will not listen to me. But 10 years later, I would love to meet you and find out what happened- Except that we would have lost 10 years in the process."

Spears has Since left WB. But social forestry projects are now clearly regarded a failure and the general attention of the people interested in afforestation has moved on to a relatively more participatory strategy called joint forest management. And we have lost a decade in the process.

Now that GEF has been set up to protect the world's biodiversity and the WB must pitch in to save the world's environment, the new thrust ark is protecting India's nature parks, which are facing massive people versus park conflicts. Instead of addressing the scientific and management questions relating to the involvement of people in managing parks, and ensuring that all the economic returns go to them, a new hand-out scheme called the eco- development approach is being worked out: people living in and around parks will be given some sops.

Nobody is asking whether such a strategy, so dependent on the wildlife bureaucracy and hand-outs, is affordable by the Government of India for all its protected areas. Nobody is bothering, once again, to look at alternative strategies being developed locally - by Avdhesh Kaushal of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra in Dehra Dun, for instance - to develop a people- managed nature park.

Let us be very clear, that the first problem of forest-based people is not poverty but disempowerment by wildlife laws and programmes and the erosion of their environmental rights to use their habitat. If you alienate the people, then, as economists put it, the 'transaction costs' will inevitably go up. That, no amount of dole will ever help.

I am fully convinced that all that this WB/GEF project will do is to pump in a lot of money - mind you, largely as loans which will be recovered - into the wildlife bureaucracy, just as social forestry projects did for the forest bureaucracy, and its results will definitely be anti -people.

International agencies have willingly become victims of the games that the Indian bureaucracy loves to play - get more money for itself without any accountability, without a system of penalties in case of the projects not delivering. The WB and GEF want to save India's biodiversity, and their project officers will easily fall in line with the bureaucracy's games. In the end, it will not be the WB or GEF officers or those in the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) who will suffer; it will be India and her parks which will suffer.

Other strategies, locally developed and more sensible, will remain ignored while the moolah lasts. And India will lose another decade. Once the project is completed, WB will not worry about its result. Its only interest will be recovering its loan, with interest. The WB will become richer, even if precious time is lost and India's environment becomes poorer.

All good governance systems teach us that development and management efforts should have cost-effectiveness, peoples' involvement, stakeholder participation and control, transparency, democratic ways of functioning and devolved decision making. But how much of that exists in this eco-development project? Consultants and experts sitting far away from the nature parks are trying to understand what people living around these parks want, and develop programmes accordingly. This approach is destined to go wrong from the very outset.

I now wish I had told Spears very clearly, "Yes, I think all WB aid is bad because it is so utterly mindless." I also wonder, like my colleague, Sunita Narain, who recently pointed out in a debate the Centre for Science and Environment organised on India's wildlife conservation policies: "Why is it that after undergoing all the stages of metamorphosis, we still end up as a caterpillar and not a butterfly?" If this is true for the MEF, it is equally true for the WB.

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