Civil society and all government agencies are responsible for sustainable development
India has in place a well-structured and elaborate framework for environmental clearance. It includes a well-defined legal framework consisting of an Environmental Impact Assessment Notification that emerged from the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. Checks and balances in the form of appraisal committees, expert committees, environmental information system and public hearings are in place purportedly to “increase transparency and accountability”. It is also supported by a judicial instrument, the National Environmental Apellate Authority.
On paper this appears to be a robust framework for adopting a precautionary approach to development. Then why are environmental clearances granted to projects that are in violation of the legal framework? In fact, very often these violations are by the state itself. Such contradictions have led to repeated setting up of “expert committees” by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to review contested clearances.
We appear to be looking at development in much the same way we look at environmental education in schools. The Supreme Court decree that environmental education be made a compulsory subject has increased awareness on environmental issues but in most cases students and educators look at it as just another subject a student must pass. In the same vein, conservation of resources is seen as the responsibility of MoEF rather than that of the government and society as a whole. It is perceived as just another box that must be ticked on the road to development.
If linkages and interdependencies between communities and natural resources are taught as part of every subject, our approach to development will be holistic. To quote environmental educator David Orr, “By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world.” Understanding the interdependencies and the significance of managing natural resources as common property will illustrate the linkage between economics, physical and natural sciences. This understanding will provide the foundation for planning and policy making by future generations.
Let’s now return to the current official approach to environment protection. The approach often pits MoEF against other ministries—the agriculture and industry ministry for example. This strife can be considerably reduced if every ministry issues guidelines for responsible resource utilisation to project proponents. The government does have some good examples to choose from. The new mining policy of the Ministry of Mines talks of “go” and “no go” areas; the latter have dense forest cover and mining is not allowed. Mandatory provisions for responsible use of common resources such as water, land and forests must be built into development policies in all sectors including industry, agriculture and services, particularly financial services.
Governance of resources through the commons approach is not a new idea. Traditional societies worldwide practised it effectively in pre-colonial times. Adapting the principle in today’s resource-fragile environment and creating workable models are the challenge.
While the government provides the regulations, accountability will have to be ensured by the civil society through well-structured monitoring mechanisms. Community-driven social audits of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) are an example. However, true accountability can be ensured by a third party, outside the government purview.
Civil society, in fact, is increasingly demanding more watchdog powers in developmental issues. In recent times it has even taken upon itself to draft legislation.
In a paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2001, a few educators emphasised another role for the civil society. They argued the scientific data available through research and field experience can help develop guidelines for the planning process. Civil society institutions, particularly educational and research bodies, can collaborate with the government in framing such guidelines. This would in turn allow the public at large to participate in an informed manner in the development process.
Radha Gopalan is with the Rishi Valley Education Centre in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh
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