Jobs and the environment

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

Is the problem of Kashmir merely one of guns and guards or also one of hearts and minds? Unfortunately, neither the Central and state governments nor the Indian media have paid adequate attention to the latter dimension of the problem.

C Subramaniam, the former finance minister, has written an interesting piece recently in which he talks about the growing educated unemployment in the state which is feeding the militancy. He advocates the promotion of a new economy based on information technology. In addition, efforts to improve the state's agriculture and horticulture can have a major impact on the economy and employment of its rural poor, of which there is no dearth either. As I work in the field of environment, I would like to discuss the economic opportunities from natural resource enterprises offered by the region's ecology. The poor of the Kashmir Valley are already developing such opportunities. The valley has extremely limited land and, therefore, to eke out a survival, the people are cultivating the waters, we repeat, the waters of the Dal Lake. Of course, environmentalists don't like it and nor do political leaders, who are influenced by unthinking environmental hype. Indeed, cultivation is not good for the lake's ecology but nobody has a serious answer that can resolve the lake's contradictory social, economic as well as ecological considerations.

It is in this context that the recent debate on the shahtoosh gets our gall. And chief minister Farooq Abdullah's cave-in to conservationists to ban the shahtoosh shawl is indeed appalling. It shows not just ecological mindlessness but also political mindlessness. Not surprisingly everyone connected with the shahtoosh trade has strongly protested against Abdullah's position. According to newspaper reports, a shahtoosh shawl is highly prized in the West and fetches as much as us $3,000 to us $15,000. The total foreign exchange earned is said to be around Rs 200 crore a year. In India, it commands prices ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs one lakh. Some 50,000 families face unemployment. If these figures reported in newspapers are true, then the j&k government should do everything to protect its enterprise.

Environmental arguments that the population of the chiru (Tibetan antelope) has dropped from one million about 50 years ago to about 65,000 now and that about 20,000 are killed every year, are only relevant to the extent that the wild population should now be protected. It does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the trade should be banned. Given the fact that shahtoosh making requires only the fibre of the chiru antelope, there is no reason even to kill the animal. Why can't the vast Changthang pasture, where the chiru is found, be used to farm these animals in such numbers that these highly coveted shawls become a mass commodity instead of just remaining an elite possession - a trade that employs not just 50,000 families but 500,000 and earns Rs 2,000 crore instead of Rs 200 crore.

If Indian conservationists were not so anti-poor and enterprise-illiterate they would have tried to learn a lesson or two from the French and Swiss Alps, both of which were in a highly degraded state at the start of the 20th century because of overgrazing. Today, these alpine pastures have returned to their full glory not because of bans on cattle but because of a rip-roaring, cooperative dairy industry that commands the attention of the whole world. Dairy farmers have been organised to use the pastures in an ecologically-sound manner and local products have been protected so that nobody can sell French and Swiss brands of cheese or chocolate anywhere in the world. If Farooq Abdullah has any sense he will ensure that the state rapidly moves towards chiru farming, good use of the Changthang pastures and gives a big boost to the shahtoosh trade.

Forestry is another area where clearly a huge amount of employment and wealth can be created. A lot of houses in Kashmir are made out of wood and Srinagar alone consumes some 50,000 tonnes of firewood every year. On the other hand, a very small part of the state is under forest cover and of the 2.04 million hectares of forests that were recorded by remote sensing satellites in 1993-95, about 46 per cent was degraded open forest and another 15 per cent were highly degraded forest scrub lands. Clearly, a community forest management programme of the kind in operation in Nepal is needed to regenerate these forests which ensures that local people get the full economic benefits.

Political leaders like Maneka Gandhi have a particularly key role to play. They must take into account the ecological and economic interests of the poor. The poor have everywhere depended on animals and plants for their survival. Surely, every effort should be made to make their production systems as gentle and humane as possible but we can't let the well-fed animal lovers of the West or of Delhi teach us our value systems. If Maneka's environmentalism is to be consistent, then she should sit on an indefinite dharna against all diesel cars used by the fatuous rich of Delhi and her cabinet colleagues. The brunt of environmental protection cannot just be borne by the poor.

- Anil Agarwal

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