Terms of un-endearment

What should be the new terms of engagement?

Published: Thursday 30 September 2004

-- A NATIONAL environment policy is on the anvil. The Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has drafted a version and placed it in the public domain for all to review in two months. But the draft has made the civil society sulk. Their grouse: MoEF has become insular. It's liberalised avatar, they say, doesn't really accommodate people's views. The draft is a refusal to engage creatively with the public.

But could it be that the civil society has missed the point? Could it be that MoEF is getting smarter? Consider the possibility that the ministry today has a more engaging faade. It has searched cautiously among the informed, and selected those it considers 'friendly'. The consequence: MoEF is able to declare itself 'participatory'; at any given moment, it can bandy about a team of 'experts' that 'advise' it on issues -- environmental clearances, structural adjustment, what have you. The activist community, meanwhile, finds itself in a bit of a muddle, a confusion muttered privately and mildly.

The situation is piquant: there are those willing to work with government, because they believe in change that is good. A partnership is struck. And before they can so much as say "people-friendly", there emerges a draft policy -- all-new, civil society-affirmed, apparently publicly debated. A policy that ad-libs civil society positions but means only what the government desires.

Is the civil society losing a war, battle by co-opted battle? Why has there been a protest about who got consulted, and not about the entire process of consultation? Why the hunt for martyrs and devils? Why not interrogate the modes by which government consults and involves the public?

It's an era of structural adjustments -- a liberal economist's jargon for reducing the state's responsibility to govern. India's civil society, too, needs to structurally adjust: look long and hard at its responsibility to tackle those who govern. There must be another push to refine and reconstruct the terms of engagement between the public and the government. Public participation cannot be reduced to tokenism. If the process of participation in policymaking is open and democratic, the question of who holds agency for the public will, quite logically, become less relevant.

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