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By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015 | 11:04:44 AM

This is a unique year for India's environmental movement. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy. It is also the 30th anniversary of the Chipko movement: women of the Himalaya hugged trees to protect them from the axe of wood loggers. These events have changed the course of India's environmental history, also teaching us about what needs to be done in the future. Therefore, 2004 is also time to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the environmental concern in India.

In this context, let me tell you of my visit to an environmental graveyard recently. Not a toxic dumpyard, but the ministry of environment and forests, planning for and managing decisions on India's environment and forest issues. That day, I saw what the ministry has become: weak and indifferent about its objectives. Practicing make-belief governance: meetings, agenda papers, budgets. Form without substance. At no time, in the meeting I attended, was there any clarity on actions being considered, no debate on the methods and manner of getting the work done; certainly, no intention to understand why what was being discussed was never implemented in the real world. Or if implemented, what we could learn from it for the future. In short, a living apparatus without any signs of life.

This should not surprise us. But it should worry us. Weak regulatory institutions will lead to weaker regulations. Poor planning means poor enforcement. In other words, we cannot ask for sound environmental management. It is simply not possible.

But how has this come to be?

Environmental concern in India began in the early 1970s; Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, at the Stockholm conference on environment; the Chipko movement; the first legislations to protect wildlife and prevent water pollution. Then in the 1980s, institutionalisation: the department of environment was created. In this phase, the aim of regulation was to stop the environment from being denuded. The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 is an example, where legislation was enacted so that forests could not be diverted for non-forestry purposes without clearance from the Centre. It was a phase when the country centralised powers to make 'conservation' effective.

In 1984, the gas disaster in Bhopal made India painfully realise the toxicity of the industrial economy. This gave birth to the 1986 Environmental Protection Act (epa), which became the omnibus legislation regulating air, water and land from environmental pollution and mismanagement. More importantly, epa gave citizens the right to file cases against industry. It legitimised the role of citizens in managing the environment. By the late 1980s, this concern grew into programmes: the Ganga cleaning programme and the mission to afforest 5 million hectares of land were launched. Money was allocated and the budgets of the ministry of environment went up manifold.

The 1990s inherited these programmes and institutions. The aim of this decade was to implement and manage the change. But there was no time for implementation. For the 1990s had another legacy: liberalisation, intense economic growth, when new and urgent problems of water and air pollution and toxic waste emerged.

This was the watershed decade for the institutions as well. At this time, the ministry of environment began to metamorphose in reverse: a beautiful butterfly--a young and dynamic agency--became the ugly caterpillar of an institutionalised bureaucracy. It became more and more obsessed with its own procedures and processes and less and less relevant to the real problems unfolding in the outside world.

And the world did not stop for it. The environmental crisis grew: intense economic change saw to it. The problems, now more complex, needed solutions now more nuanced. They needed arbitration and negotiation. New structures and organisations took the place of the decaying formal institutions.

On the one hand, the space was occupied by an active (sometimes accusingly called activist) judiciary, which began to take over the management of environmental concerns. They were egged on by the thousands of petitions they received from ordinary and not-so-ordinary citizens to clean up the environment and to repair the damage in their daily lives. The courts soon realised they could pass orders but could not implement them. So they innovated institutionally. They created what is now known as empowered committees, to monitor the implementation of the court decisions and oversee the change. All in all, they took control.

On the other hand, citizens groups supported by the media became the active watchdogs and managers of the environment. Even the work of the formal institutions was taken over by these organisations. For instance, as environmental impact assessment became abused through active collusion between industry and bureaucracy, the civil society stepped in. The institution of public hearings drove this process, requiring major projects to be scrutinised and cleared by local people.

So, by 2000, the ministry of environment and forests was buried. But nobody wrote its obituary. It was dead for all practical purposes only.

This is where we stand today. By the end of 2004 we know Chipko's lessons have been forgotten and that Bhopal is all about unfinished business. This is a period when the country is bound to see greater thrust for economic growth and intensification of the use of natural resources. In other words, it will see more conflict and more degradation. The environmental journey in some respects has only just begun. But this time we are proceeding with weak institutions on our side. What then is the way ahead? More, next fortnight.

-- Sunita Narain

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