A look at the future

There is, therefore, no dearth of opportunities that can and should be seized to get rid of poverty and illiteracy, improve living standards, and maintain a balance between want and waste.

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

A look at the future


-- "India has rich democratic and entrepreneurial traditions and has, in the face of emerging rural crisis, thrown up numerous outstanding examples of communities struggling to improve their environment, some of which have shown through the dint of their hard work and persistence that dealing with 'ecological poverty' is, in fact, the starting point of dealing with 'economic poverty'. There is, therefore, no dearth of opportunities that can and should be seized to get rid of poverty and illiteracy, improve living standards, and maintain a balance between want and waste. However, the urban scenario shows a deepening crisis. We not only have to learn how to be a good 'Gandhian in poverty' but also a good 'Gandhian in wealth'. This can be done. All that it needs is a caring heart and a mind aware of its neighbours and natural surroundings."


What does India's environmental future look like at the end of the century?
The Citizens' Fifth Report on the State of India's Environment just released by the Centre for Science and Environment is a document on the current state of the environment but it also provides a peep into the future -- what we can make of it if we seize the opportunities that the past has presented to us and take action to prevent the threats that we face.

In sum, two simple points can be made about India's environmental future:
- If India learns from the outstanding work that has been undertaken to promote community-based natural resource management in the 1980s and 1990s and ensures that these efforts are replicated on a large scale in ecological regions to which they are applicable, then a large part of India's rural poverty can be wiped out in the next 10-20 years.
- On the other hand, India's urban areas will be reeling under increasing pollution, traffic congestion and wastes, making urban life almost unbearable. And given the fact that all those instruments that create public opinion -- from academics to the media -- will largely focus on the urban situation, there will be a growing sense of despair among the powerful urban elite about the future of India even though the rural situation could be improving. We have not even started addressing the problems in the urban sector and have very few innovative paradigms which can give us real hope.

There is, thus, a lot to look forward to as well as to dread.

The Rural Sector Opportunities and challenges

It was only in the early 1970s that the Chipko Movement laid out before the country the need for an environmental agenda and emphasised the significance that the environment held for the poor people of India. It made Indians realise that deforestation was taking place at a rapid pace and had to be stopped.

By the early 1980s, experts had started describing nearly one-third to half of India as a wasteland. In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced a major initiative to green these wastelands through a people's movement. But the idea was stymied by the bureaucracy's lack of understanding on how to deliver the concept. Over the years, Ralegan Siddhi and Sukhomajri have been able to show that it is possible to reverse degradation of even the most degraded land. The biggest lesson being that to deal with "economic poverty" it is necessary to deal with "ecological poverty". And people's management is essential to undertake ecological restoration.

The economic success of the community-based natural regeneration efforts that had started in villages like Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi in the 1970s was beginning to attract nationwide attention. It was also in the mid-1980s that Tarun Bharat Sangh ( tbs ) had started reviving the traditional water conservation techniques in Alwar district of Rajasthan.

By the mid-1990s, this model of community-based natural resource management was already spreading. tbs is today working in nearly 500 villages. The governments of Punjab and Haryana have tried to replicate the Sukhomajri model in several villages. But, most important of all, Dig

of the lesser-known projects of the same kind have delivered reasonably good results. The best result of all these projects is that they have either totally stopped or greatly reduced distress migration from the villages. In other words, greening India's villages has a great potential to reduce the immense pressures that exist on the country's urban centres in the form of slums and exploitative labour conditions, including child labour.

Undoubtedly, these are still the high points of the lessons that India has learnt in the last two decades. And, by historical standards, this is no small achievement. Over the last 200 years, with the advent of the British, a state-dominated paradigm has taken total control of the country's natural re
dertaken in Jhabua becomes a model for drought and poverty-stricken Kalahandi? Orissa has not learnt anything from Madhya Pradesh as yet.

Also, it is equally important to understand that the new natural resource management paradigm developed in Sukhomajri, Ralegan Siddhi and Madhya Pradesh is not universally applicable. This new paradigm -- which begins with participatory rainwater conservation efforts, moves on to management of irrigation
rural poverty:
- The Sukhomajri-Ralegan Siddhi-Jhabua paradigm must be spread to every nook and corner where it is applicable in the next decade.
- Efforts must be made immediately to develop ecologically-appropriate paradigms for those regions for which it is not applicable.

The only question is: will we do it? But the very hope that this is achievable is both inspiring and empowering.

Unfortunately, as the report shows, bureaucracy can still be a major impediment. Sukhomajri is a fine example of

So the major challenge ahead is to regenerate India's lands, making firewood and fodder easily available, and thereby reducing women's work burden.

India has also been successful to some extent in maintaining its forest cover. Official data shows that t]22*]^]]2,+],23,]]2,22]]3,2,
]]^+2V32]-2V2322]]2]d,22]Victions about severe deforestation have not come true due to the government's effort to promote tree planting by farmers on their farmlands, and the invasion of an exotic species called Prosopis juliflora .

Ecology changes in peculiar ways. But this cannot be an excuse for government inaction. The change may not last long. It needs careful nurturing. The firewood and fodder crisis saw a rational response both at the level of community and individual level. But government efforts are still extremely patchy. The government does not encourage people to grow more trees. It has wound down its farm forestry effort. Further, it is still not clea>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>ty to manage the rural environment has definitely improved and past experiences provide valuable lessons. If we learn our lessons properly, we can easily move towards a green rural India. Unfortunately, hope ends here.

A tale of two districts

-- In 1985, both Kalahandi in Orissa and Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh came into the limelight. This followed reports of children being sold in Kalahandi and food riots in Jhabua.Both these problems were related to the ecology.

More than a decade later, Jhabua's ecology has regenerated through a government-sponsored but people-managed watershed development programme, while Kalahandi has slid further into the abyss of eco-destruction.

Like Jhabua, Kalahandi is a tribal upland. In 1990, the forest cover was 67 per cent. Every village in the region has a network of tanks built in the late 18th and early 19th century. But mindless deforestation and destruction of water tanks has resulted in the
per hectare (ha) in Kalahandi. According to official estimates, the district loses Rs 8,000 crore annually due to soil erosion. The soil conservation department has spent more than Rs 90 crore in the last 14 years to build 1,400 water-harvesting structures. The construction of 58 micro-watersheds (of 500 ha each) with an investment of Rs 14.5 crore is also in progress.

"But without effective people's participation... these programmes have not been able to bring eco-regeneration and improvement in the socioeconomic condition of the people," says the State of Orissa's Environment , published by the Council of Professional Social Workers.

In Madhya Pradesh, the government has created many institutions at the state, district and village levels to initiate a people's movement for watershed development. In Orissa, there has been no such initiative.

Talking about air

-- Environmental health, that is, health problems that result from changes in the environment, are nobody's business today. The ministry of health says that this is the business of the ministry of environment and forests. The latter is quick to pass the buck back to the former. But in the unending relay, millions continue to die. At least in India. Every year, a million die because of water pollution, and another 50,000 to 100,000 because of air pollution. In 10 years, more than 10 million will die. But who cares? Talking about aches and irritants seem to have become fashionable today. Of course, it is another issue that those complaining about the pains and others who lend an ear to them seem oblivious to the fact that it is a result of the deteriorating environment.

Stink and muck

Every single chapter of the Fifth Citizens' Report that deals with the urban sector paints a distressing picture. The chapter on "Atmosphere" shows that it is not just metros like Delhi which are reeling under severe air pollution but also towns like Rajkot in Gujarat and Gajroula and Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh. Even towns such as Agartala, which the cash-strapped Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) does not monitor, is no better. So is Srinagar, the jewel of Kashmir.

The government has no clue how to handle this problem. If anything is happening, it is only because of the green judges of the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that India's traffic system is dominated by highly polluting two-stroke engines, the cpcb does not even monitor benzene -- a potent carcinogen -- levels in the air. In Delhi, benzene levels are more than 10 times the European Union standards. And nobody is prepared to check the dieselisation of the private automobile fleet even though diesel fumes contain deadly carcinogens. A pricing policy which keeps diesel prices low encourages everyone to use it. The petroleum minister even has the gall -- rather ignorance -- to say that he is going to give the nation a gift by reducing diesel prices even further. Adding to our woes, the petroleum secretary recently said he has no money to improve diesel quality. India produces one of the dirtiest kinds of this fuel in the world. He even asked a visiting pollution control team whether Delhi really had a serious air pollution problem. Let us be very clear. No nation can even address "ecological poverty" unless it gets rid of its "mental poverty".

The chapter on "Water" focuses on river pollution. And again the picture is absolutely appalling. Every single water channel that passes through a town or a Green Revolution area immediately becomes a toxic drain. But neither does the Central government have enough money to build sufficient sewage treament plants, nor do the cash-strapped state governments and municipalities have adequate funds to operate them. But as long as there is investment in hardware -- pumps, pipes and drains, in this case -- everybody is happy looting the public treasury.

The chapter on "Habitat" takes a look at towns outside the mayhem of the metros. But these towns are worse. Industrial towns like Ludhiana, Jetpur, Tiruppur and Rourkela are rich but they suffer from acute toxification of their environment. Non-industrial towns like Aligarh and Bhagalpur have little money but they are cesspools too. Jaisalmer, a tourist town, now has so much water that groundwater seepage is leading to cracks in the very bastion of the fort. The fear of 'buckling political systems', that was voiced in the Citizens' Second Report, 1995, has been confirmed. Worse still, there is no strong protest and organised civic effort to change anything. Delhi residents were more worried about the price of onions in the last elections than the quality of the city's air. Almost as if the filth they are living in does not matter. But they do mind the dirt of others affecting their lives. The people of Dhoraji, living downstream of Jetpur, and the farmers living below the town of Tiruppur have filed court cases against polluters upstream. Though the judges have threatened closure of the polluting units, little has changed. Yet, this seems to be the only ray of hope.

Given the fact that India has just begun to urbanise and industrialise and the additional fact that one unit increase in the Gross Domestic Product can bring about an increase of 2-5 units of pollution, we can be sure that the next two decades will see India's towns living in a toxic hell. It will all ultimately change because the urban crisis will one day force the people to make the political leadership look for solutions. But not before millions have died because of air and water pollution and contaminated food.

Unfortunately, the cracking of urban India will mask even the positive changes that could take place in rural areas. Already the Indian media is almost exlusively focussed on Indian urban middle-class concerns. The outstanding story of Jhabua was missed not merely by the English media but also by Madhya Pradesh's own Hindi press. And, of course, no television reporter ever discovered Jhabua despite the mushrooming of satellite channels.

Uncivil servants

Dams have seen the strongest environmental protests in India. But these protests have failed to stop dams where rehabilitation has been the key issue. This shows that the government still believes that someone has to pay the price of development. And electoral democracy does not always favour the displaced.

A humane rehabilitation policy that would be acceptable to all parties concerned still remains elusive. The country's water managers are yet to revise their water supply and hydropower strategies. As a result, agitations have not only managed to slow down state-sponsored progress on dam construction and investment, they have not been able to influence the country's future water development policy and programmes.

The government is also yet to learn how to develop conflict resolution mechanisms. The conservation strategy to deal with this crisis is state-dominated and anti-people. It does not give people any role in the management of their habitat and resources. For example, the concept of ecodevelopment, which is being promoted by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, and is adopted by the Government of India, does not take into account the human aspect in its entirety. The underlying principle being once again to separate people from their immediate natural environment in order to save it, rather than making them participate in its management. Experiences with the proposed Rajaji National Park and Gir Lion Sanctuary show that rehabilitation of the ousted forest communities has not worked. While some rejected the resettlement plan outright, others either ended up being landless labourers or migrated to urban areas.

However, given the inefficiency of the governance system, India's democracy is asserting itself. The Supreme Court has stepped in to give Indian citizens the right to lodge complaints against the despoilers of the environment. This shows the inefficiency of our executive. But is it a healthy trend for the judiciary to perform the functions of the executive? To bring about any significant change, it would be crucial for the judges to simultaneously address the poor state of environmental governance.

The way ahead

In an environment marked by mass poverty, it is not easy to adopt high-cost technological options that have often been the hallmark of the Western effort to deal with environmental problems. But answers can and will be found. And they will lie, most of all, in:
- Good democracy: debate and discussion which engenders a search for appropriate technological and management solutions as the region moves towards higher rates of economic growth and social development; and,
- Good governance: channelises environmental concerns into development programmes; ensures the development of a strong civil society; and encourages people's empowerment in the management of natural resources.

India has rich democratic and entrepreneurial traditions and has thrown up numerous examples of communities struggling to improve their environment. Some of these have shown that dealing with "ecological poverty" is, in fact, the starting point of dealing with "economic poverty". There is, therefore, no dearth of opportunities that can and should be seized to get rid of poverty and illiteracy, and maintain a balance between want and waste. We not only have to learn how to be a good "Gandhian in poverty" but also a good "Gandhian in wealth".

The success in rural natural resource management shows that we should never see people as inimical to the environment. We must always try to find answers that reconcile people's interests with environmental conservation.

- Good science. Pollution control will require investments in scientific and technological research as also in wildlife research, toxicology and epidemiology. Further, several instances of forest diseases show that scientific back-up for good forest management is very poor. The government invested heavily in science for India's food security and for industrial development, but it is not putting as much into science for ecological security.
- Concern for equity. Exploitation of the have-nots in the name of environmental improvement must stop. All environmental scams and corrupt practices must be considered heinous crimes.
- Good values. The following values are essential to make India a more humane country in the 21st century: respect for nature; respect for cultural diversity; respect for the poor, their knowledge and their extraordinary ability to manage their affairs in the worst of adversity; respect for equity, including its social, cultural, economic and gender dimensions; and, respect for democracy and the right of participation.

Industry in Northeast

-- "The geographical location of the Northeast is very fragile. If many polluting industries start spurting all over the region, with no treatment plants and sewage all over the place, there will be hardly anything left. Industry in the region should be restricted to organised eco-tourism."

-- C K Varshney,
professor and dean,
School of Environmental Sciences,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

"Only high-value, low-volume industries should be set up in the region. There are many fly-by-night operators out to make a quick buck. They should not be allowed to set up industries there. The timber industry should not be revived as the land is virtually raped most of the time. This depletes the topsoil. The region being a very fragile area is prone to landslides."

-- Alok Rawat,
Sikkim's resident commissioner in Delhi.

"Industrial ventures in the Northeast will not be sustainable. Industry in the region has been largely restricted to those interested in making a quick buck. Political and infrastructural problems afflicting the region make it difficult for sustainable industry to be set up. Corruption is a grave problem in the region. Given the situation, only tax benefits will not help in the overall development of the region. The issue has to be dealt with keeping the wider perspective in mind."

-- Mahendra P Lama,
associate professor at the Centre for South Asian Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


-- "We are not against ship-breaking, but against hazardous ship-breaking. Hence, if the government feels that reducing 5 per cent in duty to help the industry grow in India is going to give it the competitive edge vis--vis other countries, which are mainly China and other Southeast Asian countries, then that is fine. However, it is surprising that the government has completely ignored the serious labour and environmental issues involved. The implied message in the custom's duty reduction is that the government is now abetting the well-documented violations of all laws -- national and international -- by the Indian ship-breaking industry. In its current condition, the reduction of customs duty will only accentuate the problem of hazardous ships coming into India and killing people as well as destroying the coastal environment. The underlying message [of the Budget] is that we want development at any cost."

Rajiv Agarwal,
director of srishti, a NGO.


-- "The formation of the National Movement of Watershed Development, about which many people were talking outside the government, has been fulfilled. At this point, it is not important how much money will be spent on the project or how it is going to be implemented. At least it has been recognised by the Government."

-- Ramaswamy R Iyer,
Centre for Policy Research,
New Delhi.

"The Budget has given a major thrust to rural development. The panchayats (village councils) will collectively decide the future of [developmental] projects or schemes. Also, a state that would not involve people in its projects would lose out on funds. The formation of National Movement of Watershed Development is a right step in the right direction."

-- N C Saxena,
former secretary to the ministry of rural areas and employment.

Diesel pricing

-- "The diesel price has not been hiked as such. A few months earlier, diesel price was reduced by Re 1. So now we are back at the same thing, only now it is now in the form of cess. The money is supposedly going into the development and maintenance of the roads instead of going to the oil companies. There would not be much difference in consumption patterns. So there should not be much difference on the pollution just because of this."

-- N Ranganathan,
former head of transport department, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

"The hike of Re 1 is insignificant because the difference between diesel and petrol has not been bridged. It still is the same. There should be no dual pricing. In fact, there should be a complete bridging of the gap between the price of diesel and petrol. It is a question of priorities. Nothing has been done from the environment point of view. The two-wheeler sector has not been touched at all. the hike in the diesel price has nothing to do with any drive for the improvement of the environment or discouraging the use of diesel. It is purely from the revenue point of view" (see p58).

-- Bibek Debroy,
director, research,
Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Delhi.
"The Budget has nothing to do with the environment. The minor changes in the pricing will not affect anything as far as environment or pollution is concerned. Local policies are more important than the national Budget. It is a task of the state governments."

-- Dinesh Mohan,
professor, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme,
Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

"There is nothing [in the Budget] purely from the environment point of view. I would say this is a case of missed opportunities. There is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. If you talk about the environment, the Budget has to propose and facilitate remedial measures. The Budget is in fact a reflection of the concerns of the government. It seems that the Union ministry of environment and forests has no expertise on environmental economics. The government does have options. Things like pollution taxes, taxes on vehicles and their prices, raising the water cess, a concession on the prices of pollution control equipment. These are some of the issues that should have been addressed. But these are not to be seen anywhere" (see p59).

-- Shreekant Gupta,
reader and associate professor,
department of economics,
Delhi School of Economics.

The Year 2000 bug

-- "This Budget is software friendly. The government has reinforced its confidence in the software industry and we are confident of achieving our software export target of Rs 17,500 crore in 1999-2000. I welcome the government's decision to allow all expenditure incurred by the corporate sector in making their systems Y2K compliant to be allowed as revenue expenditure."

-- Dewang Mehta,
president, National Association of Software and Service Companies, and member of the National Y2K Action Force.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.