Anomalies galore

A survey of a World Bank-funded environment programme in Assam

By Zoe Young
Published: Tuesday 15 June 2004

Anomalies galore

-- We had gone there anticipating trouble -- after all, the previous Global Environment Facility (gef) project we had visited was attended by angry scientists and even angrier adivasis. That was at Nagarahole, Karnataka, where we were threatened with arrest for merely showing a film on the discontent that gef had aroused. But things were different in Assam -- the critical, political spectacles we've learned to see gef through hardly prepared us for the widespread praise that we found for the gef- and United Nations Development Programme (undp)- administered small grants programme (sgp) in the state.
All mixed up In Moholdoi district, the project -- helping schools grow minor medicinal fruit trees to sustain local biodiversity -- seemed popular, successful and run by sweet people. The fact that girls were hardly involved was striking to Western female eyes. But as one got along we did see some local women growing useful seedlings -- apparently without any help from a non-governmental organisation. We wanted to find out more about the project's funding. It was then we discovered that this was not a gef- funded project at all. The Centre for Environmental Education -- the national host institution for the sgp -- had got its information on projects and funding all mixed up: when asked for details of gef-assisted sgp sites, it had sent out a list that included projects receiving money from Community Framework Funding -- another undp-administered scheme.
GEF at last Anyway, we moved on to the gef-funded hilly hydel project at the organic Rani tea estate near Guwahati airport. The project seemed too large for a sgp, though not as large as the 13 major hydropower projects currently on the anvil in north-east India. This low-impact undp project cost around a million dollars, and now powers the lights, factory, fans and other gadgets at a large estate run by a family formerly in the construction business. Autri Bhattacharya, who runs the project, showered accolades on the gef and wondered if it might help his latest initiative as well: biodynamic farming at the tea estate.

At Bhattacharya's premises, Czech-built (and now swastika-inscribed) turbines are run with the aid of a computer, which the estate's electrical engineer calls his master, for it informs him whenever problems arise and also how to remedy them. It is another matter that if the computer malfunctions, fixing it requires directions from the Czech Republic. We were left wondering if there was really nobody in India with the required expertise. Moreover, aren't the many consultants bought in by undp supposed to train local people? For his part, Bhattacharya was not sure if the project could be replicated in other parts of the state: it is very rare for the entire extent of a suitable hydel site to be owned by one person. And given the region's troubled politics, engagement in lands belonging to different people is simply too precarious a proposition -- especially to distribute project benefits.

In Barpeta -- a region troubled by Bodo militancy -- our hosts were effusive in enthusiasm: Please come and see, the money has just arrived, the villagers are giving land and the local member of legislative assembly has promised a park. En route we passed howitzers travelling away from the Bhutanese border. With local ultras on the run from camps overrun by that nation's royal army, our hosts had invited a jeep-load of well-armed police to attend to a rare foreign visitor. On arrival we were presented to an audience of white-clad people. Was this treatment because our hosts initially thought we were from the undp?

The state of the riverbank in Barpeta was a real shock and the villagers' interest in the project very real. The embankment is barely a metre wide in places and the threat to 30 low-lying villages from the Pohumara -- a yearly fierce tributary of the Brahmaputra -- was clear. But the gef theoretically supports action by undp, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank only in projects with 'global ramifications'. How had the national sgp steering committee been persuaded to fill in this particular gap, we wondered? But then, these are anomalies of gef in Assam.

Zoe Young is a UK-based filmmaker and author of A New Green Order? The World Bank and the Politics of the Global Environmental Faciliy, Pluto Press, London

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