The anti-people attitude that environmental NGOs had vehemently opposed in the '80s has resurfaced in the recent draft Forest Policy Bill. The author examines why the NGOs failed to influence …

Saving grace: Narmada Bachao A (Credit: Ashish Kothari)FOR environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in India, the recent draft Forest Policy Bill is a depressing indication of their inability to affect policymaking even after years of hoarse activism. More than 10 years after the NGOs exhausted themselves trying to stop the implementation of a similar anti-people forest bill, the powers that be are gleefully back with a draft more regressive than the previous one. Years of fiery grassroots activism in India and the world hasn't made a whit of a difference to a bureaucracy abusing itself playing power games.

The draft seeks to expand the concept of village forests, and rules that the funds to be provided to local bodies for afforestation and other activities would be recovered from the sale of village forest produce. But nowhere is it mentioned whether the people's requirements would be prioritised, or subordinated to the sale of forest produce only for recovery of loans.

Also, it rules out reserved forests being converted to village forests when the majority of the country's forests are, in any case, already reserved. Among other people-unfriendly measures that the draft lists is one that makes the "carrying capacity" of a forest the single criterion for people's rights. But it is left entirely to the forest settlement officer's discretion to estimate the carrying capacity of a forest. The people have no say in the matter.

Although the Union minister of state for environment and forests, Kamal Nath, has reacted to the criticism of the recent draft by asking NGOs to send in their suggestions, there is no telling how many of the changes the ministry will finally incorporate. "The final bill will be a consensus after interactions with the general public," says M F Ahmed, inspector general (forests). "But even there, there are limitations, and it will be difficult to keep everybody happy."

Besides, the minister's sardonic reaction seems to be motivated by his own dissatisfaction with the draft. Environmental activists in Delhi attribute Nath's willingness to accept outside suggestions to the fact that while funds for joint forest management (JFM) from international donor agencies "have been propping up the ministry so far", the draft more or less takes no cognizance of social forestry. "Also," says Ashwini Chhatre of the Indian Social Institute, "the minister has a stake in industry while the draft makes no provision for this."

The draft seeks to transfer powers for commercial exploitation of forests to the Centre and puts restrictions on the industrial use of forests.
Non-governmental non-governance The NGOs have reacted to the draft by setting up 3 different groups -- one in south India, one in Gujarat and another in Delhi -- to come up with suggestions. But the NGOs are nobbled with an inglorious history: the 3-year-long effort they launched against the 1982 draft did not succeed in getting their message through to the government.

While some activists go to the extreme of saying that there has really been no environmental NGO "movement" in India so far with a decided mandate, others point out that NGOs have been more successful at least in some areas of environmental protection, and that there are some periods of blissful success. But both camps emphasise that their inability to get certain ideas -- particularly people's participation -- through to the policymaking level has more to do with the government's unwillingness to relinquish power rather than to any NGO shortcomings. They say that the lopsided systems and structures that determine the distribution of power and resources remain unchanged.

"The existing system is far too strong for NGOs to affect decisionmaking," says Walter Fernandez of the Indian Social Institute. "We can only hope to push as far as we can, and make a dent."

But Chhatre has his dagger out in full view. "An environmental NGO movement does not exist in India," he says. "A 'movement' would suggest a certain focus, but what we have so far is only knee-jerk reactions to certain issues. Environmentalist action started in India in the '70s, but there has been a spate of anti-people legislations since then, compared to only 2 (Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) previously."

According to Chhatre, even the hit scored by the NGOs when they halted the implementation of the bill proposed in the early '80s is piffling. "Most of the provisions of that bill made a backdoor entry into state legislations," he contends.

While expressing similar views, Chandan Dutta from the Society for Participatory Research In Asia says that while NGOs may have been successful in stopping the government from adopting disastrous policies in the past, they have seldom been able to iron out differences among themselves and come up with workable alternatives. "NGOs have not been too successful in giving clear operational suggestions," he says.

Light from the embers
Ashish Kothari from Kalpavriksh, however, says that there have been particular areas of success for NGOs over the past few years. "NGOs have been particularly successful in conservation, for example, but conservation in the narrow wildlife sense," he says. "The government has been supportive of this elitist point of view only because it suits its own interests. But this has helped to some extent -- the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the amendment, for example, did succeed in stopping mining and other such activities in protected areas."

Kothari also rates as fairly high the success NGOs have had with water management projects, "particularly with river valley projects. After Narmada, there has been an opening up on the part of the government. NGOs are now being involved in clearances, and the government is not pressing for big projects anymore," he says.

According to Kothari, although the '80s were a time when government-NGO bonhomie peaked, the last few years have been a long downhill slide. "New policies have given a thrust to industrialisation and so-called liberalisation," he says. "All the norms and environmental guidelines that had been built up in the '80s have been weakened because the message has gone out that now is the time for a free-for-all."

Kothari sees 2 conflicting forces emerging -- while on the one hand, NGO influence is on the increase, the new economic disorders are undoing their work. "Take fisheries as an example," he says. "In the '80s, there was a move towards sustainable fisheries and trawlers were not allowed. But the past 2 or 3 years have seen an increase in aquaculture projects and the use of big trawlers. And whereas you do have the National Fisherworkers' Forum fighting for their rights, it is too early to tell which trend will finally settle in."

Shekhar Singh from the Indian Institute of Public Administration sees a similar decline in government-NGO relations over the past few years, but for varied reasons. "There has been a serious decline since the new government came in," he says." The relationship was at an ascendancy in the '80s, when political leaders like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were seriously interested in these issues," he says. "Maneka Gandhi ended up having very little influence. But now, there are some NGOs who toe the government line and get heard. This is not to say that the ministry is actually nourishing the NGO movement; which is why the NGOs are losing interest. Finally, what will be left is an army of militant NGOs as the democratic ones get marginalised. And that is because we have a government that only listens if people begin bursting bombs under its bed."

But perhaps what is even more significant is the failure of NGOs to make the right linkages between their work at the micro-level and the wider systems and structures of which they form a small part. Grassroots NGOs, particularly, get easily overwhelmed by more powerful political interests within state, or local economic, elites, and seldom get heard at levels that matter.

Some urban NGOs, nevertheless, do succeed in providing a link. "In the past few years particularly," says Kothari, "grassroots NGOs have formed strong links with urban organisations. These linkages ensure that both the MLAs and the government in Delhi are constantly pressured. Narmada is an example of the importance of a linkage between people affected by destruction and urban groups."

On the other hand, Santosh Mohanty from the Social Research Development Council, a grassroots organisation in Baripada, Orissa, points out that often urban NGOs are eager to exploit the experience of grassroots NGOs to garner funds for themselves. "It does not always suit their selfish interests to have grassroots NGOs lobby for themselves," he says.

While pointing out that grassroots organisations need to go beyond pure, often reflexive, activism, Fernandez warns that the recent trend to create a dichotomy between urban and rural NGOs along the lines of "activism and intellectual output" could prove dangerous. The comparative advantage that grassroots NGOs wield lies in the relationships they create, but it is difficult to imagine that they can achieve their objectives in isolation from the national and the international political process.

According to Singh, part of the failure of the NGOs has also been their inability to develop environment into a political issue. "A programme on Doordarshan at election time a few years ago got together 40 or 50 people to ask them to list important issues demanding immediate attention. Only one of them, a wellknown environmentalist, even mentioned environment," he says. His observation is borne out by the fact that although the draft Forest Policy Bill raised its snout while campaigning was on for the assembly elections this year, the issue fell flat on its face even in the states with considerable forest populations.

"Political parties lack motivation, information and experience," says Govindacharya, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party. "Local social action groups have to increase people's participation in the political process to get through to the government."

Fernandez emphasises the need for NGOs to think beyond influencing national policymaking. "Many major decisions are not taken in India, and it is very difficult to influence the international lobby," he says. "There are vast differences in the perspectives of North and South NGOs, and the challenge now lies in the NGOs of the South coming together to influence the decisions made on the international level."

Gut differences
Part of the problem has also been differences among the NGOs themselves. "The reason why the government has been able to ignore the voluntary organisations so far is because they have not been able to put up a united front," says Mohanty.

But if the NGOs have to submit a workable alternative to the recent draft, they will have to iron out their differences which, Kothari agrees, exist in ample and martial measure. "There are, for example, some organisations who feel that the Union government is more progressive than the state governments, and so should be vested with more power. But then again the issue is not the Union vs state government, but people vs government. The major challenge the NGOs face today and will face in the years to come will be getting people's participation in forest management."

To achieve their objectives of people's participation, then, the NGOs will have to have a better focus, take a more proactive stand, come up with workable solutions, and maximise their impact through hardselling lobbying and advocacy.

"Environmental NGOs have had some impact in the past," sums up Fernandez. "But the challenge now lies in working out alternatives and putting pressure on the system to accept them."

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