Suresh P Prabhu looks back on his tenure as Union minister for environment and forests and speaks to Lian Chawii and Kazimuddin Ahmed on the issues that confront India's environment
What were your major achievements during your tenure as environment minister?
Since 1952, we have been trying to increase forest cover to 33 per cent, but there has been no action plan. I have prepared a very comprehensive action plan and a number of donor agencies have been identified to fund this afforestation programme. This project will cost about us $32 billion.
Under the Joint Forest Management ( jfm ) programmes, where one hundred per cent of the produce is given to the local people, we have made the involvement of women mandatory: any jfm committee that does not have more than 50 women will not receive any help from the government. Besides, we have also increased the tiger habitat for protected areas to about 40,000 sq km. I have also been able to achieve success in a number of endeavours.
In many cases, the money allotted for the project does not reach the local people. How can corruption be dealt with?
The participation of people in projects is the best insurance against corruption. It is important to remove the various layers that exist between the Union government and the people.
We have introduced for the first time a concept of district forest development agency. Now, whatever funding we receive, either internationally or nationally, will go directly to the district using this mechanism.
Have the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules been diluted?
No, it has not been diluted.
What is the status of the biodiversity bill?
For the past six months there has been no session of Parliament. Until the next Parliament session is convened, nothing can be done.
How does the Indian government plan to tackle the issue of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)?
Anything that is not natural and has a potential to damage the biodiversity of the country should not be encouraged.
Does India need a constitutional legislation to protect the environment?
A legislative lacuna exists, but that only needs to be tightened up. There is a specialised committee working on ways to tackle environmental problems. But the question is of weak implementation. To make sure that laws are complied with, we need the involvement of people. Here, non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) can play a vital role in spreading awareness.
What do you have to say about lobbies that are anti-environment?
There are lobbies everywhere, some of them well concealed that help one constituent or the other. Everybody is a beneficiary of a lobby and lobbies benefit from something. But my ministry has nothing to do with any lobby.
How do you reconcile your present portfolio with your previous stint as industry minister? Isn't there a contradiction in some ways?
It all depends on one's perception. The people must decide whether we need industries. There is a need for the industry, clean environment, health and education, and they must learn to co-exist. The common thread that links them all is of human welfare.
Religious teachings are environment-friendly, but religious festivals tend to be environmentally hazardous and polluting. Is there a way of tackling this problem?
Religion has the potential of changing the mindset of the people. What we need to have is religious practices that are commensurate with religious scriptures. All religions are environment friendly. So religion can be used very effectively to protect that biodiversity. We even brought out a book "religion and conservation" which is the first initiative of its kind in the country.
Is there a need for legislation against religious practices that contribute to pollution?
There is no need for any such legislation. What we really need is for the religious leaders to pick those relevant portions and preach to the people.
Will not India's population, that is touching the one billion mark, lead to increasing deforestation, pollution, environmental degradation?
Today, population is the biggest threat to the human race. Environmental degradation cannot be controlled, unless we address this fundamental issue. Population cannot be controlled at the macro-level. What is happening at the micro-level is something which cannot be set right at the macro-level.
The government infrastructure is interwoven, one ministry is dependent on the other. Don't you think there is something lacking in inter-departmental coordination in the government ?
We must realise that we are not living in an artificial world. This is how the government functions in reality. We cannot change the system. So we must work within the system to bring about whatever small change is possible.
According to a reliable source, the response to the biosafety protocol was sent at the very last minute. Comment.
This is not true. The government of India has been actively participating in the negotiations of the biosafety protocol -- our joint secretary has been representing us at all negotiations.
An agreement on the last protocol could not be reached because of India's tough stand. So this is not a last minute decision. In fact, it is due to India's tough stand that the protocol could not take the kind of shape some of the powerful countries were pressing for.
What about the issue of patents?
This is not relevant to my ministry. However, for the first time in the world, we have drafted a comprehensive legislation on biodiversity. This legislation is a result of the participation of about 150 people from all backgrounds -- something that has never happened in the history of India. Usually, it is the ministry and a few bureaucrats who draft these legislations. We are now waiting for it to be passed by Parliament.
It is alleged that some sanctuaries are being taken over by industries?
This is not true. This is just a fear in the minds of some people who believe that nothing good can happen in the ministry. We cannot change such minds.
Do you see India taking an active role on the issue of afforestation on a global level?
I believe that forests do not receive the kind of attention they deserve. In fact, I have suggested to all international heads of states at the fao General Secretary Summit to address the issue of afforestation. This is because forests are the best insurance against environmental degradation. What we really need in ecology is a natural forest which cannot be replaced with an artificial one. A natural forest is like a mother to the ecology. What is lost is lost. But at least we should try and maintain what is left. But this is not going to be easy because of the pressure from development -- people are cutting down forests for agriculture, housing, industry, firewood and fuel.
Blaming the government will not solve this problem. We must look for solutions. One individual cannot have solutions for these problems. I, therefore, write to ngo s asking them for suggestions and solutions. I have taken 400 initiatives in the past 400 days.
Still, some people feel that I am against ngo s. In fact, I have worked with around 150 ngo s -- not the corporate ones, but grassroots ngo s. I believe that ngo s have a role to play in society. So there is need for a proper platform for the government and the ngo s to work together. I have a very good rapport with 99 per cent of the reputed ngo s.
On the ecology of the northeast:
We have not understood the psyche of the people in the northeast. The insurgency problem is due to the economic and social needs of the people in the region that have not been adequately dealt with. The region needs development. But that development must be in conformity with the fragile environment and customs and tradition of the region. For example, if one sets up a refinery there, it might generate thousands of jobs. But it will also generate a lot of pollution.
There are other ways of bringing about economic prosperity in the northeast. For example, bamboo plantations, which have been cultivated for generations, can bring in a lot of money. China's annual turnover of bamboo is around us $10 billion.
Also, bamboo handicrafts have been made for centuries. It only needs a proper channel to market them. I called a meeting and suggested ways of exporting them. At the same time I do not want this to be done by the government. They should form co-operatives and then sell it to the private sector.
Given a choice, I would not want any industry to be set up in the northeast. We have a development programme for the region which is in conformity with the needs, culture and ethos of the people.
Will you opt for the environment portfolio if your government is voted back to power?
That depends on the decision of my party, the Shiv Sena, whether it appoints me as its nominee to the cabinet, as well as on the prime minister. I will accept any responsibility that is given to me.
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