'Their capability to pay arises out of their high level of exploitation'

Union minister for environment and forests Kamal Nath's attitude to the UNCED summit is a curious mixture of pessimism and optimism. He is unhappy over what he feels is the "rigidity and inflexibility" of some of the greatest polluters in the world. Yet, he is confident that, for the first time, developing nations have a platform on which to come together. But will they? ANIL AGARWAL interviewed the minister on the eve of his departure for Rio

Published: Monday 15 June 1992

What are the main issues at the UNCED summit?
The various conventions. These have to be ratified at the summit. Are these conventions going to be on a partnership basis or on the old psyche of aid and assistance?

When I see the rigidity and inflexibility of some of the greatest polluters I feel pessimistic. But some nations are quite enlightened. Let us see how one set is able to influence the other.

But they say we are the problem?
We have followed an environmentally benign path. Our progress might have been slow, but it is along the right lines. The kullar (clay pot) is largely used in the country for providing cool water. Such examples abound. This is local technology, in keeping with nature. How fast we can proceed along our path is another matter given the constraints of poverty and development. With adequate resources, we might move faster. This is more than one can say of the policies followed'so far by US and the UK. They ought to be adopting our forest policies and conventions.

Do you see signs of industrialised countries changing? The UNCED agenda does'fiot reflect this.
About a year ago, this was nowhere on their mind, leave alone on their agenda. I think it is on their mind now even though it may not be on the agenda. I think Rio will be one route to that agenda.

But I don't see a truly global agenda emerging. The World Development Report 1992 of the World Bank has a chapter on international environment issues. Again we just have global warming and biodiversity listed there. There is no talk of the world, monetary system - aid and debt - and the terms of trade and their impact on the environment of the Third World.
The world after Rio will not be divided into the first, second and third worlds but between polluters and non-polluters. Agenda 21 doesn't directly take into account all aspects of aid and trade, but its ancillaries deal with several aspects of these. Rio is not the end but an opportunity to start moving in that direction. Beyond that I don't expect anything. As yet I don't see any of the industrialised countries giving even a statement of realisation that aid, trade and debt are related to environment. But I think there is some awareness. My impression is that some nations of the European Community and others whose leaders I spoke to feel the need to'start a dialogue in this direction.

Developing countries too seem to be more hot on rhetoric than collective strength.
Each developing country is concerned with country-specific issues as highlighted at the recent climate convention talks in New York. Malaysia is concerned with forests which is totally different from India's priorities. But, for the first time, they have a platform on which to come together for the sake of the environment. I am sure that if the rift between developing countries had been wider, then you would have had an unmodified and stringent Global Environment Fund (GEF). How do you -feel about the outcome of the talk on the climate conventional?
I am happy -with what has emerged given'the attitude of the major industrialised countries six months ago. It is the best possible outcome even though it may not necessarily be the most desirable.

The framework of this convention is quite similar to that of the ozone convention. It implies that the past is past, the industrialised countries have no liability for the damages caused and no rights of human beings to the benefits of the atmosphere have been accepted. I think it is a bad convention.
I don't think so. The final outcome really depends on the protocols. The climate convention does spell out differentiated, rather than common, responsibilities of developing and industrialised worlds. Third World countries depend on the First for action. It makes development and alleviation of poverty central to the convention. At one point of time, industrialised countries were not even willing to look at these.

It also says full incremental costs will be paid. But it does not accept our rights to the atmosphere. It does not talk of automatic transfer but of aid and charity as in the ozone convention. It is our atmosphere they are using.

I don't see any problems about these rights in the climate convention as the industrialised countries recognise that they are responsible. This has gone home to several developijlg countries as well. The question is whether we could have framed it more stridently.

It is not a question of stridency but of appropriateness - of developing an appropriate framework for managing the atmosphere. With these rights, high polluters could have been penalised through disincentives and low polluters given incentives to remain low.
Today, industrialised countries like USA are not too worried about global warming. But if new scientific data came in and hysteria was built up, developing countries would be under enormous pressure to go along. And the convention will not give us our rights, just a commitment to join the industrialised countries.

I don't know whether this would have been more appropriate. Our intention was to ensure that the concerns and interests of India and other developing countries are not compromised. I don't think that has happened.

Why have a lot of people got the impression that Malaysia has taken a greater lead than India over UNCED?
This springs from very country specific concerns hke forests. What they have said, they have said very stridently. They have played an important role, undoubtedly. But they have played this important role to control their forests. This has nothing to do with the total position of the South.

What role has the international monetary system and the heavy indebtedness played in fragmenting the South?
Among the many leverages that th dusrialised countries have, one of them is IMF. This hats ossibly played a role in subduing the stance of some developing countries.

Are you happy with the progress of the biodivergity negotiations?
I think it is moving well so far. There is the question of funding from the GEF. We have maintained our position that there must be a separate fund. I have instructed our representatives to ask for a vote on this; if we get outvoted, so be it and then we'll see.

How will we restrict the industrialised countries' access to our genetic resources?
Well, the way this convention is being negotiated, there will be many future protocols around it to determine this.

The proposed Green Fund by the South is being seen by several developed countries as a means of black- mailing them. It is being called a greed fund.
The way I see it, the bowl is in the other hand. We are not asking for any money per se. That is the situation from India's point of view. If you want us to do something, please be ready to pay the incremental cost. We are pursuing our environmental goals, good, bad, slowi fast, whatever. Our'proposal is being seen as a greed fund only by some misguided and misinformed individuals. The countries responsible for environmental degradation in the industrialised world also have the capability to pay. This capability is not a coincidence. it arises because of their high level of resource exploitation, which makes them responsible.

One question which can be raised is that this money should go to the poor of India. People like you and me are not the ones keeping our emissions low. It is the view. poor who have low consumption levels. What does the Indian government plan to do about this? It will add moral strength to our voice.
The government is a vehicle to channelise aid to the poor. Certainly, the money should go to the poor.

What mechanism do you propose to ensure this?
Well, first let's have the moneN,, then we will work out the mechanism.

Will you bring this up at the summit?
I don't have to because this is a question of internal distribution. That is our own business. I don't have to tell UNCED what I am doing.

But will you put up a proposal in India?
Yes, certainly. I will take some initiative, but not at UNCED.

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