A question of democratic choice

Published: Saturday 31 October 1992

THE KONKAN Railway is suffering from a typical attack of the NIMBY syndrome -- a two-decade-old acronym popularised during the movement against nuclear power stations by young people in the West, whose slogan was Not In My Backyard. It has since come to denote what is widely recognised as an environmental right.

Environmentalists in Goa are up in arms because the route proposed by the Konkan Railway Corp runs through the most densely cultivated and settled areas of the state. Everything conceivable has become part of the protest. Ecology, because the tracks will run through beautiful and serene settlements and rich wetlands, and estuarine farmlands that have been managed through centuries-old traditions built around the regulation of tidal flows. Culture, because people fear the railway will bring immigrants many of whom would end up in slums and squatter settlements, both relatively unknown in Goa. Economic, because the railway will upset the current transport arrangements, bring in new ones and possibly even depress land prices in some areas. Political, as many politicians see in the controversy an opportunity to disturb the current political dispensation.

While it is indeed true that the environmental protest stands aside from the political machinations, it is difficult to unravel the different strands of concerns and interests that make up the protest today. But does that make the protest less significant?

None of these groups or interests are saying they do not want the tracks to cross Goa en route from Maharashtra to Karnataka. They simply want the tracks to follow a different route through the hilly hinterland. There, it will not affect the estuarine settlements popularly known in Goa as khazan lands or human settlements, but is likely to affect forest lands. Local environmentalists, however, argue a route can be found through the state's mining areas, where few trees remain. The KRC, afraid that this would greatly delay progress and increase costs substantially, has not even outlined an alternative route and surveyed the tree cover along it. The result is a stalemate.

In many ways, this controversy presents a test case for the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) and for the government at large. For the former, because it will call upon its evaluators to decide on a trade-off. It is very easy for bureaucrats to accept or reject a project but very difficult to decide on the trade-offs involved in alternative choices. The government of India is an institution that has been singularly weak in this regard in almost every area of technological choice, from handlooms to nuclear power plants. The government largely functions on the basis of lobbyists who promote one set of causes or another and decisions are taken on the basis of which lobby is politically more powerful and not on the basis of scientifically evaluated alternatives.

Given the lack of cooperation from the Goan government and the Ministry of Railways and the resulting paucity of hard, scientific data on the impact of the railway on khazan lands, local settlements or forests, it is not clear how any considered opinion can be reached on the question of economic versus ecological trade-offs or trade-offs between impacts on wetlands versus forests. Of course, a critical trade-off between beauty and serenity on one hand, and economic growth with ugly scars on the other, is something the ministry can hardly deal with. Bureaucracies are not known to be very concerned with poetry. But, nonetheless, the ministry must try as best as it can.

This case is, above all, a test for India's governance system at large because it is not just a case of technocratic choice, which the MEF must evaluate, but also one of democratic choice. After all, whose environment is it that the tracks will pass through? Surely the argument that the Konkan railway is a national project cannot override the basic interest of the local communities in their environment. And, isn't the country's environment a far bigger national heritage than all the railways put together? And, who says the environment cannot generate wealth? The local communities of Goa may prefer to generate it by promoting tourism while keeping their environment in its pristine shape. And, if they believe -- and there is some validity in this belief -- that the railway tracks will mainly benefit economic interests in Karnataka and Maharashtra, using Goa only as a corridor, then it is they who must pay any extra costs that are incurred while re-routing the tracks. This is the true meaning of the phrase that "all must pay the ecological costs of their consumption", which environment minister Kamal Nath used recently in a seminar.

An outstanding example of such a choice comes from Switzerland, where the second smallest canton, Appenzel. has the unique distinction of being without a single kilometre of motorway or mainline railway, to spoil its romantic landscape. The canton is situated in the foothills of the Alps and has widely scattered villages and extensive pastures. Its people decide without any deference to others. Indeed there are many other cantons in Switzerland that would be delighted to take in motorways and railways. But that is the diversity that local democracy generates.

The local communities of Goa also have the right to decide about the use of their environment and to opt out of the estimated benefits of any development project. It will after all be their own loss and if their decision proves to have been wrong, they will suffer for it. But the choice must be theirs. And all this is not just a question of ecology and environment. The political system of India must seriously think about the benefits that such local democracy can bring. Any political system that has highly centralised decision-making is more likely to break-up under its tensions than one where conflict resolution is decentralised. It was no less than the Father of the Nation who believed that India should be a commonwealth of half a million urban and rural settlements.

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