Communitise natural resource management

Published: Sunday 31 May 1992

PRIME Minister P V Narasimha Rao's government has taken dramatic steps in less than a year of its existence towards a liberalised regime for the industrial sector. If the new policies indeed lead to increased economic activity, there will be greater pressures operating on the natural environment. Given India's people, almost every ecological space within the country is being used by different occupational groups for their survival. There are no virgin lands left to exploit. Ecological destruction has, as a result, invariably led to social injustice in the past.

Industrial development and market-oriented agriculture will demand the same natural resources on which the subsistence of millions depends. The politically powerful sectors will want to obtain their raw materials and resource inputs as cheaply and with as limited environmental restrictions as possible. This is not unique to India. Western industry has accepted increasing environmental controls in home countries, because of growing domestic green pressure, but it has thrived on uninhibited resource exploitation in developing countries. International monetary policies have consistently devalued local currencies and have made southern resources cheaper in the world markets.

It is unlikely that Indian industry will develop the clout to exploit the environment of other countries for its development, nor would it be morally acceptable to world opinion. Indian industrial development will, therefore, concentrate its resource pressures on the Indian environment. In this situation, environmental protection must become a major element of government policies.

Indeed, few in the government would deny this logic and most would accept the need to strengthen environmental controls. With liberalisation, the government's control systems have partially moved away from the traditional gatekeepers like the ministries of industry and finance to the ministry of environment. The effectiveness of environment protection policies will, however, depend more on the nature of environmental institutions created.

One solution will be to repose greater faith in the same systems of governance the International Monetary System (IMF) would wish the government to dissolve for the industrial sector. This would mean greater powers for the bureaucracy, especially the bureaucracy that controls natural resources like forests, land and water. But, given the past experience, can we expect the bureaucracy to shield or improve the environment despite the enormous pressures which the growing and increasingly liberalised economic sectors will exert?

In our view the chances are dim. Any effort to mitigate this threat to the environment should lie with the people who are likely to suffer from environmental destruction. People themselves must be empowered to protect themselves.

In the West, for instance, the liberalisation of the 1980s was not quite so untrammelled, despite the early policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, because of public pressure. Environment was one area in which controls grew during the 1980s in both Europe and North America. The foremost of these was greater transparency and accountability.

Take the simple case of information about potential hazards to the environment. In most countries of the West, environmental impact assessments of development projects which could have adverse impacts for people's health and environment, are freely available to the local people. In Australia, for instance, these documents, including those dealing with the most contentious of projects, are prominently displayed in the reception offices of environment ministries. But in India, these documents are considered confidential and available only to a privileged few.

Apart from information, people must be given control over the governance of their resources. For this they must have legal control and open, democratic and accessible institutions at the grassroots level to express themselves.

Natural resource management is a complex subject in a country like India as it involves intensely difficult tradeoffs. Who should decide upon these tradeoffs ? A distant political- bureaucratic system or the people themselves. "Conditionalities" over resource use should be imposed by rural and urban communities themselves.

In the present system, most natural resources are controlled by government agencies. In a situation of high growth, the political and pecuniary pressure on them to yield or collude will be enormous.

What we could easily get in such a situation is an exacerbation of the trends that have dominated resource management since Independence. An excellent example being the cheap rates at which bamboo contracts were made by forest agencies with paper mills to promote industrial development. Water is another area where the price of the resource does not represent either its scarcity value or the ecological costs involved in its storage and delivery.

All this is not to argue that the Indian political- bureaucratic is good or bad, honest or corrupt, efficient or lazy, or competent or callous. Numerous honest officials have themselves tried hard to fight the system. But the system itself is flawed when resources are controlled by one set of people while the consequences of their decisions are suffered by another.

Environmental management aims to internalise the ecological costs of production and, thus, send appropriate signals about resource scarcity to the market. But market prices are the result of negotiations between buyers and sellers. Weak sellers can never demand high prices. It is, therefore, vital to communitise natural resource management in a way that decisions on alternate and competing uses of resources can be made keeping the ecological and social costs of resource degradation in mind, regardless of whether the resource is being used by economic agents internal to the communities concerned or by external agents.

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