New policy skirts hard issues

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:50:09 AM

THE MINISTRY of Environment and Forests recently produced a document formally entitled National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development. The document purports to spell out details of the government's strategy to reconcile conflicts between environment and development. Unfortunately, the document does not leave anyone any wiser. It spells out the projects and programmes that the ministry has already floated or would like to float and so, it reads more like a check-list of the ministry's intentions. But can merely noting activities be the equivalent of an ecologically-sound development strategy, or even for that matter, an adequate statement on the country's national conservation strategy?

In the section on priorities and strategies for action, the document lists two themes: population control and conservation of natural resources. Surely, there are a few other priorities before the country. Even in these two themes, we get only a list of things that need to be done to control the population and to conserve land and water, atmosphere, biodiversity and biomass. Similarly, another section on development policies from environmental perspectives lists what needs to be done in the areas of agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, forestry, energy generation and use, industrial development, mining and quarrying, tourism, transportation and human settlements. The list is undoubtedly long but, as is true of all lists, much more can be added. All this, however, is not the document's key shortcoming.

The document was produced by a committee of eminent experts and NGOs, headed by M S Swaminathan, and presented to the Union cabinet and Parliament. Committees rarely present a work of art or of much profound thought, but if what this committee has presented is a document of current consensus on what needs to be done, then the consensus clearly lacks ideas about how various pious intentions are to be implemented.

Until Indian society and its leaders decide clearly who will ensure the reconciling of environment and development and who will have the power to choose the trade-offs, nothing much will come out of such documents. For instance, the document suggests legislative measures to check overexploitation of surface and groundwater for various uses. But all large dams and canals in the country are constructed by the Central and state governments? Aren't there enough laws in the country to check government agencies against overexploitation of rivers? And, if a new environment law is needed, wouldn't the omnibus Environment Protection Act be sufficient?

Take the case of groundwater. Outside the portals of bureaucracy, does anybody believe that a new law can stop people from pumping out too much groundwater? The country has half a million villages and millions upon millions of tubewells. Are we going to create an army of tubewell inspectors to implement this law?

The central issue -- and one that the document avoids except for a brief and totally inadequate reference in passing -- is that of institutional change. The document gives the impression that existing bureaucratic mechanisms will provide us with a brave, new world that will be both green and wonderful, full of food and other goodies, and with all the conveniences of life. Unfortunately, this has never happened anywhere in the world and it is quite unlikely to happen in India, either.

Issues of regulation and development support should be left to the government and its agencies; issues of development, to the people, and issues relating to choices that involve trade-offs, to institutional mechanisms that empower the poor and those who are likely to be affected by adverse decisions. The latter is especially needed in India, which has a dual society with high inequalities and development projects that often benefit one group at the cost of another. Therefore, it is vital that each of these issues is carefully identified, the roles of each type of institution spelt out, and careful thought is given to the structure of new institutions.

"Public participation" and "people's involvement" are phrases sprinkled liberally throughout the document. But who is going to ensure people's participation? And, what does people's participation mean -- government participation in people's projects or people's participation in government projects? People's participation is a vacuous phrase unless it reflects people's determination. New institutions are needed to ensure people can determine their development in their area of competence and within their resource base.

Indian environmentalists, like many other environmentalists in the South, are looking for new development processes. Their search is difficult and ambitious but nevertheless laudable because they are trying to reconcile near-irreconciliables: conservation with exploitation, balances with pressures and need with greed. But this document is unlikely to help anybody because, despite its title, it has no element of strategy in it. It is quite difficult to see how Mr Kamal Nath can work in harmony with Mr Kalpnath Rai but yet the policy statement remains silent on who can ensure they collaborate. Can there be some institutions for people's participation in this area?

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