Profiting from ecological subsidies

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

GUJJARS are up in arms because they resent being thrown out of their homes by the proposed Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh. In coastal Orissa, Chilika fisherfolk are protesting the allocation by the government of a slice of their environment to the House of Tata.

What binds these disparate protests? Clearly, displacement -- caused in the former case by modern, Western notions of conservation and in the latter, by modern concepts of development, stimulated by the near-frivolous needs of the rich.

What is most unfortunate about the two protests is that they reveal the consistent refusal of both government officials and business magnates to learn the basic ecological lessons of the Indian social reality.

Both the government and the private sector cry themselves hoarse about India's high population growth rate, but neither appreciates the implications for their activities of a high population density. In an ecological context, high population density simply means almost all the ecological niches, such as deserts, rivers, lakes and humid hill slopes, are occupied by a human group for their sustenance. Hence, if the resource base of a particular area is closed in the name of conservation or taken over by a politically powerful entity in the name of development, it would lead inevitably to displacement, social injustice, resentment and protests.

How deep this ignorance runs in the government -- the patron of the country's private sector -- is that official usage of the word wastelands leaves the impression that vast areas in India are lying waste and nobody is using them. The reality is that because these lands are heavily used, they produce less than their natural biological productivity. Even though they produce little, these wastelands nonetheless provide millions of people with frugal amounts of firewood, fodder and other biomass. Deprive these people of even these limited survival quantities and they are left with virtually nothing.

But the "resource illiteracy" of bureaucrats and private entrepreneurs is such, they strongly believe that if these lands were handed over to modern managers, their productivity would increase, they would make money, improve the environment, and supposedly help the country. It was precisely these beliefs that led to the Birla groups and the Hegde government in Karnataka setting up a joint sector company, Harihar Polyfibres, for the manufacture of rayon. More than 70,000 acres of government revenue and forest wastelands was handed over to Harihar for afforestation, pumping protests by the affected people, which included public demonstrations, court cases and criticism that foreign interests were being given the power to hold up national development. Finally, the Birlas pulled out of the project, apparently bewildered by the protests against a project that they believed would only benefit the nation.

It is important to ask: Are subsidies good for the nation or for an enriched private sector? Cheap land or a cheap slice of Chilika lake, constitutes an ecological subsidy and such subsidies are not only anti-people but they also contribute to the inefficiency of the private sector, particularly in the use of natural resources. There is worldwide talk of putting a higher value on natural resources to reduce ecological subsidies. But, in India, neither government nor industry has any policy on ecological subsidies, though making them available to the industrial sector affects people's health and survival, probably more in this country than any other.

Only the people can put a true price on their environment and the crux of the Chilika problem is that the Tatas are negotiating with the state government and not with the local fisherfolk. The state, unfortunately, consistently reveals a nexus between it and big business. If there is apprehension that people's control of the environment would result in too high a price on such export products as prawns, then let it be so. There are enough international conferences taking place these days for P V Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh or Kamal Nath to tell Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, John Major and Francois Mitterand that their people's frivolous luxuries cannot be subsidised any longer by the Third World's ecological resources. Especially not if it means trampling on the empty stomachs of the poor.

Is all this to say the private sector has no role? Surely not, but socially and ecologically relevant approaches to development can be evolved only if the private sector seeks a true understanding of the true challenges before the nation and honest solutions to them. The technical and managerial skills of the modern manager needs to be harnessed for the growth of the country's economy. And it is the job of government to create the fiscal and legal framework within which the private entrepreneur must operate. For instance, if the House of Tata believes it has a profitable technology and the marketing skills to promote a product worldwide, then it should drop its attempts to gain a slice of Chilika and offer the technology and marketing skills to the people. If the Tatas can wipe out the odious middlemen and thereby bring larger incomes to the people in a sustainable manner, the people themselves would embrace the firm. But this is a much more difficult route and the Tatas would prefer not to take it, especially if they have a supportive chief minister in the state. But if the House of Tata cannot measure up to India's challenges, what moral right does it have to flaunt its technical and managerial skills?

The same would be true of the forest department's role in establishing the Rajaji National Park. Is the only way to carve out a large area for conservation to throw out people who has there? Surely, a system of management of conservation areas can be developed that would convert current users into future conservators, provided the planner acquires the humility to work with the poor and understand their perspectives, their resource management strategies and their needs. Assuredly, this will never happen as long as territorial bureaucracies function like overlords.

The government in independent India and the private sector that has spawned have never made a break with the colonial British government's desire to control and exploit India's resources. Democracy in resource management is still a far cry and Manmohan Singh must learn that a beneficial market cannot result if only entrepreneurship is liberalised but resources are allowed to remain under the control of politicians and bureaucrats. He can rest assured that in this process, it is the people who will be forgotten.

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