Shall we tell the President...

...that he is absolutely right. The responsibility of environmental protection must be borne by both government and civil society

Published: Wednesday 15 March 2000

beware the fury of a long-suffering impoverished people, give them back the control of their natural resources so that they can rid themselves of their poverty and allow them to take control of their destinies, was the gist of the President of India's Republic Day speech. President K R Narayanan was saying something very significant on the 50th anniversary of India's Republic Day. "Let me tell you one thing," he said, "the role of the civil society is of prime importance when it comes to protecting the environment." This is specially so in the case of India, he added, where the gap between the rich and the poor has grown so wide that it threatens to split our nation and society. Let us try to understand why he said this. It is important to protect the environment because a poor environment means more poor people and through environmental regeneration we can try and reduce this gap.

While K R Narayanan did not precisely use these words, he probably meant the same thing. It was a departure from the usual Presidential Republic Day speech. Therefore, it was not very surprising that the mainstream media failed to capture the essence of Mr Narayanan's speech and went into a tizzy over his utterances on constitutional reforms.

The mainstream media does not hold civil society in very high regard. Perhaps because they do not do mainstream work nor are their press conferences held in glitzy and glamorous hotels. But they are the watchdogs of true democracy and they aim to ensure that the benefits of democracy go down to the grassroots level. Today, however, the mainstream is only composed of the conspicuous and vulgar rich and the impoverished that live on the periphery of the mainstream.

It is in view of this that the President admitted that while government must be held responsible for the environmental and human consequences of mega projects, the responsibility for environmental protection cannot, however, lie with government alone. It must also be borne by civil society, he said. "There is need to improve the tone of our social and economic life through improved work ethics and environmental behaviour," he added. Far too many of us lack the professional pride to see a task well performed, a responsibility well borne. Accountability in the delivery of public services is shockingly low.

Referring to the late Dr Adiseshiah, one of our prominent economists and academicians, K R Narayanan went on to elucidate by quoting what the great economist wrote about his mother. Every morning she used to sweep and clean the house herself and then dump the rubbish in the neighbour's garden. This self-regarding purity and righteousness ignoring others has been the bane of our culture, he said. It has created a gulf in our society between people even with regard to the basic needs and fundamental rights. For example, water is a basic need and a fundamental right of the people. Yet, today, millions of our people are struggling to get adequate clean drinking water.

But this was not always so and even the head of state admitted that less than 150 years ago, there were hardly any government-sponsored water supply schemes in India. But the people had a long-standing strong tradition of water management, which was built on the technology of rain-water harvesting.

This tradition still survives in the Northeast and Himalayan regions like Ladakh but remnants of that tradition can be found in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and other States. There is no reason why it cannot be revived. Water is required for not only drinking purposes, but for agriculture and animal care. Good water management can help to increase water supply and regenerate rural ecology and rural economy. The government's efforts to increase water supply can be supplemented by a people's movement to capture and conserve rain water. President Narayanan said that we have to organise a people's movement to prevent further pollution of our rivers and ground water reserves.

In a nutshell, what K R Narayanan was saying was effectively this: put an end to the monopoly in state control of natural resources. Civil society can only agree wholeheartedly with what he has said. Civil society has said this and demonstrated the ability of the people to regenerate their environment and eradicate poverty on more than one occasion. Even a new breed of smart politicians is learning to see, think and do green.

Mr Narayanan's prime mainstream concern that the yawning gap between the rich and the poor today threatens to rip apart the very fabric of our union can therefore also be addressed by giving people the power to manage the natural resource. The people have been saying this for a long time.

The head of state has said so for the first time.

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