Need to change directions
  sunita narain

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2004 is a unique year for India’s environmental movement. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, when a horrendous chemical accident killed thousands and condemned many more to living death. It is also the 30th anniversary of the Chipko movement, when women of the Himalaya hugged trees to protect them from the loggers’ axe. These two big events which have changed the course of India’s environmental history, also teach us about what needs to be done in the future. 2004, therefore, should also be the time to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the environmental concern in the country and devise policy and practice for the years ahead.

In this context, let me talk of my recent visit to an environmental graveyard. Not a toxic dumpyard or its ilk, but the ministry of environment and forests, responsible for planning and managing decisions on India’s environment and forest issues. That day I saw what the ministry has become: weak and indifferent about its objectives but practicing the art of make-belief governance. In other words, meetings and agenda papers. Budgets to spend from. Form without substance. At no time, in the meeting I attended, was there any clarity of purpose about the actions being considered, no debate on the methods and manner of getting the work done and certainly, no intention to understand why what was being discussed was never really implemented in the real world. Or if implemented, what we could learn from it for the future. In short, a living apparatus without any signs of life.

This should not surprise us. This is what government is meant to be. But it should worry us. The weakening of regulatory institutions will lead to weak regulations. It will lead to poor planning and poor enforcement. In other words, we cannot ask for sound environmental management if we have weak and inconsequential institutions charged with its management. It is simply not possible.



But to continue with environmental history. I would argue the environmental concern began in India in the early 1970s – with Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister speaking at the Stockholm conference on environment; the Chipko movement in the Himalaya; the first legislations to protect wildlife and prevent water pollution. Then in the 1980s, the institutional framework followed and the department of environment was created. In this phase, the aim of the regulation was to stop the denudation of the environment. The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 is an example, where legislation was enacted so that forests could not be diverted for non-forestry purposes without clearance from the central ministry. It was a phase when the country centralized powers so that it could make ‘conservation’ effective.

In 1984, the gas disaster in Bhopal made India painfully realize the toxicity of the industrial economy it was building. This gave birth to the1986 Environmental Protection Act (EPA), which became the omnibus legislation regulating air, water and land from environmental pollution and mismanagement. More importantly, the EPA, being a child of this horrific tragedy, gave citizens the right to file cases against industry. It legitimized the role of citizens in managing the environment. By the late 1980s, this concern grew into programmes: the Ganga cleaning programme and the mission to afforest five million hectares of land were launched. Money was allocated and the budgets of the ministry of environment went up manifold.

The 1990s inherited these programmes and institutions. The aim of this decade was to implement and manage the change. But there was no time for implementation. For the 1990s had another legacy: the intensification of economic growth and liberalization when new and urgent problems of water and air pollution, toxic waste, emerged.

This was the watershed decade for the institutions as well. At this time, the ministry of environment began to metamorphose in reverse. A beautiful butterfly – a young and dynamic agency – became the ugly caterpillar of an institutionalized bureaucracy. It became more and more obsessed with its own procedures and processes and less and less relevant to the real problems in the outside world.



And the world did not stop for it. The environmental crisis grew: intense economic change saw to it. The problems, now more complex, needed nuanced solutions. They needed arbitration and negotiation. New structures and organizations took the place of the decaying formal institutions.

On the one hand, the space was occupied by an active (sometimes accusingly called activist) judiciary, which began to take over the management of environmental concerns. It was egged on by the thousands of petitions they received from ordinary and not so ordinary citizens to clean up the environment and to repair the damage in their daily lives. The courts soon realised they could pass orders but not implement them. So they innovated institutionally. They created what is now known as empowered committees, to monitor the implementation of the court decisions and oversee the change. All in all, they took control.

On the other hand, citizens’ groups supported by the media became the active watchdogs and managers of the environment. Even the work of the formal institutions was taken over by these organizations. For instance, as the environmental impact assessment became abused through active collusion between industry and bureaucracy, civil society stepped in. The institution of public hearings drove this process, requiring major projects to be scrutinised and cleared by local people.

So by 2000 the ministry of environment and forests was buried. But nobody wrote its obituary, though for all practical purposes it was dead.

This is where we stand today. By the end of 2004 we know that the lessons of Chipko have been forgotten and Bhopal is all about unfinished business. This is a period when the country is bound of see greater thrust for economic growth and intensification of the use of natural resources. In other words, it will see more conflict and more degradation. The environmental journey in some respects has only just begun. But this time we are proceeding with weak institutions on our side. What then is the way ahead?



It is clear that we need a new definition of environment. We needed to understand poverty not as a lack of cash, but as a lack of access to natural resources because millions of people lived within, what environmentalist Anil Agarwal called, the biomass based subsistence economy. For them, the Gross Nature Product is more important than the Gross National Product. Environmental degradation is, therefore, not a matter of luxury but of survival. In other words, development is not possible without environmental management. In India environmental issues are not people versus nature concerns – a conservation perspective – but as people versus people.

Sustainable development is a fashionable word. Simply because it means different things to different people – intergenerational equity to even sustained development. We have to understand that sustainable development is about the process of decision-making. Every society makes mistakes. The issue is to find ways in which the worst affected by a decision are able to take action to make changes. Sustainable development is, therefore, not about technology but about a political framework which will devolve power and give people – the victims of environmental degradation – rights over natural resources. The involvement of local communities in environmental management is a prerequisite for sustainable development.



Take a reality check. We accept that environment and development are interlinked. We accept that environmental management is important for the economy. But still, we do not accept that communities have to be involved in securing their present. Policies on this aspect remain high on rhetoric, but dismal in making the real changes in the legal and institutional framework to allow for effective decision-making by the organizations of the rural poor.

The history of natural resource use in this country as in many others has been one of the state appropriating resources from local communities. It used it for extractive purposes – logging or mining – so that over the years there was rampant degradation. But with growth in environmental consciousness, the state has gradually moved from exploiting to protecting natural resources. It was this consciousness that led the nation in the early 1980s to enact laws to protect forest wealth. The FCA was passed, under which only the central government has the right to allow any forest land to be converted to non-forest purposes, like building roads or diverting forest land for power stations or dams. If any forest land is diverted, then an equivalent amount of land has to be afforested in compensation. Policies to protect the environment have been enacted in other spheres as well.

But while we have legislated to protect, we have really not learnt to manage or regenerate the environment. Take forests again. The Forest Conservation Act has stemmed forest destruction to some extent, but it has not led to forest regeneration in the same measure. The reason is clear: people use the forest land for their survival. They are also the worst affected by its degradation. Their involvement in its management is critical.

But policy planners, unfortunately, have only understood this message in half measure. By the early 1990s, the joint forest management programmes were launched with much fanfare. But these programmes are, at best, only efforts to transfer the task of forest protection to local communities. Not forest management or utilization. We have to learn to differentiate between forests which need to be protected at all costs – pristine forests, biological hotspots – and forests, which need to be cut and used and then regenerated. It is clear that we have to still learn to use our resources sustainably for developmental purposes.



We have not made environment into a development challenge. Because we have still not learnt how to use it sustainably. Therefore, environmental protection becomes an invariable conflict with development. A conflict between nature and jobs. Instead what we need are policies and practices to use the environment for the greatest enterprise of jobs and prosperity. Build green futures from the use of forests, land, water and fisheries. But we don’t know how.

We don’t know how because we refuse to learn the most basic lesson – to really trust people and communities. As yet, all we have done is to use bureaucratic tricks to stall and obfuscate. We will have to make changes – effective and earnest – to devolve powers in the practice of managing the environment.



For instance, it is clear that the answers to employment lie in the better management of natural resources – land, forests, grazing lands and water. The formal industrial sector has never been the provider of employment in the country and in the years to come its contribution, with scale and mechanization, will decline even further. The service economies – outsourcing included – will grow but cannot really absorb job seekers in a country the size of India. The key to employment lies in building productive and sustainable livelihoods based on natural resources. The potential is enormous – from planting trees for pulp to rearing animals for dairy farming to rearing worms for silk and growing medicinal plants for pharmaceutical industries. These are but a few, among many, options to break India shining’s growth-without-jobs syndrome.

There is no denying the Indian pulp and paper industry will remain a voracious user of wood. The question is of strategy: can we turn this threat into an opportunity so that growing trees becomes an enterprise for rural households – rich and poor? The potential is simply out there. Even now, the bulk of the industry’s raw material is wood and bamboo. The bulk of this wood and bamboo comes from government forests. Most of it is bamboo, sourced from forests of the northeast and central tribal India. But the pattern is changing, courtesy innovative companies. The space wood sourced directly from farmers occupies in the market is increasing. Farm-grown wood has even begun fighting an unfair competition with the forest department, whose cheaper wood distorts the market.

The pattern is changing also because some paper companies are showing enormous ingenuity in building up this sustainable supply chain. They are working with farmers, investing in dramatically improving the yields of wood, so that instead of the 6-10 tonnes per ha that the forest department would cut, farmers can reap upto 200 tonnes of wood from each ha of their land. Even on unirrigated lands, yields go up to 50-70 tonnes per ha and the farmers find that money does really grow on trees. The key, these companies find, is that sustainability of supply will lie in their ability to sustain the interest of the farmer in the market.



Trees take time to grow. If the price fluctuates or news of a crash spreads, farmers will speedily switch to what will bring them a return on their investment. They are quick learners. They are survivors. So, it is industry that has to learn its lessons. In the late 1980s, as wood grown by farmers reached the markets, it was industry that had forced the market to crash. It successfully arm-twisted government into supplying cheap wood from its forests. It also persuaded government, using the environmental argument, to allow pulp imports to be brought under the open general license category. This literally made it cheaper to import pulp from Canada than to buy the wood grown by farmers in Punjab or Haryana. Farmers then literally plucked the saplings from their fields.

The question, I repeat, is about strategy. So far, we know only two ways of working the environment. We either use it for extractive purposes, in which we rape the forests, destroy our resources. Or we throw a protective ring around it, to stop the environment from degradading. But we have never really learnt how to use the environment for productive purposes in a sustainable manner.

This is the challenge of the environmentalism of the post-2004 era. The question is, will we deliver on it?



The problem is that nobody knows how to deliver on the promise of development that would give everyone food, employment, water, education or health services. Politicians know that real development will require serious reform of the way in which we do business. They also know they face a serious governance crisis. The abilities of the state to deliver meaningful change have been consistently and successfully disabled. Politicians also realize that they don’t have the abilities to handle our rigid and won’t-do bureaucracies. The resolution of this institutional crisis is essential for development, they know.

For instance, they know that handling the water crisis will demand policies and practices to optimize the water endowment of each region, so that water management at the level of each settlement is organized to harvest the most and to use in the least wasteful way. This can only be done if local communities are involved in managing water systems. But building local interests and institutions would require serious and effective institutional reform in which governance is put into the hands of people. But this is a difficult agenda, so they find answers in promoting a futuristic project to link rivers, which even by their own estimations will ‘solve’ water problems in over 10-15 years.

This then becomes the pattern of selling the ‘idea’ of development as a dream. To bypass the governance problem, politicians are now designing arrangements with private capital with a focus on what is beneficial to both parties – power stations, software parks, industries and large roads. This way, politicians can optimize on the efficiencies of the private interests and market themselves as effective. But as private interests do not work in the interests of all, this ‘feel good’ is limited to areas of mutual convenience and not societal good.



If the environment challenge is the development challenge then it must begin to understand how the state stands increasingly compromised, indeed decimated, in terms of its capacities. Furthermore, the state is abdicating its role in favour of a growing and powerful private sector which now is expected to provide everything from water to health security. But, even as the state hands over its productive functions, it ensures its perpetuation, for its own sake or for the sake of the crumbs it doles out in the form of jobs to the poor. And, the weakened system profits the rich, continuing to subsidize them in the name of the poor. In all this state functionaries are ironically the single-largest beneficiaries of this dissipation as they gain by having more, even as they do less. Their perks and powers are intact. The state’s stateliness is preserved with a pomp it does not deserve, all for the sake of appearance.

If we accept this, then it really means that the enemy is within. So any reform that seeks to strengthen the institutional fabric will have to be driven by its real political and public masters. In other words, the state will have to be driven to work.

How should this be done? First, I would argue we need to ascertain, quite literally, the role of government. This issue cannot be taken for granted anymore. We need to clarify what its role will be so far as basic services, education and health and basic needs, water and food are concerned. We also must clarify government’s role as the public interest regulator. This clarity of purpose is vital. For today, most government action is taken in a mindless and heartless manner. Government agencies have turned into paper pushers; they fiddle with procedures and budgets, without knowing why or what it is that they are doing. Government has become one-large bloated clerkdom.

Then, we need to plug its weaknesses. We need to critique its failures. Not so that we move to paralysis by analysis, but for the sake of catharsis by analysis. For instance, we must accept that public agencies today seriously lack expertise to manage change. We cannot continue to protect the inefficient and incompetent in the name of the public. Take water services. Everyone will agree that clean and safe water is a must for all. Yet, everyone will also agree that public institutions are not delivering this basic need.



Therefore, as the state falters, the private sector steps in. Today, large parts of rich urban India drinks bottled water. Remember, this is water the private entrepreneur does not pay for but simply rips off the aquifer, cleans (to some extent) and then bottles to deliver to homes. It’s a rip off. But it services a need. The health costs of unsafe water are deadly for the poor. And in all this, the battered public services continue to provide subsidy to the water and sewage of the rich. Everyone will agree this is unacceptable.

But what everyone will not agree upon is the way ahead. Some will argue for public-private partnership, for them a euphemism for private takeover of the publicly created facility. They believe in downsizing the state. Others will argue for control of the public institution: there should be no talk of private capital and certainly no talk of capitalist tools like pricing of water or fiscal regulations.



As I see it both are right, to an extent. The public-proponents are right in saying that the public purpose of the water service must be maintained. But the private-proponents are also right when they say the public institution is weak in capacity and expertise. The Delhi Jal Board, for instance, has roughly 25,000 employees, far in excess of what it needs to discharge its functions as a public water utility. But what is even worse is that this is a workforce without expertise. Therefore, to do anything at all technical, innovative or specialized, it needs to call in external consultants. It needs external help because it cannot fix what it has within. Simply, it is easier to bypass than to reform.

Such a lack of expertise is a serious problem because it forces a silent takeover by parties that possess some knowledge but lots of vested interest. In all this, the role of the state as public regulator is grossly compromised because it just does not possess the ability to negotiate on behalf of public policy.

In other words, the reform of public institutions will demand strengthening of its knowledge capacities. How will this be done? It is often mistakenly said, given the chimera of our software business, that we are a knowledge society. In fact, we must realize that we are increasingly a knowledge-proof society. Public institutions are immune to knowledge. In fact, I would say, they are insured against it. And it is precisely this insurance against change that must be dismantled. How well we do this will determine our green future. Nothing less will do.