An uphill task

An uphill task a cynic would call it an exercise in futility. A workshop on "Assessing Progress Towards Sustainability in the Himalaya' might not sound like the most exciting way to spend a weekend in the mountains. But this was different. A motley crew of 15-20 representatives from non-governmental development agencies working in rural areas of Dehradun, Mussourie and the Garhwal region of Uttar Pradesh grappled from March 15 to 17 with a team of experts from the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union ( iucn ) to understand "sustainability' of developmental strategy and the means to measure it. This three-day facilitated workshop was sponsored by the International Development Research Centre ( idrc ) of Ottawa, Canada.

The workshop was part of a new approach that iucn is adopting to deve-lop indicators of sustainability that present a larger, comprehensive picture of the state of environment that can be used on the field level. "This is a result of the realisation that the data-driven approach is useless in our assessing sustainability of the environment," said Nancy MacPherson, who heads iucn 's Strategies for Sustainability Programme in Gland, Switzerland. "In 1993, our field teams started reporting that a proper methodology was lacking to assess sustainability. There was a lot of confusion. We decided to develop a new approach," she added.

The Christian Retreat and Study Centre ( crsc ) in the foothills of the Himalaya near Mussourie, which has a rich tradition of spiritual and developmental activities in the region, was an apt location for the workshop. "We are here in this sacred space to learn to learn from experience," said Ashoke Chatterjee of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and a member of the iucn team in his welcome address. Chatterjee's old association with the Mussourie region was the main reason why the workshop was organised at crsc . "This region is symbolic of the quality of life we want. This cannot be measured by the quality-of-life index used by developmental agencies in the West," he added.

In her welcome address, Mac-Pherson also stressed the importance of the Himalayan region. "Switzerland, where I come from, does not quite measure up to the social and cultural life of this region. The ecological health of this region is very high on our priorities," she said.

Starting with interactive exercises and games to break the ice, the facilitators started by listing the objectives of the workshop, which were as under:

l To discuss issues of sustainability in the context of the Himalaya;

l What is sustainability?

l How do we know we are making progress towards sustainability?

l To share experiences in developing and using a new approach, methods and introducing some tools developed for assessing progress towards sustainability;

This was followed by setting out the questions facing the participants from non-governmental organisations ( ngo s):

l Are you making a difference? and

l How do you know?

Understanding the questions Being an interactive workshop, the facili-tators asked the participants to describe their crucial environmental and social concerns on paper, which were then put up on notice boards. The workshop was divided into three working groups for a better understanding of the methods employed by the field activists involved in various developmental activities to assess the impact of their work. This exercise revealed some interesting facts: one group discovered that developmental activities had, in fact, brought about negative results in some cases. This brought the participants to the quintessential question: how do you assess the sustainability of developmental activities in a particular area, especially when definitions and assessments of sustainable development are so varied?

The participants presented their own views on sustainability, and the means of measuring it in their respective areas. Though most agreed on the issues that constitute sustainability, it was clear that sustainability was like the proverbial elephant that four blind people try to describe. The emerging picture was gaining in size constantly, making it difficult to limit the definition to any of those offered by the participants. This problem was universal, said the organisers. Experts, all over the globe, are still trying to come up with an acceptable definition of sustainability that would allow creditable assessment and measurement.

However, by the end of day one, the organisers presented one definition that, they claimed, had earlier been accepted at similar workshops in other parts of the world. And according to them, sustainibilty is "the maintenance and improvement of the well-being of people and ecosystems together'.

The second day started with Kishore Saint of the Ubeswar Vikas Mandal, Udaipur, presenting a brief summary of the beginning and development of the environmental movement in the West, starting with the industrial revolution and coming right down to the Rio Convention of 1992. "We need to understand this in order to be able to see our work in a larger, global context,' he said. He stressed on the use of the term well-being in the definition as it enveloped a more comprehensive and all-encompassing view of human existence. The problem, he emphatically added, "is that we have failed to get the entire picture in perspective as we have not been doing our homework properly.' Agreement was unanimous.

Egged on by Saint's summary, Jagmohan Kathait of the Society for Integrated Development of Himalaya ( sidh ), a ngo involved in educational activities in district Tehri, said that his organisation faced a problem that was not uncommon. "Earlier, we used to go around villages advocating the use of chemical fertilisers to farmers. Now, we go to the same people and ask them to limit the use of these as they have a lot of undesirable side-effects. They are becoming sceptical of our work,' he expressed. Other field workers, too, recounted similar problems.

C Ashok Kumar, representing the Bangalore division of the ngo Development Alternatives, and one of the organisers, reacted to this by saying that the process of assessment is an on-going one, and that it need not be restricted to the end of a project. This, he added, would help in assessing the ground reality better. This brought the gathering to a new set of questions: What is assessment, why should we do it, and how do you go about doing it?

"Assessment is a process of collecting data, analysing information and making judgements to promote reflection, improve decisions and action, and achieve goals,' said MacPherson. That brought the workshop to a point raised right at the beginning: how do you go about assessing sustainability in a comprehensive, measurable manner? The answer was indicators, a word that dominated the proceedings thereafter.

"If indicators is what you need to obtain a clearer picture of the people and the environment, then you need to arrive at a method of giving weightage to the indicators, because there are too many of them," said MacPherson, pointing to the wall behind her that was covered with numerous indicators suggested by the participants.

What hatched?
Then came the most exhausting exercise for both the participants and the iucn team. "It took us six months to explain this novel approach to the people of Tumkur in Karnataka. I will try and put it across in one day," said Kumar. The new approach was applied to the prevailing situation in some of the villages in the region, and a hypothetical and simple scale was used to demonstrate the measurability of the indicators.

The findings were placed on a bar chart that weighed "human well-being" against the "well-being of the ecosystem". The iucn team has christened it the "barometer of sustainability". It was demonstrated how the meeting line in the barometer would reveal the level of sustainability in any given area. Having gone through a two-day exercise, the participants were visibly excited about the end product.

However, some had reservations. "This approach is not in a usable state. Things are not clear enough," said Pankaj Kumar of the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development ( spwd ), which is involved in natural resource management and watershed development activities in the Himalayan region. "I get the impression that the process is esoteric and takes a lot of time to master," he added.

Kumar had the answer. "I think we are expecting too much out of an introductory workshop," he said. He firmly believes that the approach can be used on the grassroots level. "It is very difficult to communicate a 'new' approach in all its aspects in so short a time," said Chatterjee. "The hope I have is that it can help enable people of these institutions to make better choices from among so many needs and options, as well as to deal with the larger systems of which we are a part," he added. "Despite the drawbacks and paucity of time, participants were very articulate in putting forward their key issues and excellent ideas for indicators to measure them," said MacPherson.

However, the level of interest generated in the participants was a positive sign, if anything. Everyone agreed that they required more time at the workshop. They seemed convinced that a change in approach was needed to get the "bigger picture". The effort, one can say, has to be sustained.

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