Double speak

  • 30/07/1997

The polite language would be to say that the government of India is inconsistent in its positions on global environmental issues. The impolite language would be to say that the Indian government speaks with a forked tongue.

In the last week of June, environment minister Saifuddin Soz was lambasting world leaders gathered at the un General Assembly Special Session ( ungass ) in New York held to review the progress made in the environmental field since the Rio conference five years ago. Amongst his various gripes was the argument that Western countries are trying to link trade with environment. Yet, just the week before that, another Indian delegation, present in Harare to participate in one of the oldest environmental treaties - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ( cites ) - was voting against the African governments, including South Africa, which is considered close to the Indian government, to disallow trade in rhino horns.

Not just the Indian government, some 250 mps had also blindly signed a statement criticising the South African position. Both India and the industrialised nations lost the battle on ivory because of an unprecedented show of strength by the African nations. To the Indian argument that resumption of trade in ivory will lead to greater poaching in India and, hence, increased pressure on the remaining elephant herds in India, the Africans, fed up with India's position, calmly replied that if India cannot get its act together to save its elephants, then they would rather go separate ways.

Why does India take such contradictory positions? The most charitable answer would be that the minister of environment is new, he doesn't understand all these issues. The discipline of political economy teaches us something more. It tell us that the government of India, esssentially a government of the elite sections of the country, will oppose the industrialised nations when their actions hit the elite sections of Indian society and support the industrialised nations when their actions hit the poorer sections.

When industrialised countries argue in the World Trade Organisation ( wto ) that environmental standards should be imposed on international trade, India knows that these standards will hit its modern industries badly. But the impact of international trade bans under cites will only hit poor artisans or poor farmers, who live around national parks and sanctuaries, who suffer the depredations of these animals.

It seems that the Indian government has never sat back to think about the deplorable principles it is supporting in cites . Firstly, that international trade bans are a good way for the global community to ensure that countries manage their environment (in this case, endangered species) better. Secondly, that international trade bans - a weapon that can only be used by the rich nations against the poor nations and never by the poor nations against the rich nations - is an acceptable and moral way to improve global environmental management. Thirdly, that international trade bans, which only impose costs of improved environmental management on poor nations and not on the rich nations, is acceptable. For example, under cites , countries which protect the tiger or the rhino will exclusively have to bear the costs of such protection, especially the poor communities living around the national parks and sanctua-ries will have to bear the biggest cost of such protection.

International cooperation in the protection of endangered species can be built on a totally different set of principles rather than trade bans. If India or Africa save the elephant, they are doing so as a moral responsibility on behalf of the entire humanity. Therefore, the entire humanity - especially the rich humanity, both in the North and in the South - should pay for the economic and social costs resulting from the protection of endangered species, and not just the poor communities sharing the same habitat with these species. Such an international fund should then be made available to these communities as a matter of right, not as a matter of aid and charity. But developing countries have made no such proposal in international fora. And the latest meeting in cites revealed even more strongly that industrialised countries have also reduced global environmental governance to a matter of business transactions. Many countries have either been threatened with cutoffs in aid - and these threats have openly come from no less than ngo s from industrialised countries, especially the us - or have been enticed with the promise of aid and investments - as a Caribbean ngo complained about the 'vote consolidation' procedures of Japan in the context of cites. This is not 'governance', this is power-mongering.

But India's support to cites makes a mockery of its position in wto or its case against the us on the ban of shrimp imports because of its impact on turtles.

The Worldwatch Institute in Washington, dc recently listed India as an 'environmental heavyweight'. But this weightiness will be respected only if it is accompanied with consistency.

Anil Agarwal .

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