Making them responsible

  • 14/06/1996

We now have a new government. To those of us concerned about the environment, it is obvious that the biggest challenge before this government will be to create systems of governance that bring about a healthy balance between environment and development. With a population ready to cross a billion, and one of the poorest and most illiterate in the world, economic growth will be vital to meet its basic needs and provide jobs. But without taking care of the environment, it may only mean a little more bread for a decade or two, and a degraded, poisoned wasteland thereafter.

But as our recent report showed, our political parties say one thing but do quite another (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 24). None of this will change with the new government. But under the combined impact of population growth, urbanisation and enhanced economic activity, the environment will continue to deteriorate at an accelerated pace. So the question is, what do we, as citizen's groups in civil society, do?

The first step is a national debate on what, within our country and culture, will constitute good and effective envi- ronmental governance. To my mind, some of the obvious issues are:
.Accountability of government institutions: The major challenge here is, what does civil society do to make these institutions more accountable? And what governmental procedures and activities does civil society insist upon that would make state institutions more accountable? For some time to come, groups in civil society must focus not just on substantive issues like water and air pollution, but also on institutional issues like what are the reasons for pollution control boards being so ineffective.

.Transparency: Transparency and accountability tend to go hand-in-hand. Bureauqats would hate to do this, but why can't each one of them be forced to produce a self-assessment report in terms of the problem they are trying to manage, their goals, what they achieved and what they did not during the past year and what were the obstacles in their work? I don't know of any bureaucracy anywhere that does this, but it would probably be a great innoyation for state bureaucratic systems to produce an annual public document of this kind.

Bureaucrats definitely must be asked to produce a report on the state of the natural resource they are trying to manage -air, water, forests and so forth, so that citizen's groups can assess for themselves whether the country is making progress or not. Many environment ministries across the world produce an annual status report which provides the public with the latest data on the state of the environment. Many governments, unlike ours, make environmental impact assessments of major projects available to the public.

.Public participation: How much decision making should be left to the bureaucrats? They have their own personal agendas and to a great extent sub- serve political agendas. If a balance between environment and development has to be achieved, then people's participation has to be brought about. But what are the procedures necessary to ensure that this happens more and more in decisionmaking systems? In fact., the biggest change in environmental governance has come because the courts have become more open to public participation in questioning projects, policies and procedures and this has been the most redeeming feature of the '90s. But what is needed to ensure increasing public participation in decisionmaking within the executive system?

.Decentralisation and institutional development: This is an issue that environmental NGOs have repeatedly raised. But very little has happened in this area. Over the last 200 years, we have totally moved away from our roots and traditions and centralised natural resource management under state bureaucracies, which are totally incapable of managing in a cost-effective manner, for instance, the 500,000 tanks that exist across the country. Indeed, they are not even interested in doing so.

And yet, India was once a country with a million institutions. Every eri (tank) in Tamil Nadu had a people's institution to look after it. That is why even today, in Ramanathapuram district, they stretch across the landscape. But who is there today, other than centralised bureaucracies, to look after each of our tanks, rivers, national parks... each of our village ecosystems and urban atmospheres? It is the resolution of this institutional crisis that will most help us to bring about the balance between environment and development.

None of these will happen without ideas and constant pressure to learn and change. How do we organise ourselves to constantly monitor the government, and jointly demand the changes that are necessary? Public awareness will obviously play the most important role, but so will clear thinking and practical demands on your part. There are enough regulatory apparatuses in the country, but the point is that we have to get one that .delivers 'effective' regulation or management.

It is definite that India cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century with 19th century institutions and legal frameworks -though, may be, 15th century institutions built on our own roots still have certain things to teach us.

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