2005: after non governance

  • 14/01/2005

Last fortnight, I wrote about my visit to a governance graveyard called the Union ministry of environment and forests. I also promised to pen a few more thoughts on the subject. Given that the government cannot be trusted to manage the country's natural resource base - indeed, they can be trusted only to further degrade it - a tricky question faces us: What, then, is the way ahead for India's environmental concerns? Its tricky because no easy choices lie ahead of us. But I do know this: we will have to reinvent the solutions to our environmental crisis. The solutions are known, and tested the world over. But India's take will have to be different: she must reinvent, but in a manner that fits her pocket and her circumstances.

Firstly, while the rest of the world understands environmental conservation as the enclosure and protection of wildlife, biodiversity and forest areas, we cannot make such a choice. Our forests are inhabited by wild animals but also people. Protection of these lands will demand managing the competing, but equally vital, needs of human livelihoods and environmental security. We don't have the option to choose one over the other.

In other words, the current policy to view forest dwellers as encroachers into our forests is deadly. This outlook will destroy the forests and the people who live in these lands. But it is also clear that there are, I repeat, no easy options. Forest lands are the last remaining commons in the country. They are needed for ecological security - to replenish our water systems, provide habitats for wild species and remain the biodiversity treasure troves that they are. They are also needed for livelihood and economic security - firewood, fodder, building material and industrial raw material. But if managing forests for these different objectives is complicated enough, think what it means when the same lands are lived in by poor people, whose land rights have never been settled and who need the same land for their survival. The answer is not to throw out the people and to fence the forests. The people will have no option but to destroy the fences and work the forests. But the answer is also not to destroy the forests and then hand it over to people. Without the forests, the people will not have the wherewithal to survive.

The solutions need tremendous managerial ingenuity. The answers, untested across the world, will lie in our abilities to make 'use' of the environment so that forests and people can coexist. We will have to increase the productivity of our lands, use the lands as the basis of livelihoods for people. Mind you, do all this in a way that people develop a sense of ownership and get a share of the proceeds. It is difficult. But it has to be done.

The second challenge concerns the toxification of the environment because of economic development. Again, no easy choices. We cannot revert the industrial wheel. But can we not reposition its direction? I am certain we can. We know we don't have the wherewithal to invest in mitigating adverse impacts. We should also know that the capital-intensive ways of the rest of the world are out of our reach. Therefore we will have to find ways of leapfrogging, so that there can be progress without the curse of pollution and inequity. Like the resource challenge, this will also demand enormous creativity so that we can reinvent the economic treadmill of the world, for our sakes.

But all this, as I said last fortnight, can only happen if we have institutions capable of managing these changes. As I wrote, the problem is that formal institutions, much as the Union ministry of environment and forests, have become fossilised and irrelevant. Their space has been increasingly taken up by others - the courts, the media, the public at large and non-governmental organisations. But clearly, this is not the full solution.

For, the challenges I listed above will demand much more institutional abilities. Not less. They cannot be handled without strong, credible and highly skilled institutions that can speak for the environment. Therefore, we will have to reinvent the institutions of governance, as much as we have to reinvent the answers themselves. The question really is: how?

It is here that we must learn from the past three decades of the environmental movement. We know that the big and little successes scattered across the country are the outcome of sustained public pressure, which has forced - in most cases - the judiciary to arbitrate and force new directions of development. This is not surprising. All over the world, environmental concern has seen the creation of a people's movement. In fact, in those parts, strong environmental movements have invariably led to the emergence of strong political pressure to develop laws, and then institutions that can implement those laws. But in our world, laws and institutions have preceded people's movements. This means that implementation is poor because, quite frankly, these laws and institutions were never designed to deliver.

This is why most of India's environmental movement is about putting pressure so that government can implement its own laws and enforce its own rules. The strengths of information, public advocacy, knowledge based decision-making and networking are precisely the weaknesses our formal institutions possess. I would argue if this is the case, then we need to understand how we can incorporate these strengths of the environmental movement into the institutions of management. In other words, the challenge is to build a people's non-governmental ministry in the midst of obdurate and faceless bureaucracies.

That is clearly easier said than done. But done it must be. Later or sooner.

- Sunita Narain

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