A hand in every pie

  • 14/05/1996

A hand in every pie AS THE party in power at the Centre for 45 out of 49 years, the Congress(i), with all its factions, can be held mainly responsible for India's achievements and failures. In the politically tumultuous '70s, ,environment' was attracting international attention, with the UN- sponsored Conference on Human Environment taking off in Stockholm in 1972, where the first attempt was made to link development with environment. Consequently, Indian politicians too began evincing interest in the issue.

The anti-poor roots
At the Stockholm conference, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had proclaimed: "Poverty is the biggest polluter." This analysis, which made the poor the main adversaries of environment in the eyes of the government, influenced the party's policies on environment.

During Indira's tenure, India launched 'Project Tiger' to protect the tiger and its habitat, leading to eviction of people from reserve areas. One unfortunate outcome of this was the police firing in Bharatpur's Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Rajasthan (1982), which led to several deaths and injuries; locals had let their cattle into the Park for lack of grazing alternatives.

In February 1980, the government appointed the Tiwari committee to suggest ways to improve environmental protection. On the committee's recommendation, a separate department of environment was created in November 1980 to carry out environmental appraisals of development projects. But the practice of viewing certain regions (like adivasi homelands) as backward and needing upliftment through industrialisation, with unchecked mining of natural resources, continued.

1984: hope and despair
Environment found an independent reference for the first time in 1984 in the party's election manifesto, which stated that the party will "optimise use of natural resources so that while meeting the current needs of growth, the resource base is oriented towards sustainable development". The manifesto admitted that the development strategy followed by the Congress(fi till then could not be continued at the expense of ecological degradation and unchecked exploitation of natural resources. It said that the Congress(i) Will
formulate a national conservation strategy to promote rational resource management;

establish biosphere reserves;

emphasise environmental concerns in education and information media;

take effective steps to control air and water pollution;

establish task forces for eco-development programmes;

protect existing forest wealth and undertake massive afforestation programmes.

However, as it neglected local people's rights to forest resources, the document remained a long way from explicating the actual links that environment had with people's lives.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1986 for cleaning up the Ganga river. However, the Plan got bogged down it) bureaucratic procedures. A national wasteland board was created in 1985. A process to devolve powers to local levels with an effort to give a constitutional status to panchayat raj institutions was also initiated. The Prime Minister invited Anil Agarwal (CSE) to deliver a series of lectures to his cabinet ministers and subcommittees on environment, However, the exercise demonstrated that not many of the ministers were really interested in these issues.

The Rajiv government upgraded the environment department to a level of ministry in 1986 with Bhajan Lai as its first minister. Ironically, Lai had neither an interest in environment matters nor could develop a perspective or actions on them.

1991: so much to do
In 1991, while reiterating some of the earlier promises, the manifesto pledged to take effective steps to enforce pollution control regulations, to evolve integrated national water and land policies and to implement the GAP with renewed efforts. Wildlife was declared a priority area. The important addition was its categorical assurance of involving the people in protecting the environment.

During the tenure of Kamal Nath, the Congress(i) minister for environment and forests under Narasimha Rao, the ministry acquired a high profile image, with the minister jet-setting around the world to attend international conventions voicing'I hird World concerns and networking with NGOS on global environmental issues. However, critics say Kamal Nath did not exhibit the same openness regarding domestic issues.

Critics also point out that the government's liberalisation policies have the potential to affLt the survival base of the poor with more intensive exploitation of natural resources. The government's budgetary allocations have not encouraged 'green' efficiency; the 1995-96 budget does not propose tirs concessions to industry for polhttion'@Ontrql, nor any punitive taxes for causing pollution.

- 'Rajesh Pilot, who took over the charge of the ministry from Kamal Natb, has had his share of controversies within his short stay in office. In a letter to CSE, he stated that although he was aware of the hardships caused to local communities due to the Wildlife Protection Act, he expected these commupities to continue to play the role of martyrs! Forests: popular non-participation
The National Forest Policy, 1952, introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru, had vested all forest land under the state, thus restricting the forest-dwelling population's access to forest resources. In keeping with Nehru's economic outlook, the government saw forests as a resource to be extracted for the development of industries and infrastructure - a policy continned in Indira Gandhi's time. However, with the increase in degraded forest lands, the Fourth Five Year Plan (1974-79) introduced the term :fforestation' for the first time.

Forests were brought into the Concurrent List in 1976, enabling the Central government to enact legislations on the same. The 1980 Forest Conservation Act, which banned the diversion of any forest land for "non-forest purposes" without the Centre's permission, followed. While environmentalists felt the Act was a symbolic beginning of an understanding that national 'development' had been achieved at tremendous costs, it brought Centre-state politics to the fore. Opposition chief ministers claimed the Act was being used by the Centre to keep their states 'backward', while allowing Congress-ruled state governments to divert forest lands for development purposes. The lease approval of 144 ha of forest lands for mining purposes given to B K Gadhvi, the then Union minister of state for finance - under pressure from the Gujarat Congress(i) chief minister Amarsinh Choudhary - was cited as an example.

Social forestry programmes, initiated during this period, failed because pulpwood species like eucalyptus were planted, which did not provide for the biomass needs of people in 1984, the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) calculated the nation's forest cover as only 35.43 million ha. The following year, Rajiv Gandhi declared: "Continuing deforestation has brought us face to face with a major ecological and socio-economic crisis- The arend must be halted. I propose to set up a National Wastelands DevIelopment Board with the object of bringing five million ha of land every .year tinder fuelwood and fodder plantations. We shall develop a people's movement for afforestation." The toard was duly created, but internal hickerings and neglect of the aspect of popul#' partlizipation denied it any considerable achievements; by March 1989, lh@- Board had succeeded in afforesting only 7.16 million ha.

. In more recent times, strident criticism has effectively stalled Kamal Nath's draft forest bill (1992) -which proposed to give more powers to the bureaucracy - and his proposal (1995) to give degraded forest lands to the paper and pulp industry for growing their captive raw material. Moreover, Rajesh Pilot's proposal to appo int Va n M ukh ins i n each panchaya t by forest departments, who will act as middlemen between the viltage protection commitees and the departments, is causing considerable heartburn. Environmentalists fear the retrograde step will take away whatever little say communities have in forest management today.

Energy: stalked by losses
Energy policies of the Congress have been governed by heavy subsidies. The party has not been keen to pursue the question of price hike in the sector for fear of antagonising the farming and industrial lobbies, which constitute two important vote banks.

In this scenario, internalising the ecological costs involved in production of power seems to be a distant dream. Moreover, the constant wrangling between the power and environment ministries has made matters worse. Kalpnath Rai, the former minister of state for power, had complained, "The power sector has been singled out for tough environmental standards." Environment ministry officials have retaliated by maintaining that "power projects are often taken up with total disregard for environmental guidelines, with the hope that once the initial investment is made, the clearances can be pushed through".

Investments in eco-friendly renewable energy resources have been given a boost by creating a ministry of non-conventiorial energy, presently, non-conventional energy accounts for only one per cent of the country's total energy production. With a far from encouraging budget, much needs to be done in the field.

Pollution and hazardous industries
Over the years, various Congress governments have enacted legislations to deal with the problems of industrial, water and air pollution under pressure from people's movements. The Indira Gandhi government had introduced the Water Pollution Control Act, 1974 - one of the first central acts on pollution after independence - which laid down that effluents from factories should be treated before they are released into rivers. It was followed by the 1981 Air Pollution Control Act.

Following the Bho at tragedy, Rajiv's Congress(i) government made the first attempt to bring in various kinds of pollution under the umbrella of the Environment Protection Act, 198& This Act placed the responsibility of protecting the environment on the Central government, which secured powers to close, prohibit or regulate any industry. It also gave all citizens the right to move courts against those who damage the environment. But the Act could not grant justice to Bhopal's victims; in a total sell-out, the Government of India settled the case with Union Carbide for us $470 million in 1989 and absolved the company from any criminal liability. In the same period, the Rashtriya Chemical Fertilizers Ltd, an urea-manufacturing factory in Clbembur, Bombay, notorious for its polluting effects, was awarded the Priyaclarsharn Award for Environment Protection by the government!

In January 1994, Kama] Nath issued a notification on environment impact assessment (FIA), under which new projects with investments of over Its 50 crore in 29 sectors were to be appraised by expert committees of the ministry. The notification did not include the public hearing clause, which would have allowed people's participation in evaluating the ecological damages that an industry can cause. On top of it, the May 1994 amendment gave discretionary powers to the ministry to disregard experts, environmental groups and voices of affected populations and even allow some industries to dispense with EIA procedures altogether.

In the meantime, the widespread demand for environment courts led to Parliament's approval of the much belated bill for establishment of environment tribunals in May 1995. While Kama] Nath claimed the bill to be unique, environmentalists have considered it a piecemeal measure, pointing out that it
did not deal with prevention of environmental accidents or disasters or force industries to take safety measures;

did not ensure local communities' right to information regarding industrial hazards;

exempted the government and its agencies from the purview of the tribunal.

With elections due, the ministry of environment and, forests (MEF) claims to be working on a new notification eyipowering local communities with the right to any information r4arding' hazardous industries.

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