The Root Of All Evil

  • 30/10/1998

Corruption can affect the environment in four different ways:
Corruption will encourage the loot of the natural estate. And what is worse is that when the people begin to see corruption around them and begin to realise that state regulations are meaningless, they too will join in the plunder of the natural estate. Thus, plundering the natural estate, especially that component of it which lies in the hands of the state - from air and water to forests and other common lands - will become a way of life. This will be particularly dangerous in a society in which there is limited respect for nature. Corruption can, in fact, even slowly erode the respect for nature that may have been there as a part of the traditional culture.

There are two ways of looting the treasury. One is the unofficial loot of the treasury which officials indulge in to line their personal pockets. Another is an official loot of the treasury which politicians often indulge in to earn public support and votes. This official loot often takes the form of subsidies, which are often given in the name of the poor but invariably support the rich. These subsidies, especially when they relate to the natural estate, can have serious environmentally-damaging effects. Subsidies on fuel can lead to increased pollution. Subsidies on electricity can lead to over pumping of groundwater. Subsidies on urban water supply can lead to enormous overuse of water and ultimately large quantities of polluted water going into rivers and groundwater.

Corruption will mean that state regulations to bring about a balance between environment and development - for example, control of pollution from economically important activities - will rarely get implemented. Food, water, air, fuel and other environmental standards will, as a result, stay only on paper.

Corruption will mean that the government system will focus on forms of investment that allow maximum opportunities for corruption. Corruption will, therefore, have a major impact on technology choice by the state. Investment in "hardware" and, especially in "mega-hardware", allows maximum amount of corruption opportunities. Construction and large procurement orders are the best examples of this "hardware". Therefore, there will be a great desire amongst state agencies to direct investment towards construction activities and technology choice will be made mainly in favour of systems that involve mega-construction. In other words, corrupt governments will be more disposed towards large dams than small water harvesting structures.

But what is worse is that corrupt governments will neglect the "software" component of projects concentrating mainly on the "hardware" component. This can have serious environmental effects. Because if a government only concentrates on the building of dams but does not invest adequately in the "software" of efficiently using the water produced by the dam or neglecting studies on whether the soils which are going to receive that water are capable of receiving that water or not, it can lead to considerable land degradation and water over exploitation. Similarly, corrupt governments will be quick to build school buildings without ensuring good educational facilities and hospital buildings without ensuring good medical facilities. India's rural areas are full of water supply systems with no water, school buildings without teachers and blackboards, and primary health care centres without doctors or medicines. Structures to control floods are built but little effort is made to study their short and long-term effectiveness.

A corrupt environment engenders corruption across all levels of governance. Thus, decentralisation of governance may increase ownership of projects to manage the environment but does not mean that there will be less corruption unless careful measures are taken to ensure transparency simultaneously. City mayors and panchayat leaders can and do indulge in as much "pelf and pilferage" as senior officials and politicians.

The causes of corruption are just as multifaceted as its effects. Some of the factors which tend to increase corruption are:
State policies and procedures which are cumbersome, non-transparent and excludes local people's participation, especially in the management of the natural estate and its regulation,

Social culture which encourages "keeping up with the Joneses" and creates divided loyalties which put the family over the society, and

Disrespect for state institutions fuelled by the state's decreasing public credibility over its ability to enforce its laws. VANISHING GREENBACKS
During a conference organised by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment in 1986, non-governmental organisations (NGOS), rural environmentalists and activists estimated that India needed a one-time expenditure of Rs 30,000 crore to green all of India's 0.56 million villages. This could help each village.afforest at least 100 hectares (ha) of land. In fact, governments led by Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao have allocated large sums for afforestation programmes. Besides, funding has come from several bilateral and multilateral agencies.

In 1990, L C Jain, member of the country's Planning Commission, pointed out that nearly Rs 25,000 crore had been spent on rural development and employment programmes during the 1980s alone, a large part of which was supposed to be spent on afforestation, and soil and water conservation. Before the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana was announced in 1989, 25 per cent of funds available under the National Rural Employment Programme and the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme had to be compulsorily spent on afforestation by state governments.

Why then is the dream of greening India's villages still a distant one?

It is quite easy for government records to show that millions of trees have been planted. Dig a hole in the ground, plant a tree, and fill up the hole with earth. But if you do not take care of the tree, you can start the work all over again. Dig up the same hole again and plant a new sapling. After 10 years, there will be 10 trees planted in government records but no trees on the ground. Trees are very fragile ecological resources. There is no point in planting trees unless there is someone to protect the saplings. And trees planted on government lands lack the ownership of the people. Moreover, who is out there counting the number of seedlings actually planted? (see box: Pulp fiction).

Lack of transparency is another factor that can easily breed corruption. In 1989, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi created a new scheme called the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana in which money allocated for rural employment programmes went directly to village councils. To get inputs for this scheme, the prime minister organised several meetings of village leaders countrywide. At one of these meetings, an old woman, directly addressing the prime minister, said, "If you want to give money to my village, please make sure it comes in the light of the day and not in the darkness of the night."

For years, politicians and bureaucrats have woven a shroud of secrecy over the people's right to manage their natural resources. The government's forest protection programmes tend to alienate the local people. Thus, they join the plunder and exploitation, and develop a disregard for investments in state properties.

But it is not just afforestation on government lands that can suffer from corruption, so can afforestation on private lands. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the government encouraged millions of farmers to plant trees in order to help meet their basic needs, like firewood and fodder. But to protect the forest cover, various state governments had already enacted cumbersome'laws to prevent timber smuggling.

These laws discouraged farmers from planting new trees. On the one hand, the government called upon people to plant trees, but, on the other hand, mandated them to seek permission to fell trees, and transport the wood. These laws only encourage harassment and corruption by forest officials, illegal activity and, in the process, do nothing to increase the tree cover (see box: Scandal wood).

A recent study conducted by the Crafts Council of India, which was undertaken to assess the reasons why wood availability for traditional craftspersons has been declining, lists these highly cumbersome laws in several states.

The Uttar Pradesh Protection of Trees and Hill Areas Act, 1976, makes it illegal to fell any tree excepting one which is dead or has fallen without the aid of human agency. To fell a tree, an illiterate villager has to tile a written application to the authority concerned. The decision should be normally given within 90 days and, in the case of a dead tree, within seven days. In case the decision is not conveyed within the prescribed time frame then permission is deemed to have been granted (though many villagers may not be aware of this provision). If any applicant is dissatisfied with the decision, a representation can be made within 30 days to the revising authority (RA). The decision of the RA is final.

Madhya Pradesh, with the country's largest forest cover, has equally unwieldy rules. It has nationalised six tree species - teak, sal, bijasal, rosewood, sain and khair-cutch. A tree owner has to obtain revenue records and apply to the collector for permission to fell trees. The produce has to be sold to the government. There is usually a big time lag between the date of application, disposal and payment. The rules for non-nationalised trees include four additional steps before the farmer can sell in the open market. In order to avoid this, tree owners of both nationalised and non-nationalised species sell their trees at cheap rates to touts and contractors who know how to grease "the system" and get permission to cut and billet trees, get transit passes and transport logs to the sales depots.

The Punjab Land Preservation Act applies to both Punjab and Haryana. Felling of trees is a legal offence. Applications for felling trees are received twice a year. No felling is allowed unless the land owner has planted three times the number to be felled and the trees so planted are at least two years old. The Punjab Forest Development Corporation (FDC) is responsible for felling, sale and auction of wood. Traders are allowed to import timber from outside the state. In Haryana, the FDC is engaged in felling and trading timber. Transit passes are required for transport of forestry produce in certain areas.

The Himachal Forest Produce Regulation of Trade Act, 1982, requires private tree owners to obtain permission for felling trees on their land. Once the trees are felled, they have to be sold to the state government or its authorised agent.

Recognising the problems created by these cumbersome laws, the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) withdrew its support for an afforestation programme in Bihar in the early 1990s. Its repeated pleas to revise such laws because they were making the entire programme ineffective fell on deaf ears.

The government systems have failed to protect its forests. Timber smuggling is rampant in many parts of India. And in order to control illegal smuggling of wood, it has imposed an incredible array of restrictions on private farmers which then militate against afforestation programmes. To avoid the unwieldy rules, farmers often bribe forest officials, who have their arms stretched far and wide. In the process, the farmer sees no benefit in planting new trees and thus the forest cover declines drastically.

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