Some have expressed the hope that with the Congress coming back to power, there is hope for India’s beleaguered environment. This includes the view that Sonia Gandhi would continue the pro-active environment policies of her mother-in-law when she was Prime Minister, and in particular help to revive the focus on wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Is this hope justified?

Tackling India’s environment crisis is likely to be a difficult proposition for any government. For one thing, it is unclear how much real power the central government has, what with the growing power of regional parties and local community institutions on the one hand, and international forces like the United States, WTO, IMF, and the World Bank on the other.

Secondly, the challenge of meeting the ‘developmental’ needs of India’s people is massive and urgent; this includes in particular water, health, education, infrastructure, energy, and employment. None of India’s major political parties have shown particular initiative in demonstrating how this challenge can be met not only in balance with the natural environment, but in fact by enhancing the ecological security of the country. So would the new Congress government be any different? And if it is serious, what should its core agenda and approach be?

A worrisome ecological track record

In the 1970s and 1980s there seemed to be a growing concern for the environment, resulting in some far-reaching laws and policies, and strong people’s movements like Chipko and Silent Valley. But the introduction of new economic policies in 1990s also saw the government and corporate sector begin systematically diluting environmental regulations. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore: policies and regulations relating to farming land, tribal land, forest land, and water bodies, all were subjected to either dilution or willful violation. The horrifying bulldozing of adivasi settlements in Orissa this year, and the killing of tribal activists in Kashipur (Orissa) last year, to make way for mining, are not isolated examples of this new phase.

The late 1990s and early 2000s have seen a spurt in the diversion of forest lands to non-forest purposes, and a major increase in the number of ‘development’ projects being given environmental clearance. Many or most of these are on the basis of flimsy and sometimes even fraudulent environmental impact assessments, to which the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have turned a blind eye.

Government was not the only one to give short shrift to the environment. The media too has shifted its focus to business and fashion (other than the conventional spotlight on politics and sports), providing less relative space to environment. The better off in India have been happy with the easy availability the world’s consumer goods, even though some may have been worried about the social and ecological impacts of globalization.

In the meantime, mass people’s movements, trade unions, and some fringe NGOs have raised alarm about the economic policies. Amongst these, trade unions unfortunately continued to ignore environmental issues, and equally many environmental NGOs have remained insensitive to the concerns of the labour and working class. This divide was most sharply demonstrated in clashes relating to wildlife protected areas, where only a handful of NGOs pushed for an integrated approach combining conservation and livelihood security. It was also reflected in a series of far-reaching environment-related judgements of the Supreme Court, applauded by many who could not gauge the disastrous social impacts of these judgements on forest-dwellers, fisherfolk, and farmers. The fact that both workers and the environment are being exploited by the powerful industrial and corporate sector, has not yet resulted in what could be a strong united front between the two.

In all, the last 15 years or so have seen a strange paradox. On one hand conflicts related to sharing of water, access to forests and land have grown manifold, in many cases due to the take-over of resources by the corporate sector. The cancerous spread of mining is one such example. These conflicts are much too visible to ignore. On the other hand, however, ecological consciousness seems to have reached a political nadir. This depressing lack of environmental sensitivity was amply symbolised in the 2004 election manifestos of both the BJP and the Congress. The former had one tiny section on environment, the latter not even that; and in both, the need to move ‘development’ towards greater sustainability was conspicuous by its absence.

Is there hope?

By no means does this imply that all hope is lost. Indeed, the more stark the destruction, the clearer it becomes that natural resource degradation goes hand in hand with the loss of livelihood options for millions of people. This leads to greater chances of people responding. There have already been significant moves of assertion by communities themselves. Whether it is the resistance of villagers in Plachimada (Kerala) against a Coca Cola bottling plant that was taking their groundwater and poisoning the land, or the increasing use of the mandatory provision on public hearings by people affected by industry and dams, or the growth of legal challenges to destructive ‘development’ by citizens, or the regeneration of forests and wetlands by thousands of villages across India, or the increasing number of farmers switching to organic cultivation.…these and many other initiatives show that rural and urban communities are indeed taking matters into their own hands.

And at least some governments are responding, by granting greater powers to local bodies, promoting organic farming, or bringing in other progressive policies and schemes. Individual government officials too have shown how the system could be different, by sticking up against destruction, or promoting alternative water harvesting, clean energy sources, and participatory forms of decision-making.

The question then is: can the new government recognise these signs of hope for their true worth, and help spread them to other areas so that the problems of environmental degradation can be tackled? What does it need to do, to turn the situation around?

An environmental manifesto

The fact that both workers and the environment are being exploited by the powerful industrial and corporate sector has not yet resulted in what could be a strong united front between the two. The crisis facing land, water, forests, and air needs to be tackled head-on. No-one can claim to have all the answers, and there is no magic environmental blueprint that the new government could follow, even presuming it wanted to. But if it is serious, it needs to at least consider the following elements of a saner approach.

  • Regeneration of land and water, which are degraded to abysmally low levels of productivity over more than 60% of India’s area. This cannot be done by centralised bureaucracies, but by empowering and providing resources to rural and urban communities. The amazing regeneration of forests under joint forest management over millions of hectares, or of wetlands through decentralised water harvesting, despite inadequate power-sharing in such programmes, is proof enough of the capacity of communities to make miracles happen.

    Indeed, such regeneration is potentially India's single biggest source of employment, as highlighted by the Planning Commission some years back. With this, the government could tackle three critical issues at the same time: the ecological crisis, raging unemployment, and the declining productivity of our land. There are considerable resources being put into ‘wastelands development’ and watershed programmes today, but these need to be much more in the hands of local people, and need to emphasise local solutions building on available indigenous knowledge, planting or regeneration of local species, and sensitivity to indigenous farming practices.

  • Preparing local to national land and water use plans, with a focus on delimiting ecologically and agriculturally sensitive areas where large-scale destructive 'development' activities would be disallowed. Such plans have to be made by or through full consultation with relevant communities. They have to be long-term, so that decision-makers cannot tamper with them at their own will. Special focus is needed on protecting adequate area for wildlife and biodiversity. The schemes relating to panchayats could promote such land/water use planning, building up to the district and state level planning processes. Madhya Pradesh has, for instance, issued guidelines on integrating biodiversity and environment into the district plans prepared through the Zilla Parishads, an initiative worth following in its implementation phase.

  • In relation to the above, moving towards genuine decentralisation. This means real power to the people, not only on paper. It means that decision-making regarding natural resources shifts to local people (whether in villages or in towns), that their effective rights to common property are recognised, and that their consent has to be taken when someone from outside plans a ‘development’ project or other intervention affecting these resources. Of course, such rights of local people have to go hand in hand with effective responsibilities for conservation and restrained use, for respecting the rights of wildlife to survive, and so on.

    There is no automatic guarantee that as local citizens, we will be more conservation-conscious, especially in today’s times. Often, the capacity to manage resources has itself declined, or communities are so ridden with inequities and political divisions that an organised initiative is difficult. These are some reasons governments and NGOs remain critical elements of the answer, provided they behave more as supporters and shields against destructive external forces, rather than as masters of local people. But this is the true meaning of decentralisation, not some token steps like panchayat elections and direct financial disbursements to local bodies.

  • Requiring environmental and social assessments for entire sectors. India does have a system of environmental impact assessments being mandatory for most 'development' projects. However, there is no such assessment required for policies and programmes, e.g. of the irrigation sector, or the power sector, or of policies relating to agricultural subsidies. If, for instance, the Power Ministry is making plans for the next 5 years of power generation, such plans should be subjected to environmental and social impact assessment. Similarly, water projects for an entire basin should be assessed together, rather than each project individually, because they have synergistic impacts that can go way beyond what can be gauged from looking at each project separately. Secondly, much greater public involvement is needed, including support to help people organise themselves for public hearings, and to scrutinize the project documents. Third, the entire system of EIAs needs over-hauling, as it is currently ridden with fraudulent, biased, and scientifically inadequate work.

  • Building the true value of nature and natural resources into plans and budgets. For instance, forests in the Western Ghats are not only valuable from the point of view of the timber and non-timber forest produce they contain, but even more so for the enormous water security they provide to the plains in Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Goa, and Tamilnadu, not to speak of their potential genetic values. Yet none of these values are integrated when decisions are taken about land use in the Western Ghats. On the contrary, cutting trees for timber appears as a positive contribution (as revenue) in the budget figures, and there is no corresponding debit entry on the resulting loss of ecosystem benefits!

  • Focusing production and consumption much more on the local than on the national and international, at least for the basic necessities of life. Of course there would be exceptions to this for products that are found only in a few areas and needed widely. But the emphasis must be on low-cost local production of goods and services, first for the people of the region, and then only for those outside. For instance, rather than shifting wheat grains from Punjab and Haryana to the whole of India to provide in the Public Distribution System (PDS), the stress should be on procuring local foods (including millets and pulses) from local areas, and putting these into the local PDS shops. This would provide the incentive to local farmers to continue producing indigenous foodgrains, and would make healthy diverse foods available to consumers.

    Such an alternative system is working wonderfully in several dozen villages of Zaheerabad area of Andhra Pradesh, and there is no reason it cannot work elsewhere in India. Couple this with a much greater focus on organic farming, and there is a real possibility of a true agricultural revolution that could benefit small farmers and consumers, while regenerating and retaining the productivity of land and water.

  • Placing disincentives on the consumption of luxury goods, which has shot up since the early 1990s. India's environment (or the earth's for that matter), simply cannot absorb the wasteful consumption of natural resources, especially non-essential items like luxury minerals (marble, granite, diamond, etc), or which cause serious ecological damage, such as the dozens of varieties of cars crowding urban streets.

    This article does not pretend to provide a comprehensive blueprint and these are but a sprinkling of the steps needed. The steps are critical though, and are all eminently manageable if the government has the will.

    Some analysts have astutely pointed out that the stunning electoral results of 2004 are at least partly a result of a very strong vote against the economic policies that have never really benefited the majority of India’s population. Though the Left parties have already warned against pursuing some of the policies of privatisation, there does not seem to be much of an environmental reasoning in their stands. In any case, the analysis of the election results should be heeded by the new government.

    Note, however, that the new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was the main architect of the new economic policies back in 1991. He has this time around said he would pursue “reforms” with a “human face”, having seen that indeed the masses of people may not have benefited. But he needs to go further, and reverse the equation…. The policy should now be to focus on basic human needs, and pursue ‘reforms’ to the extent they meet such needs. And in doing this, he and his government need to be ever-mindful that human welfare can be assured only if nature, and natural resources, are themselves secure. To paraphrase the wise words ascribed to an American native chief: when all the animals and plants and soils are gone, destroyed by human hands, will we eat money?