MAC: Mines and Communities

Caught in the crossfire

Published by MAC on 2007-08-15

Caught in the crossfire

Jay Mazoomdaar, Consultant Editor, Environment and Wild Life

13th August 2007 (New Delhi)

IT'S been a cruel double whammy. For more than 100 years now, India's environmental polity has been a tussle between two predominant ideologies. One is the colonial policy of exploitation of natural resources as commodities and it continued after Independence as part of a nationalistic overdrive for economic progress.

At loggerheads with this philosophy has been the romantic primitivism that believed in pre-colonial, traditional modules of community-centric conservation. Six decades since Independence, India's green balance sheet is a reflection of the equal damage done to our natural assets by these counter-forces.

Of course, we have our achievements. Compared to Europe and North America, we have saved much more of our bio-diversity in spite of the colonial inheritance. For example, a host of major species - wolves in the Scandinavians, bears in Norway, wolverine and lynx populations across the European landscape, mountain lions in North America - was either wiped out or pushed to near extinction in the West.

In India, we have saved all 58 species of carnivores except for the cheetah. No mean feat when one considers the biotic pressure of a population density unimaginable for most of the world.

But we are sinking nevertheless. Big cats survive, but almost everywhere they are looking down the barrel. In many stretches, pristine forests are fragmented beyond recovery. Our fragile coastlines are choking with effluents.

So what went wrong? We need to briefly go back in history for an answer.

The big loot

When capitalism flourished in the West, basic environmental resources like water, forest or land became commodities in the new economy. Remember those horrid tales of forced indigo plantation and many such unfortunate chapters in our agrarian history? The British also launched the Imperial Forest Service as early as in 1867 to manage and exploit forest produce.

Post-Independence, the trend of commodification continued in commercial forestry, deforestation, conversion of land, Green Revolution, arbitrary construction of dams, command area irrigation etc. For example, the officially accepted rate of diversion of forestland was 1.5 lakh hectare per annum during the period 1950 to 1980. There is no authentic figure for encroachment yet.

Very few dared question the urgency of the new state for economic self-realisation till, in the Seventies, a section of urban radicals and a mass of rural activists together raised their voice in movements like those led by Jayaprakash Narayan.

Then in the early Eighties, Anil Agarwal * [see note] argued that the poor survive more on the 'Gross Natural Product' and his first Citizen's Report triggered a development-versus- environment debate.

With forestry a big money spinner under the agriculture ministry, the union government did not have much time for environment or wildlife. We did not even have a nodal ministry till 1988. Since the Wildlife Protection Act (1973), we have come up with a set of laws and amendments but often they left serious loopholes.

It may not be far-fetched to conclude that your average bureaucrat and his boss are more likely to buy and, in turn, hard sell the policy of commodification and exploitation rather than scout for sensible, scientific alternatives for sustainability.

Just consider these three recent moves, all critical to the country's future:

* The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ), 1991: It allows Special Economic Zones, effluent treatment plants, industrial salt pans, and the mining of atomic minerals even in sensitive, fragile areas.

* The Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 1994 - It exempts projects like mining leases from public hearings if the project's land requirement is under 25 hectare. About 50 per cent of mining leases for major minerals don't use or need more than 25 hectare. In 2002, when the EIA was amended in extensive consultation with the industrial lobbies, many more concessions were made. For example, the amendment restricted participatory clauses by providing hearings only for project affected people, excluding experts and environmental NGOs. It also allowed the regulatory agencies, if they so desired, to do away with the whole stage of public consultation.

* The Biological Diversity Act 2002 - It drew flak from all quarters for ignoring the role of local communities in harnessing traditional knowledge. A number of impressive representations were made to correct this drawback prior to notification of rules in 2004. But the MoEF went ahead with its own stunted version.

It is not surprising then that 60 years after Independence we still depend on the Supreme Court to come to the rescue - in the past 10 years, it has passed nearly 200 orders and interim orders that have saved most of our bio-diversity.

In spite of a nodal ministry and mechanisms in place, the apex court often finds its hands full with green cases. Take the Vedanta mining fiasco, for example.

For the record, the British mining company had submitted two projects - one for an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh and another for bauxite mining at nearby Niyamgiri hills - for environmental clearance, claiming they were not inter-linked.

Once Vedanta got clearance for the refinery, made huge initial investment and even displaced many tribal families, they spilled the bean: The refinery cannot be viable without mining rights in Niyamgiri, an old growth forest defined as a Schedule V area where land transfer is not permitted to non-tribals.

The case is pending before the Supreme Court which now must take into account the money already spent to set up a one-million-tonne-per-annum capacity refinery. But how did the state government and the union ministry fail to see Vendanta's plot when the company proposed setting up a mega refinery so close to Niyamgiri? Or did they simply condone it?

Unfortunately, such cases are too frequent for comfort and most of them don't leave legal loopholes. In the Capital, the Delhi Development Authority's mega construction plan on the Yamuna flood plains is one such example.

Even if we forget the damage to riverine ecosystem and the hazards of having giant structures on a seismic floodplain, it does not take any expertise to realise how blocking the riverbed will invite seasonal flooding. We all know it's not done but the DDA is going ahead at full steam and am not sure if inter-governmental "coordination" has left much room for successful legal intervention.

What is at stake

Conservation is not about getting fussy over a highway here or a factory there. We are talking about a sector that yields estimated Rs 70-90,000 crore per annum. It often escapes our mental radar. And amusingly, even India's Finance Ministers usually skip the sector in their budget speeches.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests put an estimated figure of Rs 55,000 crore each year as the value of what is exploited legally and illegally from our forests.

Let's not even try to assess the economic value of the most crucial component of our natural assets -- about 300 rivers and perennial streams that spring to life inside the forests and flow out to provide drinking and irrigation water.

The more tangible exploitations range from mega products like minerals, timber and salt to comparatively lesser derivatives like tendu leaves or firewood. Add the massive exploitation undersea, of medicinal and aromatic plants, encroached plantations of coffee and tea and, of course, the illegal trade in wildlife, and even a conservative estimate will take you closer to the Rs 100,000-crore mark.

And how does this exploitation take place? Mindlessly. For whatever is taken out, simply nothing is given back to restore sustainability. Big corporates flout the mining regulations like illiterates. Macro and micro encroachments are rampant.

The administration puts on blinkers in the name of populism. Why, even 50 years after Independence, we still don't have a land use policy? And for a sector that churns out at least Rs 70,000 crore per year, the total sanction during the Tenth plan period remains just Rs 800 crore.

Rs 160 crore is peanuts when you consider the biotic pressure. In India, we have just 2 per cent of global forest cover as against 14 per cent of global cattle and 15 per cent of its population. It is sad to assume that the significance of sustainable exploitation of our natural assets is lost on our leadership.

But their focus on infrastructure through roads and communication will not achieve anything if taps go dry. No amount of reform will boom agriculture if skies don't rain, water vanishes from the rivers and even underground.

And as our forest cover shrinks, water will be the eventual casualty. Already various experts have predicted how 2.7 billion people -- mostly in the semiarid regions of Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa -- will experience severe water scarcity by 2025. Even Bollywood producers find substance in the threat.

The romantic myopia

Understandably, the ongoing "colonial" loot invites radical critics who blame the exclusivity of the present policy -- that denies forest dwellers their rights -- for all evil. Most of these individual and institutional critics believe that community-based conservation is the only alternative.

They claim that forest-dwelling tribals are the true custodians of the forests and our natural resources are most secure in their sustainable forest life. They also demand that these communities be provided with schools, health centres, roads etc deep inside forests. In short, they claim that blanket forest rights for tribals is the only solution to conservation maladies.

For some strange reason, this primitive romanticism doesn't take into account the contemporary reality. First, the population explosion among tribals and the shrinking of resources make sustainability a joke.

Secondly, an overwhelming majority of tribal communities anyway is not interested in forest life anymore and aspires to be "mainstreamed".

Thirdly, the anachronistic pleasure of taking schools, roads and certain other modern amenities inside old growth "core" forests will be rather short-lived as the forests won't survive the onslaught. And finally, the poverty of these communities makes them easily corruptible - almost all poachers in the trade come from these communities.

Clearly, these advocates of the forest idyll have been barking up the wrong tree. Just because they fear, and rightly so, that the holes in our system may surrender our remaining natural assets to market forces, they cannot justify their equally disastrous remedy that will eventually lead to mass commodification.

The "colonial loot" hurts both - our resources and our communities. But neither can be saved at the cost of the other.

Many of these environmentalists and tribal activists are in politics and others form formidable pressure groups. If they had targeted the governments and pressed for better policies, strong legislation, more safeguards, respectable incentives, livelihood options and effective instruments of delivery, they would be able to help both the environment and the communities.

Turning the clock back with not reverse the damage done by those market agents, it will only keep us longer from getting down to urgent mid-course corrections.

A green wishlist?

Money? Manpower? Legislation? Enforcement? Transparency?

A zero-tolerance policy to protect critical resources? And handsome incentives for rehabilitation?

A sustainable combination of community rights, responsibilities and replenishment of resources for less critical areas?

Reining in a bureaucracy that "distributes" resources for "legal abuse" and/or securing vote banks for its political masters?

But let's not be too ambitious. Let's rather wish for that elusive political will.

Let's rather wish to see at least some mention of an environmental commitment in the Common Minimum Programme of the coalition that forms the next government.

Six decades since Independence, that would be quite a beginning.

* Editorial note: Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi shouldnot be confused with Anil Anagarwal, the executive chairman of Vedanta Resources plc

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