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Confused and ambivalent

Saturday 21 May 2005, by BIDWAI*Praful

The UPA’s environmental record is poor, even ungainly in parts. It fails to put people at the centre of things and favours environmentally harmful activities, including toxic waste imports.

EVEN judged by its own standards as defined in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) first year in government has not been distinguished. Although the UPA deserves to be congratulated for promoting the idea of consensual governance based on pluralism and respect for difference, and while it is infinitely preferable to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with its sectarian, communal politics, it has failed to live up to many of its promises. The failure is particularly glaring on the Employment Guarantee Act (a high priority, which was to be launched within 100 days), the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Agricultural Workers’ Bill, the Right to Information Act, and the promised long-overdue measure to confer rights upon forest-dwelling communities deprived of them for centuries.

It is now clear that the UPA will not pass the Employment Guarantee Act (EGA) or the Women’s Reservation Bill until the Monsoon Session of Parliament . The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kalyan Singh is holding up EGA deliberations in a parliamentary committee. The Agricultural Workers’ Bill is badly stuck. And the Right to Information Act has been severely diluted. Its penal provisions - essential to give it teeth against uncooperative and secretive bureaucrats - are weak. As many as 18 agencies are exempt from it, including military and paramilitary forces. And the proposal to give forest rights to people faces stiff opposition from conservationists and animal lovers.

This last failure speaks of the UPA’s confused and ambivalent position towards the environment and the issue of equity in access to and use of environmental resources, including land and forests. There are three broad rubrics under which this confusion is best understood: the question of people in relation to forests; equity in access to water, which is increasingly becoming a contentious issue; and the import of toxic wastes.

The CMP promised to institutionalise forest-dwellers’ rights which were snatched away from them during the colonial period. The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill has long been a bone of contention between the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. One big flaw in the legislation is that it restricts the conferment of a total of 13 forest-related rights only to the S.T.s. But over a fifth of forest-dwellers are non-tribal people, mostly dirt-poor Dalits and other low-caste communities which are almost as deprived as the Adivasis.

The non-tribal people’s exclusion will create serious conflicts between people who have lived in mutually beneficial ways in India’s forests for centuries - for instance, in the Kaimur range in Uttar Pradesh, but also in States as diverse as Assam, Maharashtra, Kerala, Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh.

The great merit of the Bill is that it acknowledges that a "historic injustice" was perpetrated upon forest-dwelling communities when the colonial state decided to vest the ownership of all forests in itself for commercial and industrial exploitation. It recognises the link between the health of forests and welfare of forest-dwellers who have a symbiotic relationship with their habitat and have done much to preserve it against the depredations of the timber mafia and other commercial interests - and, above all, the Forest Department. Only three of the proposed 13 rights pertain to land ownership. These too will be limited to 2.5 hectares for each family which has been in actual occupation of forest land before 1980.

However, some self-styled wildlife interest groups, recently strengthened by the unfortunate poaching of tigers in sanctuaries like Sariska, have tried to drum up scary and horrifying scenarios of India’s reserve forests being gifted away to tribal people. If India’s 80 million tribal people are given 2.5 hectares per family, they argue, that will result in the parcelling out of some 50 million of the 68 million hectares of forest land - the surest recipe for denudation of the mere 22 per cent of India’s total area on which forests remain.

In reality, not a single acre of virgin forest will be redistributed. All that the Bill provides for is the recognition of existing habitations in forests, each limited to 2.5 hectares. It is known that most such land, considered "encroached" upon, consists of degraded or completely denuded forests, in whose despoliation the Forest Department has played an egregious role. Any number of studies show that forest-dwellers have historically - and to this day - contributed to the conservation and enrichment of forests, not their pillage.

The pillaging agencies are, typically, the timber mafia, the mining industry, the irrigation lobby, and traders in tendu leaf and other minor forest produce (MFA) business, all working in league with corrupt foresters. These predatory interests have comprehensively abused the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and other laws to displace people from forests with which they have an organic relationship. The rupture of this vital, living link has created conditions for the merciless exploitation and denudation of forests.

The conservationist lobby pays lip service to forest-dwellers’ rights, but in reality, it is deeply suspicious of people, whom it sees as being in opposition to forests and their preservation and growth. Thus, its main prescription for conserving forests is to throw people out, especially from sanctuaries and nature parks. This has created conflicts between India’s 600-odd protected areas and sanctuaries, and flesh-and-blood people. Since the people have no rights - even the rights of those living in designated "forest villages" are usually not codified - they are vulnerable to disgraceful forms of harassment, exploitation and expulsion at the hands of the Forest Department.

Who constitutes the conservationist lobby? It consists of animal lovers and wildlife enthusiasts who posit a contradiction between forests and animals, on the one hand, and forest-dwellers, on the other. Its leading lights are former princes and maharajahs, shikaris and hunters, who have turned into lovers of their prey. As a Left leader told Manmohan Singh during a May 12 meeting: "People whose forefathers killed tigers are now fighting for tribal people." Some of them are represented in the newly formed 11-member Tiger and Wilderness Forum.

What we are witnessing is a classic contradiction between environmentalism and conservationism. It is important to understand this. For environmentalists, human beings are part of nature and can be (but not always are) in an integral, generally supportive, relationship with the environment, including land, water, forests, animals and birds. Conservationists exclude human beings from the environment and see them as interfering with, and inherently opposed to, nature. If nature is to be conserved, if precious species like the tiger and the elephant are to survive, then people must be separated from them. Forests are for animals. There must be no culling, no intervention by human "outsiders".

This view is thoroughly ahistorical and misunderstands nature’s own processes. Human beings, particularly forest-dwellers, have been central to forest conservation and to maintaining fine balances between animals and environmental resources. Ecologically, it is just not possible, nor desirable, for one species of animals to grow at the expense of the extinction of numerous other species, on some of whom they are dependant. This is so obviously true of the predator-prey relationship as to need no elaboration.

That is why conservation projects in different parts of the world, which artificially seek to exclude people from the environment - for instance, preserving elephants in Africa by banning ivory trade altogether - have proved disastrous failures. Having wildlife electronically tagged in Asia and Africa so that its movements can be monitored in Europe is just no way of ensuring its survival in an ecologically balanced environment.

We have had the same experience in India. Which is why tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses are fast disappearing, as are forests and forest-dwellers. The Forest Department is too callous, too corrupt, too compromised, and too hostile to people, to be able to ensure the survival of threatened animals.

It is regrettable, therefore, that the UPA seems to be succumbing to the pressure of lobbies such as the Tiger and Wilderness Forum. It is courting trouble by ignoring the pleas of a rival, larger group of Members of Parliament representing mainly S.T.s, but also other underprivileged people, which demands recognition of tribal rights in its true spirit. The UPA risks alienating the S.T.s further. Already, the BJP has established its pre-eminence in 37 out of 41 S.T. constituents in Madhya Pradesh and 15 out of 24 in Rajasthan.

EQUALLY unfortunate is the UPA’s continuation of policies on water which encourage privatisation of supply, as well as rampant exploitation of groundwater. India is rapidly becoming a major target of predatory water multinationals such as Veolia (formerly Vivendi), Suez, RWE and Thames Water. The Sarita Vihar water plant in New Delhi is a first-rate scandal. It is the principal cause of a three-to-fivefold increase in water rates. This is only one example of the disastrous effects of water privatisation.

Experience from any number of countries, discussed in the remarkable book Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke (Toronto, 2002), proves the point with a vengeance. It should serve as a dire warning.

The UPA would commit a colossal blunder in resorting to privatisation merely because municipal bodies and State governments cannot manage urban water supply well. The answer is their democratisation and reform, not privatisation.

Of a piece with this is the UPA’s policy of condoning and even encouraging patently unsafe and illegal practices like toxic waste imports by permitting ship-breaking at sites like Alang in Gujarat. Alang remains and flourishes (if that term can be used at all) as the world’s biggest yard where discarded ships are dismantled. An old ship, at the end of its useful economic life, is a veritable store of extremely hazardous chemicals, plastics, electrical circuits, paints, oil sludge and other material which cannot be safely dispersed of.

Alang is a sordid case of ultra-hazardous activity where workers are subjected to horrible injuries. They work with their bare hands wielding hammers and metal-cutters on tilted and wobbly surfaces, where a whole deck or a big boiler might crash over their heads.

Such ship-breaking must be banned outright. It is illegal under the Basel Convention on transboundary movements of waste, which explicitly outlaws the import of toxic ships for final disposal. Yet, on April 23, a fugitive toxic ship "Kong Frederik IX", now renamed "Riky", arrived from Denmark and beached at Alang.

The Danish authorities warned their Indian counterparts and asked them to send it back. Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard wrote: "I believe our interests are joint - and I call on you to cooperate in this case by denying the ship to be dismantled in India - and refer the ship to be returned to Denmark in order to be stripped of the hazardous waste. By this we can send a strong signal that neither India nor Denmark will accept export of environmental problems that could be solved locally, and that we as governments will not accept this kind of foul play which results in lasting damage to the environment."

India is legally obliged under the Basel Convention to consider the "Ricky" as hazardous waste - because Denmark considers it as such. The Convention has a built-in safeguard whereby an exporting country can declare a transboundary movement to be outside its scope. India is in breach of Articles 1.1.b, 6 (Transboundary Movement between Parties) and 9 (Illegal Traffic) of the Convention.

However, the MoEF has refused to heed the Danish request. Minister A. Raja wrote to Hedegaard: "We have determined that the ship cannot be classified as `Wastes’ within the scope of Act 2.1 of the Basel Convention. I would like to assure you that India has adequate capacity to ensure environmentally sound disposal of the said ship."

This is a blatant lie. No country, leave alone India, has the technology to handle such toxic waste safely by manually breaking up a ship. It is an absolute disgrace that India, during the UPA’s first year in power, should wilfully inflict grave damage upon its environment and people under the toxic-waste importer lobby’s pressure. "Riky" will go down as a dark chapter in India’s environmental history.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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