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It's the red tape, not the green tape holding back development

Divya Karnad, Oct 10, 2013, DHNS: 22:38 IST
Promised funding for wildlife conservation and habitat preservation in India has never seen better days. At the inauguration of the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Hyderabad in Oct 2012, prime minister Manmohan Singh launched the Hyderabad Pledge, a sum of $ 50 million to “… strengthen the institutional mechanism for biodiversity conservation in India”.

This money was meant to be earmarked to help national and state level institutions responsible for biodiversity conservation. As a means to gain the world’s attention and respect it was a bold and strategic move. It was believed to signal a newfound focus on the environment by a government that had previously acted for biodiversity only upon the insistence of the courts.

A few years ago, in 2009, the ministry of environment and forests established the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (Campa) through which any diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes could be compensated for monetarily. An initiative born out of the Supreme Court’s considerations in the Godhavarman Thirumalpad case in 1995, Campa was portrayed as a sign of the government becoming more aware of environmental problems being fuelled by rapid economic growth. The money accrued for compensatory afforestation would then be used for “forest and wildlife conservation and protection” among other environmentally friendly ventures.

Both these state-led initiatives have ended in criticism and failure. The Hyderabad Pledge, which was meant to draw global financial support to developing countries in order to help them meet Aichi biodiversity targets, has failed to get even a single signatory. The Campa funds have remained in the banks in which they were originally deposited, while the government has gone ahead and issued guidelines for their investment in fixed deposits, post offices, government securities and government bonds. There is a clear message being sent to industries and environmental groups regarding the government’s interest in sustainable development: there is no interest.

India’s vision for democratic and sustainable development appears to be an impracticable mix of strategies, given the path chosen by successive governments to pursue economic and ecological goals. Even after the enacting of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, panchayats and other village level bodies continue to be excluded from decision making regarding the use of their traditional land. The process of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been criticised, particularly with respect to mining in Niyamgiri, Orissa and the recent Lafarge Umiam Mining case in Meghalaya. The primary beneficiaries of most government-extractive industry interactions (legal or otherwise) seem to be the ministry of environment and forests, the forest department, ministry of coal, ministry of mines and the industries that initiated negotiations over land. These are the very institutions that have been implicated in mismanagement of funds in various cases by the Comptroller and Auditor General as well as the Supreme Court.

Pipe dream

Despite a global move towards decentralised governance of the environment, which India joined with the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, local environmental governance remains a pipe dream. New environmental initiatives have no provisions for the participation of citizens, scientists and others, with schemes like compensatory afforestation or the Hyderabad Pledge scheduled to operate through the existing bureaucracy. Bureaucratic government institutions are thought to make reductionist and misguided assumptions about the impacts of people on wildlife, as well as the role of independent scientists and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in understanding and solving ecological problems.

Boundaries of wildlife sanctuaries are increasingly porous to development, as roads, railways and even cities are created inside protected areas. For instance, the city of Solapur in Maharashtra is situated within the official boundaries of the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary at Nannaj. Evidence of real funding for environmental protection is even more difficult to come by.

Accusations of green tape holding back development are clearly unfounded and misleading. However, there is clear evidence of red tape holding back sustainable development. Despite the existence of a Ministry of Environment and Forests and associated state Departments, action by small groups and individuals have been the frontline of defence against ill-conceived development. Still official recognition of this fact has been difficult to obtain. In the meanwhile, industrial development is chipping away at forest land to the tune of 1.5 lakh hectares across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Punjab and Uttarakhand. There is a stark difference between perceptions about the functioning of the environmental bureaucracy and its actual workings.

In order to close the gap between action and words, more opportunities need to be created for citizen participation. The current approach by the ministry of inviting public comments on draft policies is one such laudable step. In addition, transgressions with respect to enforcement of environmental laws need to be taken seriously and opportunities need to be created for public reporting of such illegal activities. Further, the ministry itself needs to refine its strategy to negotiate the multiple legal boundaries prescribed by different Acts in order to deal with each case placed before it. Opening up avenues for some decisions to be taken at lower levels through decentralisation is one strategy to deal with this. This opportunity has already been highlighted by the Recognition of Forest Rights Act. Finally, ensuring that funding for environmental protection is more than mere lip-service is critical. Going beyond pledges and court orders, it is time for the government to take some initiatives in order to sustain India’s critical natural resources.

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