The enemy within

  • 30/08/1998

ENVIRONMENT is one area in which post-independence India cannot be proud of its performance. India has seen a rapid decline in the quality of all its natural resources ranging from land and forests to water, air and biodiversity. Today, it is one of the dirtiest, most polluted and environmentally degraded countries of the world.

In this entire scenario, there have been three small successes over the last three decades but even these have to be qualified. The tiger population began to increase in the late 1970s and 1980s but again has begun to show a sharp decline leading many to argue that it will disappear early in the next century. The forest cover has been maintained since the mid-1980s but nobody really knows how much can even be called a 'forest' as a large part of the forest estate today is made up of plantations. Rural firewood availability has shown an increase but a big reason for this unexpected increase is the unexpected invasion of an exotic species called Prosopisjuliflora on India's degraded lands from Kutch in Gujarat to Ramanathpuram in Tamil Nadu.

Four small rays of hope have also emerged despite this dismal scenario, generated almost entirely by the democratic character of India's Constitution. The struggle against 'the system' which destroys the environment has grown.

India's NGO movement, which has its roots in the pre-independence Gandhian movement, has not only grown but has also taken a deep interest in environmental concerns.

The judges of the Supreme Court have reinterpreted the Constitution to give people the right to a healthy environment, something unprecedented, and have thus promoted public participation in India's environmental governance by encouraging a spate of public interest litigation.

The people have shown a greater desire to save and regenerate their environment. The villagers of Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi have shown that the rural economy can be pulled up dramatically by its bootstraps which literally no other form of economic intervention can do if the people are organised to manage their environment. It is possibly the most heartening aspect of India's last 50 years. Far less talked about than Sukhomajri or Ralegan Siddhi is the effort of over 1000 village communities in Orissa, Chotanagpur area of Bihar, the BhagiraJhi valley of UP, and Panchmahals region of Gujarat, to protect government forests on their own. These people, seeing the economic crisis in their lives which had resulted from the ecological crisis that had engulfed them, slowly began to take action. Poor and illiterate people but strong and far-sighted.

The media has given strong support to the environmental concern.

But the NGO movement has failed to weld itself into a powerful and well-coordinated nationwide movement which goes beyond a group of people fighting projects to a group of people who can change the environmental governance system and its policies. NCOS have built a powerful 'amorphous' movement with a focus on certain heroes and heroines but it has no national institutions of the kind of Greenpcace and Friends of the Earth in the West. The Indian NGO movement remains strong in the political dimensions of the environmental concern but weak in its policy and scientific dimensions. It is unlikely that Indian NGO movement could have caught a creeping environmental concern like global warming which threatens to destabilise the world. A lot of the power of the NGO movement has, in fact, come from local social mobilisation, media and the courts.

The impact of court orders has remained extremely poor because they have run into a wall of poor environmental governance.

The people themselves are making efforts to the extent they can. But even the best of their efforts are failing to spread because the government is not prepared to learn their lessons. Attempts to replicate Ralegan Siddhi have run into political opposition because the village's leader, Anna Hazare, decided to launch a crusade against corruption. Villagers in Sukhomajri have now created lakhs worth of grass production and a forest that can give them a crore of rupees every year but they are today at their wit's end with the constant interference coming in from the government itself which wants a large share of the pie - and neighbouring villagers who are being egged on by external agencies.

Overall, the environmental future remains bleak. The only answer lies in the Third War for Independence. The non-participatory, corrupt and incompetent form of governance that the British promoted for their colonial ends, has today reach a state of perfect inefficiency. Therefore post-independence Indians will have to fight a war with themselves to protect their environment, society and culture if they want to control the ravages of economic growth which will be exacer-bated by extreme inequality, illiteracy, poverty, an abysmal lack of civil values and growing self-centredness. This is what the Centre for Science and Environment has always called the Big Challenge: The Challenge of the Balance. A struggle not with outsiders but with ourselves.

Anil Agarwal

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