People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 19, 2004
New Environment Policy
has seen so many new policies being announced on this or that subject, but these
policies have most often not being taken seriously by the government and the
agencies charged with implementing them, and executive action on the ground has
been guided more by interest groups than by policy guidelines. Many Draft Policy
Documents have also been released for public scrutiny and comment, but there has
been little or no transparency regarding this process, and the final Policy
Document barely reflects any re-thinking. So one may be pardoned a degree of
cynicism at yet another major Policy announcement, in this case a new National
Environment Policy (NEP) 2004, a Draft having recently been released.
since a Draft Policy has been circulated, some comment is imperative if for no
other reason than to try and ward off worst-case scenarios. While it would not
be possible, given limitations of space, to present a comprehensive critique of
NEP 2004, this article attempts to examine the major assumptions, concepts and
policy prescriptions put forward in the Draft Policy.
the outset, it must be said that it is surprising that the Draft NEP has been
released so soon after the UPA government took office since considerable
discussion and a also a fairly extended drafting process must have gone into the
NEP. Has the Draft NEP gone through any policy-level discussions within the
current set-up at the level of government, UPA or the National Advisory Council
overseeing implementation of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) adopted by the
UPA allies and the Left parties? The CMP has a
distinctive developmental thrust, with emphasis on the interests of the poor and
the underprivileged, demarcating it from the policy framework of the erstwhile
NDA government. But this emphasis is scarcely visible in Draft NEP 2004.
TWO “FUNDAMENTALISMS” AND
Of course, like all other policy documents, NEP 2004 too has been drafted with due cleverness. Some sections could thus take comfort from statements of principle such as that "human beings are at the centre of sustainable development concerns" whereas others may hail the recommendation to "expand Protected Areas” network of the country" with "access restrictions"! In effect, NEP has several pronouncements on both sides of any issue, leaving it open to interpretation, amenable to implementation serving interests of one section while providing excuses to another! Such fairly obvious internal contradictions are unfortunately far too common in so-called "Policy" documents which therefore end up being nothing of the kind.
this does not imply that NEP has no particular thrust or orientation. In fact,
two main threads of argument run through the document representing two broad
tendencies in dealing with environmental issues and both may be regarded as
"fundamentalist" tendencies each in its own way. The first is an
"eco-fundamentalist" position, which essentially puts preservation of
the environmental status quo above all else and earnestly believes this is best
done by insulating it from human activity. The second is an "economic
fundamentalist" position which holds that ascribing economic values to
environmental resources and deploying appropriate fiscal, pricing or other
mechanisms would control over-use of these resources leading to environmental
degradation. In NEP, the former is a recurrent theme despite many ifs and buts,
while the latter is a dominant focus behind which the hand of special interests
can be discerned in many places.
to both these strands is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the causes of
environmental degradation and there is little wonder that, overlooking the
implications of the several correct formulations made NEP, its recommendations
are basically skewed.
categorisation of “proximate” and “underlying” causative factors often
puts the cart before the horse and frequently forgets the rider altogether! For
instance, it is stated that “the proximate drivers of environmental
degradation are population growth, technology and consumption choices, and
poverty, leading to… [harmful] development activities such as intensive
agriculture, polluting industry and unplanned urbanisation” whereas the actual
damage is a result of “deeper causal linkages, in particular institutional
failures…, policies which provide disincentives for environmental
conservation…, market failures… and governance constraints.”
Completely missing in this chain of causation are rapacious profiteers,
corrupt officials and politicians who connive at loot of natural resources, and
ruling classes who dispossess local environment-dependent communities in favour
of external privileged classes. To gloss over these basic structural issues is
not simply naivety but sophistry.
BLAME AND TARGET THE POOR
is indeed strange that while the industrialists, merchants and strip-farmers are
not even named or are hidden under euphemisms, the poor are mentioned frequently
and even blamed, although accompanied with expressions of sympathy for their
helplessness. Poverty leading to unplanned urbanisation is one of the most
oft-repeated myths of modern India, re-stated in NEP, as if everything in our
cities and metros were perfectly planned otherwise. Illegal colonies of the
super-rich, unplanned commercial property development, an unholy nexus between
real estate speculators, builders, officials, politicians and crooks, all
straining urban habitats beyond their carrying capacity are conveniently
forgotten while the poor are blamed for “unplanned urbanisation” even as
their entitlements are simply ignored.
itself can accentuate environmental degradation”, says NEP, referring to
stresses on irrigation water, fuel-wood, fish and non-timber forest produce.
More myths. No honest study has ever shown any meaningful correlation between
degradation of any of the above environmental resources and their use by the
local poor, and certainly not in comparison with the resource-guzzling
activities of the expropriating classes.
pollution is ascribed to “the use of fossil energy and other industrial
processes, and some consumption activities”
which, we learn from a footnote, includes things called cars! The analysis then
shifts to inefficient domestic cookstoves and “diversion” of biomass from
fertiliser application to fuel (as if use of dung-cakes as domestic fuel is a
recent phenomenon precipitated by inappropriate subsidies to chemical
fertilisers!), leading NEP to advocate addressing of these “deeper causes”
through “policies and programmes for redressing women’s status”. Once
again, while solutions to major environmental degradation by corporates and
industrial products for elite classes are cast in generalities such as
“strengthening the monitoring and enforcement of emission standards”,
concrete action is suggested for the rural poor: improved wood-burning stoves,
solar cookers and energy plantations. Regulate fossil
fuel use in urban-industrial sectors, deny it to rural-agricultural sectors.
strange policy document indeed which waxes eloquent on per-capita equity in
emissions between developed and developing countries, but advocates just the
opposite within India, between town and country, between rich and poor.
one of its operational principles, NEP 2004 defines and prioritises what it
terms “Incomparable entities” i.e. “unique historical monuments such as
the Taj Mahal; charismatic species such as the Tiger; or unique landscapes such
as the Valley of Flowers” and prescribes that, for such entities,
“conventional economic cost-benefit calculus would not… apply” unlike for
most other resources discussed. One may have little argument with the specific
examples cited but, as NEP expands on the theme, the clearer its own vision
Wildlife Conservation, NEP highlights the “incomparable values” of Protected
Areas (PA). Even while acknowledging that “delineation of and restricting
access to PAs… has led to man-animal conflicts”, “encroachment of human
settlements on these areas” is identified as one of the problems even though
in numerous such cases such as in the Rajaji National Park or the Greater
Himalayan Nature Park in HP, PAs have been notified and delineated around
pre-existing settlements, often stretching back many generations if not
centuries, with the local people then externed, often forcibly, and otherwise
denied access, gravely threatening their livelihoods and their very survival
which, surely, ought also to be regarded as “incomparable values”.
NEP recommends that the PA network of the country be expanded “to all
bio-geographic zones of the country” and even that the area within each zone
should increase”. Eco-development programmes may be undertaken “in fringe
areas of PAs… owing to access restrictions”, in other words the policy
of externment of human beings will be continued if not intensified, despite
rhetoric about involving local communities.
list of “Incomparable entities” then keeps expanding to include natural
heritage sites, bio-diversity hot-spots, particular unique wetlands, particular
unique mountainscapes, various “environmentally sensitive zones” and so on.
Going by past experience and most likely future trends, designation of such
entities would be done by a few “experts”, with some token “participatory
decision-making” and all the consequences of the implementation would then be
borne by local communities and huge social costs, which of course should not
even be calculated since “incomparable values” are involved, by the nation
as a whole.
these recommendations are, of course, accompanied by supposedly reassuring
caveats such as “without impeding legitimate socio-economic development of
these areas”, “while providing alternative livelihoods… to local
communities who may be affected thereby” and, for displaced people, “to
restore as nearly as may be feasible
the lost environmental services” of the natural resources on which they had
depended. In practice, the fate of displaced persons is clear from the Narmada
Valley where, despite repeated assurances and monitoring of the high-profile
case by the highest Court, neither relief nor rehabilitation has taken place as
required before their displacement. NEP threatens to open the floodgates to a
whole new generation of refugees from sanctuaries declared as “incomparable
entities” by a few self-designated environmental czars.
ECONOMIC INCENTIVES AND MONEY POWER
recommends that implementation takes place through a combination of instruments
based on fiats and incentives. Having looked at some of the former, let us turn
to a few examples of the latter.
main argument in NEP is unexceptionable, that “costs associated with the
degradation and depletion of natural resources be incorporated into the
decisions of economic actors… to reverse the tendency to treat these resources
as ‘free goods’”. NEP therefore recommends that economic instruments
including the fiscal regime be used to build a set of incentives and
disincentives which would regulate the use of environmental resources and
thereby conserve them.
NEP errs in placing too much reliance on such economic tools. On the one hand,
it underplays the role to be played by regulatory legislation, monitoring and
enforcement, using the excuse of poor institutional capacities. On the other
hand, NEP ignores the harsh reality of the manipulation of such economic and
fiscal instruments by special-interest groups whose hand can be seen even in NEP!
ascribes land degradation to “underlying causes” such as, among other
things, implicit and explicit subsidies for water, power, fertiliser and
pesticides and absence of incentives for afforestation. Similarly, degradation
of rivers are attributed to tariff policies for water use for irrigation and
industry and, states NEP, the “direct causes of groundwater depletion have
their origin in pricing policies for electricity and diesel”.
can be nobody’s case that tariffs or pricing do not impact on usage patterns
but there are other contributory factors too and, in some instances, these play
a larger role. Increased taxation and higher price levels have neither reduced
consumption of petrol and diesel nor the demand for personal transport vehicles.
Further, the NEP once again singles out the most vulnerable section, the farmer,
as a focus of analysis and action. In the case of groundwater extraction by
farmers, the “marginal cost of extraction”, largely cost of electricity or
diesel, is hardly the deciding factor whereas the farmer is prepared to incur
huge capital costs (which NEP dismisses as of no consequence “being sunk costs
[which]… do not count in the marginal cost of water!) to get whatever meager
returns he does. Pricing of water and other agricultural inputs cannot be seen
in isolation from the general economy and the adverse terms of trade faced by
the agricultural sector.
in all the discussion about groundwater there is no mention in NEP’s analysis
or recommendations of the huge exploitation beyond recharge capacity by
unplanned even illegal urban real estate developers, corporate and commercial
establishments such as cola companies and luxury hotels, bottled water companies
and private urban water supply services, for none of whom the marginal cost of
extraction means anything.
explanation for such strange thinking certainly lies in some special-interest
groups who appear to have been involved in drafting the NEP. But there is yet
another common thread uniting all these and running through the NEP. One has by
now got used to IMF-World Bank jargon of “stakeholders” and
“public-private partnerships”, but a new stakeholder in the environment,
“investors”, whom one has not encountered earlier, appears in NEP
frequently. Private-public partnership and investors figure in numerous quite
novel areas such as monitoring and enforcement (with a caveat about
“safeguards against possible conflict of interests” which are obvious when
the fox is asked to guard the hen-house!). Not so novel are resurrections of
earlier much reviled suggestions of involving corporates and “investors” in
reclamation of wastelands and degraded forest lands, and in increasing tree
cover through commercial tree plantations (misnamed “social forestry” to
help it masquerade as increased forest cover whereas everybody, especially
eco-fundamentalists, knows that a bunch of trees does not make a forest).
such a lot expected from “investors”, it is no wonder that NEP suggests
“re-visiting” the Coastal Zone Regulations Act which the business community
has long lobbied against, exempting “investors” from the restrictions of
access imposed on other human beings in protected areas in order to promote
eco-tourism, and implementing a “polluter pays” principle “with due regard
to public interest and without distorting international trade and investment”
i.e. without annoying “investors”.
will no doubt be plenty of discussions in coming weeks on the NEP in different
fora, and comments from numerous concerned organisations and individuals. But
will there actually be a genuine effort on the part of government to seek out
and incorporate informed opinion? Will the nation be able to see through the
usually opaque decision-making processes and see a policy emerging takes into
account the concerns of the mostly voiceless common people who bear the brunt of
the impact of any such policies and especially ones dealing with the
environment? The outcome will reveal whether the UPA government actually turns
over a new leaf in such matters or whether it will be business as usual, with
backdoor lobbying by and tacit understandings with interest groups dominating
the process and clever phraseology capable of diverse interpretations
substituting for clear enforceable guidelines, and vague promises substituting