Environment and the Minister

Green freaks are aplenty. The world needs a common sense among the common people to save the environment. More than people’s energy the government needs to take active interest in sorting out this problem.

Jay Mazoomdar writes in The Times of India (13 June 2009)

There are, as an old joke goes, two shades of green activists: the rabid and the romantic. Most good jokes draw from reality. I reaffirmed this

conviction by observing a few green stalwarts over the past few weeks. Nobody in India, I was told, bothers about conservation more than the Gandhis. Remember, it was Indira who banned hunting almost 40 years back. Remember, it was Rajiv who always had time for the lowly forest staff. And remember, it’s Rahul who set up a tiger caucus with young politicians and got bullied by tribal activists.

The Congress has crossed the 200-mark on its own. More, Rahul Gandhi has earned for himself a say in matters of governance and policies. I could imagine the sense of vindication among these green stalwarts when the Congress freed the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) from the clutches of allies and put an ‘able minister’ in charge.

Then came Jairam Ramesh’s first media statement about the prime minister asking him not to let the MoEF become an anti-development bottleneck. At once, there were war cries. How could we have expected better from a PM who tried to steamroll India’s national environment policy at the World Bank’s prompting? How dare they advocate summary green clearance for all development projects?

But can anyone deny that the current environmental clearance procedure is highly arbitrary, delaying decisions while leaving room for manipulation? After all, less than 1 per cent of all proposals put up for green clearance has been turned down so far. Was Ramesh, perhaps, talking of streamlining the process? Surprisingly, few were willing to give the minister the benefit of the doubt.

Ramesh’s biggest challenge will be to fight the irrational the suspicion of the rabid and the expectation of the romantic. Some will always see the shadow of what they call the PM’s growth-rush behind all his moves. Others will seek magical inspiration from the young Gandhi. Some will always suspect foul play each time Ramesh’s ministry clears forest land for development. Others will expect 33 per cent forest cover and at least 5,000 tigers by the end of his term.

Frankly, should we have a blanket policy for development projects inside protected areas? What we need is objective cost-benefit comparatives for each project proposal so that informed decisions are possible. Even a few acres of a pristine forest are much more valuable than many hectares of an already degraded stretch. A road that can well do with a few kilometres of detour may not be allowed inside a sanctuary, but there might be logic in allowing the lifeline of a highway through a marginal forest area.

We cannot reverse the conservation clock just by wishful thinking. Those who hit the streets, demanding 5,000 wild tigers in the next five years, should understand that we do not have viable forests to hold even 2,000 tigers. And anyone who dreams of 33 per cent forest cover should start promoting kitchen gardens in each and every service balcony.

Performing isn’t easy in such an atmosphere of irrationality, particularly when a minister is briefed by a bunch of bureaucrats and experts mostly incapable of any scientific or even practical input. Our conservation paradigm is so outdated and unimaginative that we have reduced the whole issue to an emotional debate of growth-versus-gpic_environment01reen. But no attempt to conserve our natural heritage will work unless it is backed by scientific decisions and economic incentives.

There are at least five sets of files on Ramesh’s table that cannot wait any longer. One, the proposal to bifurcate the MoEF one secretariat for environment and another for forests and wildlife is pending since 2006 even after an assurance from the prime minister’s office. Two, a blueprint is needed to shake up the Indian forest service by creating a short-service wildlife sub-cadre, with special training and perks, for our national parks and sanctuaries. Three, field-level staff vacancies need to be filled up across the country. There is enough money lying with the Centre but our federal structure does not allow the Centre to hire or pay state government employees.

Four, for quick rehabilitation of villages out of “core critical forests”, the ministry needs to tap funds available under various central government schemes and ensure proper coordination among the district administration, forest authorities and credible NGOs. Five, an achievable national action plan for climate security is needed so that India can underline its leadership role in the climate debate in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit.

In the long term, Ramesh’s real test will be to find solutions to the three most critical issues plaguing conservation: habitat loss, man-animal conflict and poaching. The present practices to combat these problems are dangerously naive and counterproductive. We maintain forest boundaries for habitat security instead of creating buffer and connectivity for multiple land use. We create ‘maneaters’ by arbitrarily capturing and releasing so-called problem animals. We fail to guard our reserves against poaching but do not try to rehabilitate the handful of poaching communities.

It’s time our conservation outlook disowned the deadwood and forced a shift towards scientific and economic strategies. Ramesh has his task cut out.

Indeed the new environment minister has his plate full. One needs to wait and watch whether he will perform genuinely or not.


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