‘If you take an elephant’s corridor for a billion, will you give another forest?’


Rohini Mohan
New Delhi

The green man Ritwick Dutta
Photo: Garima Jain

RITWICK DUTTA, 36, is a Supreme Court lawyer who has fought a series of complex environmental cases. Currently he represents affected tribals of Niyamgiri against Vedanta’s mining projects in Odisha. In a polarised world full of rhetoric, Dutta has become a trusted voice on a broad spectrum of environmental issues. Here, Dutta casts a sceptical eye on green accounting. Excerpts From An Interview.

Is green accounting good for conservation?
We will go from attaching no value at all to the environment to attaching some value. It is half an improvement. Since the government owns all forests, you only need to get permission. You are trying to take away a life support system, and as of now, you’re finishing it off without compensation. Putting a cost to forests basically means it is no more free for anyone to just grab.

Then why is it only “half an improvement”?
The purpose of valuation is to protect resources. But given the money power of the corporates, and then banks giving loans, etc., agencies are ready to pay anything. To think green accounting can save our environment is to fool ourselves because history doesn’t prove it.

Can you give an example?
Valuation has already happened for forest land in India. A net present value is attached to forests by the Supreme Court. They collect money every time there is deforestation, and the money, called the CAMPA fund, is to be used for reforestation. The government now has about Rs 20,000- Rs 30,000 crore for conservation. Has this reduced deforestation? No. And has reforestation been done? No. In the end, we are losing much more forest than ever.

Is there always a trade-off between economy and ecology?
Yes, and green accounting often provides a justification for this trade-off. Eventually reducing it to money makes it a permissible activity. That is a step back, not forward.

Should it be prohibitively expensive then?
Green value is calculated in a very limited way now. Let’s take mining versus forest. The moment mining is seen as development, you clear a forest, and you forget that a forest too is a factory producing oxygen and water. They will put a value against a tiger because it is capable of generating tourists. But there are animals, insects and species of plants that may not be charismatic like ‘flagship’ species (lion, tiger, leopard, elephants). They are given zero value.

How else do we value green resources?
Forests, wetlands, seas, rivers, air and wildlife are ecological entities of incomparable value. Even the best of green accounting does not arrive at the real value of dependents or for that matter the cultural and religious value. Eight thousand Dongria tribes worship the Niyamgiri hills. Value that in rupees.

Is this problem unique to India?
In India, there’s a strong cultural component to ecology. It’s not just sum total of oxygen and rainfall. In compensatory methods, forests are equal to wet carbon, and wildlife to potential tourism. Grasslands show up as degraded forest land with no value. But for people using it for two months a year for grazing their cattle, it is important. There is human dependency and cultural associations. People who depend on forests have a stake in protecting it. Industries don’t. These complexities are ignored. Secondly, it’s a larger issue of justice and participation. Who is deciding the value, and among whom is this transaction taking place? It’s all the government and the user agencies. People are not consulted.

So what do you suggest?
Ideally, policy-makers must agree that they will not sell or give away environment. That’s tough, but we’re looking for real solutions, not easy answers. If there is an elephant using the forest corridor, how do you value that in rupees? A user agency may say I’ll pay a billion, but the corridor won’t be there. Where will you put the elephants then? It’s not as easy as it’s made out to be. There is no equally good land for forests unless it is another forest.

Is there a middle path?
Today, conservation depends too much on clearances. It shouldn’t be decided purely by law and science. Be scientific but also recognise cultural concerns.

Are green tech and renewable resources possible solutions?
The environment minister says it’s not possible to have renewable energy via solar and wind. Why? Because dambuilding is not about hydel, it’s about the contractors, the steel and cement used, the jeeps sold, the landmovers hired. These are irrelevant in renewable power. Power, coal and water resources are powerful ministries with powerful politicians who vigorously pursue hydel and dams. Now look at the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy. It is the dumping ground for weak ministers with other agendas. Renewable energy doesn’t have institutional support.

Instead of cash flows and profits, what if we value it in terms of jobs created and improved standards of living?
If you see the government’s HDI records, human development is at its lowest in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, areas where big industries have been functioning for 50-100 years. Whether you look at Naxalism or food availability, why is it lowest in the areas where industrialisation has happened? Whether it is Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, it is all a case of rich land with poor people. Let us suppose there is good compensation, but the fact is that to run a factory, you don’t need tribals. So you’ll use them as guards and drivers. From owners of land, they work as servants.

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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