Inaction: India’s Environment Story


As New Delhi prepares for the biggest conference on biodiversity this October, are its claims to global leadership in conserving ecosystems really valid?Ashish Kothari

By Ashish Kothari 
Environmentalist & Founder, Kalpavriksh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Empty promises Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Rio+20 Conference on Sustainability
Photo: PIB

THIS OCTOBER, India will host possibly the largest environmental gathering in its history. Over 10,000 representatives from different governments, civil society and other sectors from 200 countries will discuss matters relating to biodiversity, at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Hyderabad.

The Indian government is gearing up to showcase itself as one of the world leaders in biodiversity conservation. Publications and exhibits are being prepared to prove how India is doing much in these arenas.

At this juncture, it is instructive to look at both history and current events to ask ourselves: are India’s claims to global leadership in biodiversity really valid? What does the past tell us, and what does India’s most recent stand at the just concluded UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) indicate?

Sabotaging A Plan
Between 2000 and 2003, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) received a million dollar grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), through the UNDP, to prepare the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). Such NBSAPs are a requirement for every country that is party to the CBD. The MoEF commissioned the civil society group Kalpavriksh, to coordinate the process, which in turn set up a Technical and Policy Core Group (TPCG) consisting of civil society and government experts for guidance.

Over the four-year period, the TPCG coordinated one of the world’s biggest environmental planning exercises. Through more than 100 organisations and individuals across the country, it elicited participation from local communities, scientific institutions, government agencies, students and teachers, the armed forces, corporate sector, journalists and lawyers, and other walks of life, through workshops and seminars, public hearings, yatras, biodiversity festivals, student events, and media outreach. Over 50,000 people took part in the process, providing inputs on the biological, social, economic, political, and cultural aspects of biodiversity. Detailed action plans were not only produced for every state and union territory, but also for 20 local sites (villages, towns, river valleys), 10 eco-regions (large landscapes cutting across states), and 14 themes (such as wildlife, agricultural biodiversity, health and biodiversity, economic values, cultural values). All these were synthesised into the draft national plan (labelled the Final Technical Report). This plan also took into account all previous related documents, such as the Macrostrategy on Biodiversity (1999), and the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002).

Through the four-year period the MoEF was gung-ho about the process, showcasing it proudly in international circles. The UNDP cited it as a model for other countries to follow. And then, suddenly, there was a complete volte-face.

In early 2004, the ministry said the Final Technical Report (NBSAP-FTR) could not become the NBSAP. At first, it gave no reason. When repeatedly pressed, it said that in mid-2004, a committee under Dr Raman Sukumar (Indian Institute of Science) had found the NBSAP-FTR “for the major part scientifically invalid”. When asked by Kalpavriksh, Dr Sukumar denied this, saying he had only found some factual errors and pointed to a couple of recommendations that appeared biased. In response to a Parliament question, the ministry said the NBSAP-FTR’s statements and recommendations could be ‘embarrassing’ in international circles. Examples cited included:
• India’s model of development is inherently unsustainable and destructive of biodiversity…it needs a drastic re-orientation.
• In India, a number of biodiversity elements have been subjected to impacts of inappropriate trade systems, (which could) significantly increase with India’s acceding to the World Trade Organisations’ treaties.
• India has played an inadequate role in advocating conservation and sustainable use of shared resources with neighbouring countries in South Asia
• There is a need for dialogue and involvement of militant groups in assigning responsibility for conservation in sensitive ecosystems affected by armed conflicts.

The MoEF said it would produce the final action plan based on the NBSAP-FTR, but for over a year there was no sign of this happening. Finally, tired of waiting, Kalpavriksh published the FTR in 2005 as a citizens’ action plan. The MoEF, immediately, issued a rejection of the report, and charged Kalpavriksh with allegations of wasting the UNDP grant.

Interestingly though, the MoEF had meanwhile, given the NBSAP-FTR (with a few minor changes) to the UNDP as its final output for the project grant!

This of course left a void: India still had no NBSAP, and the world was looking.

An Inaction Plan
It took the MoEF another four years to finally produce a National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP). The document, released in early 2009, claimed to be based on the NBSAP-FTR, but in fact is not. Written by technocrats in the MoEF, 40 percent of the plan is copied verbatim from the 1999 Macrolevel Strategy on Biodiversity. Nothing seemed to have been learnt in the interim 10 years for a number of key sectors. The NBAP is also not an action plan; it is a nice statement of intent, but vague and unworkable. For instance, its recommendation to “integrate biodiversity concerns across development sectors (such as industry, infrastructure, power, mining, etc)”, comes with no elaboration of how this can be achieved (something that the NBSAP-FTR had done).

The government could learn from various grassroots initiatives in rural and urban renewal

Most alarming is that the NBAP is designed to remain a nonstarter, given its lack of specificity and the absence of public participation in its formulation. It ignores many innovative actions recommended in the NBSAP-FTR, such as eco-regional land use planning and governance, ways to make economic sectors ecologically more sensitive, promoting agricultural biodiversity and food security through locally-managed foodgrain distribution systems, among others.

Growth and profits above life and Livelihoods 
Why did the MoEF abandon the outputs of a participatory process that it commissioned and encouraged, and why did it come up with an ineffectual plan? Around the time the MoEF began delaying a decision on the NBSAP-FTR, its Secretary, Prodipto Ghosh, had begun drafting a National Environment Policy (NEP). He was quoted saying, that the NBSAP would not be finalised till the NEP was issued. The NEP draft put out officially for public reactions, was heavily criticised by over a hundred organisations for being less about environment and more about ‘development’ and industry.

Almost none of the substantive changes suggested by civil society were incorporated in the final NEP. The game was becoming clearer.

Since 1991, Indian policies on economic reforms have sidelined environmental concerns. The hardfought gains of the 1970s and 1980s (including new policies and laws on forests, wildlife, environment protection, water and air pollution, and the creation of a dedicated ministry) have been increasingly diluted, or sidestepped, in the blind pursuit of economic growth. The rates of mineral and seafood extraction, and diversion of forest land, have dramatically shot up. Land grab has become commonplace everywhere in the country, mostly benefitting the rich and the corporate sector. Studies have shown how we have already crossed the limits of ecological sustainability, and are now exploiting other countries (indicated by the increasing colonisation of lands in Africa by Indian companies, aided by the Indian government, such as 3,50,000 hectares by Karuturi Global in Ethiopia).

Ecological crisis Activists highlight biodiversity issues at the People’s Summit in Rio de Janeiro
Photo: AFP

In this scenario, any document questioning the model of growth is going to be anathema to the government. Especially, when it advocates fundamental changes in economic planning and political governance to give communities much greater say. In a detailed 300-page document, the NBSAP-FTR laid out actions for integrating biodiversity into all economic sectors, for providing communities powers and capacities to manage their biological resources, for converting rural and urban areas into sustainable and equitable, and so on.

Which then brings us to the current situation. The one-track pursuit of economic growth (with the concomitant handing over of economic controls to private corporations) has become even more strident. All opposition to it, especially where it is at the grassroots against particular projects, is being termed ‘anti-national’, ’collusion with foreign interests’, or aligned with ‘Naxalism’. Witness how peaceful anti-nuclear energy activists are being treated, as if they were enemies of the country.

The same ‘neo-liberal’ logic has come in the way of India taking any kind of bold leadership role at the just-concluded UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20, June 20-22). It appeared to be satisfied simply holding its turf; making sure that some principles of equity established earlier were not thrown out (such as ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ which entails ‘developed’ countries taking on more of the ’burden’ of environmental reparation).

There was little evidence that the 100+ heads of state gathered in Rio felt alarmed by the ecological crisis that we are witnessing (having crossed the limits of what the earth can provide and absorb, and pushing thousands of species to the brink of extinction). Each was concerned more about its own narrow nationalistic interests, and very few displayed to the global consciousness so desperately needed to save the earth. India could have. But it did not. As an Open Letter issued by several civil society organisations at Rio stated, the Indian prime minister could have risen to the occasion, he could have taken a global lead in urging for bold actions towards a saner future for both nature and humanity, but of course in order to do so his government would have to demonstrate similar action back home.

Is There Hope?
The MoEF is reportedly producing a revised NBSAP to present at COP11. I am told it will focus on how various economic sectors can integrate biodiversity issues. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile exercise, but unless it builds on what the NBSAP process already did, it will be yet another wasted exercise. In charge of the revision is the Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority, P Balakrishna, a serious fellow with genuine intent. But will his bosses, from MoEF up to the PMO, allow anything of concrete significance to emerge? We can only wait and see. It does not inspire confidence that forest-dwellers, fishers, pastoralists, craftspersons — those sections of Indian society that should have the maximum say in any such planning — have so far not been involved in any meaningful consultations relating to the COP11.

Meanwhile, there are only tiny indications that the Indian government is moving towards genuinely sustainable and equitable strategies for development. A few proposals in the 11th five-year plan, a committee to recommend a low-carbon economy, state governments declaring a move towards organic production, rights-based laws; these are a few such signs. But lost, nonetheless, in the bigger picture of ‘growth at all costs’. Much more hopeful are the thousands of grassroots initiatives in sustainable agriculture, rural and urban renewal, decentralised water harvesting and energy production, meaningful community-based education and health, empowerment of the poorest, that dot the country. Learning from them, helping them scale up and spread out, would be the single-most important step for the government.

Throughout most of the NBSAP period, the government showed it was capable of facilitating truly participatory processes. Will it pick up the threads from then, as also learn from citizens’ efforts across the country, to show some genuine initiatives by October?

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh; he was the technical coordinator of the NBSAP process. His Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, Viking/Penguin, 2012, written with Aseem Shrivastava, details the issues of globalisation mentioned above


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