National Environment Policy 2004:

More Conversation, Less Conservation

— Sundaram

First the good news: The Indian government is finally on its way to adopting a national environment policy. The bad news: the draft of the policy, recently made public for comments, stinks sky high and could well be an environmental hazard on its own!

The draft NEP 2004 is not even worth the paper it is printed on. It is insincere to begin with, has a warped notion of what ‘environment’ is supposed to mean, is self-contradictory, misguided in many of its concepts, shows poor understanding of ecological issues and worst of all, is prepared in a non-transparent manner without the participation of the people affected most by environmental degradation i.e., the poor and marginalised.

In a way this was all only to be expected that any Indian government professing ‘concern’ for protection and preservation of the country’s environmental resources would be way off the mark in its priorities. Why should anyone expect any better from a ruling class that has systematically pushed larger and larger numbers of their own citizens into unemployment, poverty, disease, debt and ultimately premature death in the nearly six decades since Independence? If they have not cared to address the problems that face their fellow beings in all these years how can they be expected to do something for other forms of life on the subcontinent?

The most interesting question though is really- why come up with a national environment policy at all – when there is clearly no intention of either listening to the people or implementing measures to promote their well-being?

Well, the story is somewhat like this. In the four decades since its emergence in the West the modern environmental or ‘green’ movement around the world has grown to a point where it has become difficult to ignore by the powers-that-be everywhere. Particularly since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 there are few governments around the world now that don’t spout the rhetoric of ‘sustainable development’ or pretend to agonize over the destruction of their environmental assets.

What governments mean when they say ‘environment’ is of course a different issue. There is a wide variety of interpretations of the term, a fact that arises from the diversity of views within the global environmental movement itself ranging from the sublime to the idiotic.

At its best the movement has provided valuable scientific insights into the relationship between human societies and nature, and also challenged simplistic 19 th century notions (even within progressive circles) about the ‘unquestionable’ virtues of industrialization and the blind use of technology. At its worst there are sections of the movement that seek to paint human beings as the inherent and eternal ‘enemies’ of Nature or call for the return to an idyllic and allegedly green world of the distant past. (They need not worry so much about achieving this goal. US Imperialism is planning to bomb all of us back to the Stone Age anyway!)

Starting off as a reaction to indiscriminate and rapacious exploitation of natural resources and the spread of industrial pollution by profit-hungry corporations, over the years, the ‘green’ movement has evolved considerably. In the initial phase the greens were seen simply as people trying to prevent contamination of earth, air and water by chemical pollutants or as those trying to protect wildlife from extinction with hardly much of a political critique.

Subsequently the debates forced on the green movement by its own internal contradictions as well as other political trends, mainly from the Left, have resulted in the synthesis of ecological concerns and insights with a strong political critique of capitalism. This has led to the understanding of the term ‘environment’ as not just relating to inanimate resources or exotic species of plants and animals but everything to do with the entire human race itself. The ‘red-greens’ as they are called argue that the exploitation of nature cannot be stopped without first ending the exploitation of human beings by their fellow beings. As several scholars of Marxism have pointed out, Marx himself considered the alienation of human beings from Nature as the result of the alienation they suffer under the capitalist system.

Of course this analysis of environmental problems has its challengers too, ranging from those who see all human activity as a threat and recommend leaving nature completely ‘alone’, to those who believe the most ‘sustainable’ way to develop society is through market-driven capitalism. In the era of unbridled neo-liberal economic dogma we live in, the latter view has been eagerly taken up by governments and corporations that want to project an ‘environment friendly’ image while pillaging ecological resources to keep their cash registers ringing.

To come back to our story of NEP 2004, that is why this policy is being mooted today- to put a politically correct gloss over the harsh realities of India where the economic system and government policies combine to ravage the lives of the poor as well as the natural resources they depend on for survival. So if you read the draft of the proposed policy for example there is no shortage of high-sounding environmentalist jargon.

The first paragraph of the draft’s preamble itself is rhetorically impressive: “A diverse developing society such as ours provides numerous challenges in the economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental arenas. All of these coalesce in the dominant imperative of alleviation of mass poverty, reckoned in the multiple dimensions of livelihood security, health care, education, empowerment of the disadvantaged, and elimination of gender disparities.”

The draft NEP further goes on to glibly talk about how environmental problems in India are due to institutional, policy, and other failings and points to the need for a flexible, evolving environment policy subject to periodic review. (Remember this is the Ministry of Environment and Forests talking about itself!)

Some of the concepts it mentions for dealing with the environment include: integrating environmental thinking into all sectors of development, using the precautionary principle to take action even in the absence of conclusive scientific proof of environmental damage, the need for decentralized, participatory processes, and the doctrine of public trust by which the government is not the absolute owner of natural resources but is holding it in trust for public good.

The NEP 2004 also tells us about the need for stronger regulatory mechanisms, partnerships between communities, official agencies, NGOs, and private parties, safeguarding ecosystems and species that are considered to be of ‘incomparable value’, promoting organic farming, using economic instruments to reign in polluting and destructive activities, integrating economic value of natural resources into budgets and plans, and others.

All this sweet talk is very well of course, but a close reading of the NEP 2004 reveals how these very same noble ideas proposed in one part of the draft are negated by the completely anti-environmental and indeed anti-people policies recommended in other parts.

So for example while the NEP 2004 tells us at one place that there are ‘incomparable resources’ that cannot be measured in terms of mere money at another it abruptly says that environmental services should be valued in economic terms similar to other goods and services. And even this concept of ‘incomparable resources’ turns out to be a crude repeat of the environmentalism of tourism promoters for whom only tigers, chimpanzees and rare birds are ‘incomparable’, and must be saved at any cost.

The fact is that a lot of environmental resources have no particular ‘market-value’ and yet are immensely important for human survival so subjecting them to neo-liberal economic principles is not a very ‘green’ thing to do at all! Next, all this talk of putting an ‘economic value’ to the environment is obviously a ruse to commercialise/privatize water, forest and natural resources to bring them in line with the market-fundamentalist notion that everything in this world should be converted into a tradable commodity in order to best ‘preserve’ it.

The NEP 2004’s hypocrisy is also evident in the way it talks of making legal the traditional rights of forest dwelling people while at the same time suggesting ways of throwing them unilaterally from their habitat to ‘save the forests’. The draft NEP cites the Govindarajan Committee as having identified environment and forest clearances as being the “largest source of delays in development projects”... hinting that these clearances should be cleared up to attract investors irrespective of the impact they have on tribal and other people living off forest resources.

There are many, many more contradictions in the NEP 2004 but I will cite just one more. Though the draft talks of the need for decentralized decision-making the fact is that the draft itself has been cooked up with little or no consultation with even NGOs working on environmental issues leave alone ordinary citizens. Even the draft, now been opened for ‘public comments’, is available only on a web site, and that too only in English...leaving it beyond the reach of much of the Indian population.

The NEP 2004 is clearly another example of how a lot of environmentalism today is more clever conversation than sincere conservation. In theory one can of course engage with the MoEF to help them improve the final policy, since they have called for ‘public comments’, but it might be simpler to ignore them and save the paper (and a few trees along with it) otherwise spent on responding to this completely dishonest attempt at framing a National Environment Policy. q