Devolution has to happen. It will

It has been a year since Anil Agarwal, the founder editor of Down To Earth, passed away. We remember him every moment. We work as his proxies. We work his dreams; they have become ours, too. His ideas changed many around the world. He changed the way we think. But he also left behind unfinished business. His ideas have changed policies, but not practices. Not as much as his restless energies desired to.

For instance, he made us understand that economists often missed the real measure of poverty. We needed to understand poverty not as a lack of cash, but as a lack of access to natural resources. This was because millions of people lived within what he called the biomass-based subsistence economy. For these millions, the Gross Nature Product was more important than the Gross National Product. For them, environmental degradation was not a matter of luxury, but a matter of survival. Development was not possible without environmental management. In fact, what was needed was to regenerate the environment for development. He made us look beyond 'pretty trees and tigers' to see environmental issues not as people versus nature - a conservation perspective - but as people versus people.

Sustainable development is a fashionable word. Simply because it means different things to different people - intergenerational equity or even sustained development. Anil made us understand that sustainable development was about the process of decision-making. Every society makes mistakes. The issue is to find ways in which the ones worst affected by a decision are able to take action to make changes. Sustainable development was, therefore, not about technology but about a political framework, which developed power and gave people - the victims of environmental degradation - rights over natural resources. The involvement of local communities in environmental management was a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Take a reality check. We accept environment and development are interlinked. We accept environmental management is important for the economy. But still, we do not accept that communities have to be involved in securing their present, so that they may secure their future. Policies on this aspect remain high on rhetoric, and dismal in making those real changes in the legal and institutional framework that would allow for effective decision-making by the organisations of the rural poor.

The history of natural resource use in this country, as in many others, has been that the state had appropriated resources from local communities. It used them for extractive purposes - logging or mining - so that, over the years, there was rampant degradation. But as environmental consciousness grew, the state gradually moved from exploiting to protecting natural resources. It was this consciousness that lead the nation, in the early 1980s, to enact laws to protect forest wealth.In 1988 the Forest Conservation Act (fca) was passed, under which only the central government could allow anyforest land to be converted to non-forest purposes, like building roads or diverting forest land for power stationsor dams. If any forest land was diverted, then an equivalent amount of landhad to be afforested in compensation. Policies to protect the environment have been enacted in other spheresas well.

But while we have legislated to protect, we have really not learnt to manage or regenerate the environment. Take forests again. fca has stemmed forest destruction to some extent. But it has not lead to regeneration in the same measure. If we remember Anil's words, we will understand why not. People use the forest land for their survival. They are also worst affected by its degradation. Therefore, their involvement in its management is critical.

But our politicians and policy planners, unfortunately, have only understood this message in half-measures. By the early 1990s, the joint forest management programmes were launched with much fanfare. But these programmes, at best, transfer the task of forest protection to local communities. Not, mind you, forest management or utilisation. We have to learn to differentiate between forests that need to be protected at all costs - pristine forests, biological hotspots - and forests that can be used and then regenerated. It is clear that we have to still learn to use our resources sustainably for developmental purposes.

We have not made environment into a development challenge. Because we have still not learnt how to use it sustainably. Therefore, environmental protection becomes an invariable conflict with development. A conflict between nature and jobs. Instead, what we need is policies and practices to use the environment for the greater enterprise of jobs and prosperity. Build green futures from the use of forests, land, water and fisheries. But we don't know how.

We don't know how because we refuse to learn the most basic lesson. We have to really trust people and communities. As yet, all we have done is use bureaucratic tricks to stall and obfuscate. We will have to make changes - effective and earnest - to devolve powers in the practice of managing the environment. Let us remember what Anil would always say: we will understand that there is no other way. It has to happen. It will.

- Sunita Narain