Impolitic moves

A FEW months before he was unceremoniously shifted to the ministry of textiles, India's minister for environment and forests Karnal Nath had told a staff member of the Centre for Science and Environment that while usually it @s the job of officials to brief a minister, the opposite was the case in his ministry. Kamal Nath himself had been briefing his officers, since almost all his senior staff had been replaced by new faces over the years.

True to form, his hasty replacement in September was preceded by a reshuffle of most of his top officials. Three new additional secretaries, 4 newjoint secretaries and several other middle-ranking officials had joined the ministry in the past few months under a working secretary who himself was just about a year old in the ministry.

The importance of the role of the ministry in developing a legislative and policy framework for the promotion of environmentally sound development in the country and in negotiating various international environmental agreements has always been apparent enough. But the manner in which the department lost most of its experience and expertise in one grand sweep displays the administration's lack of appreciation for the dangers plaguing the environment.

Detractors will claim that it is not difficult to recoup lost expertise and experience- The claim has an element of truth to it, but there is a proviso: the country has to have the luxury of time and resources at its disposal. Decisions (which have been pending) on issues of forest management, affecting millions of people in the country, will necessarily be delayed further as the new incumbents in office will need time to grasp the essence of the problems.

An example is the fate of the draft bill on the Biodiversity Convention, which has become uncertain as the minister and the specific official dealing with it have been replaced in one go. Organisations working in the public interest, which had spent their resources to brief the minister and his officials on problems related to Tchri dam, land use policy, the Forest Bill, preservation of the traditional knowledge of tribals etc will now have to wait further for crucial decisions. The fledgling nature of this ministry, combined with the weak institutional memory of our government departments, will probably force these groups to write off their past work and make a new start almost from scratch.

Today, the ministry of environment and forests (mu:) is facing a grave challenge : it has to stonewall the efforts towards shifting of liability and burden of solution to global environmental problems onto India and other developing countries. It also has the mandate from the Indian populace to push a global proactive (as opposed to reactive) agenda. The NIEF negotiates on behalf of the country on half-a-dozen internationat treaties, like the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, the Biodiversity Convention, the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste Trade and the World Trade Organization's negotiations on environmental impact of international trade. The irony ties in the fact that all these treaties, schedule have their meetings by December, will suddenly find In& concerned officials and minister changed.

The meeting on the Basel treaty in September had lixil at the crucial issue - vital to economy and environment -4 trade in metal scraps. The Montreal Protocol meeting, to held in late November, will review the rights and respo'14 ties of developing countries including India. The clim change negotiations continue later in October to Jol India and other developing countries' demands for agreement by 1997 to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions. I biodiversity treaty in November will consider the issue access to genetic material for the developing world and4 sharing of technology.

In these negotiations, expertise (not only in handlinlq issue at hand, but also in the various actors and inter, involved), more than political clout, has been leading the in the last few years. It takes years to acquire this kind of skdl. No Wonder the industrialised countries, which dominate the discussions, prefer to be led in them by seasoned minds and much visible faces.

Environmental management requires a cross-sectoral response from the Indian society on longterm strategic policy development in global negotiations and on immediate operational activities to solve our current problems and needs. It cannot be left in the hands of short-lived officials who leave before gaining or passing on any information or expertise.

One action the new minister, Rajesh Pilot, could take to prevent this from happening is by establishing an advisory body to the ministry which could serve as a thinktank for providing objective, strategic and scientific advice on national policies, strates and programmes. This body should compose of experl specific relevant fields, and with an abihty to bridge scientm environmental, technological, economic, social and pol issues.

The body should be above the wheeling-dealing of pg politics and have a longterm mandate to provide a forurn integrating expertise on global environment managem I This will be one waythe critical resources of the societycan optimally used for keeping our environment officialdom informed.