Power to the people

The debate that took place recently on the Taper industry's demand to access state forest lands for industrial plantations takes me back to a key, yet, unresolved governance issue. The very first edition of Down to Earth had carried a debate on the environmental impact of the policy of liberalisation, between the proponents and opponents of the new economic regime. There, I had argued that its impact will be determined by the provisions made for adequate governance systems for deciding upon the trade-offs that any capital investment or development activity will bring about, and keep them under control.

But the government is simultaneously liberalising the entrepreneur, as well as tightening its control over most of the natural resource base, including the forests, water resources, grasslands and the atmosphere. As liberalisation increasingly spurs entrepreneurial activity, there will have to be some mechanism to decide upon the checks and balances needed for an equitable and sustainable use of natural resources.

There has been no liberalisation in this area, and the government's track record is absolutely atrocious. It has put all these resources at the command of industry and the rich and the middle class, without insisting upon any discipline, or charging them the true cost of their consumption. The result is that our air is getting more and more polluted, so is our water, and our forests are no better off. Land degradation continues apace.

Sadly, no speaker emphasised the need for a new governance system'for these lands. The ministry of environment and forests' support to the industry is an archetypal case of the state swinging the natural resources in favour of the rich, without forcing them to pay for the resources being put on their platter.

The paper industry argues that the new policy of liberalisation means that even state- owned forest lands should be made available to it. But this is completely fallacious, as the eminent economist C H Hanumantha Rao has pointed out. If liberalisation means allowing market forces to control industrial development, then the decision to support industrial plantations on state forest lands goes totally against that philosophy. It will destroy wood markets and lead to a state-determined wood economy. If industry grows its own wood, why should it buy wood grown by tribal communities, as part of joint forest management programmes, or from the farmers?

Checks and balances in the use of natural resources will never emerge unless the concept of state property - promoted by the British - is given up. The country's commons should by law become-community property. The state should intervene only in cases where the communities fail to meet specified objectives, or harm other communities. The communities have a vested interest in sustainable management of the environment and the natural resource base, because it is their habitat, their survival base.

Let no one think that comm -unities will oppose development. Most of them will strongly favour it. But they will also learn fast if they undertake wrong development paths. I am, therefore, convinced that the best way to move towards a liberalised economy is not just to liberate the entrepreneur, but also to empower local communities. The former will not then negotiate the use of natural resources with the politicians and bureaucrats, who have no-interest in these.

While so much has been written about the paper industry and its demand for state forest lands, have you noticed that almost no forest officer has come out openly on this issue, especially one who is opposed to this? I can understand the fears of serving officers. But what about the retired ones?

I know that community empowerment is not a perfect solution to achieve environmental sustainability. It will fail in many, many cases. But I am certain that it will fail in fewer cases'than the present governance system does. And the communities will learn faster from their own mistakes. I am, therefore, certain that it is the best sirategy we have, or will ever have. If we don't -move in this direction there will be other similar cases of state action distorting natural resource@use, destroying the environment, and adversely affecting those dependent on it. This is the biggest lessmi I have learnt from the recent debate.

Liberalisation must not just mean entrepreneur empowerment, but also community empowerment, so that the people will find their best checks and balances. So, what do you think: will those political parties which oppose the new economic policy take up this issue as their forthcoming election agenda, or will they just rant and rave in favour of untrammelled state power?