In Rio, try thinking of Kalavati Devi

HUMANITY never needed a global social contract more than it does today. With the nations of the world jointly facing a global ecological crisis but sharply divided in economic terms, there never was a greater need for humanity to live as one. The forthcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) could have provided us with precisely such an opportunity.

No citizen on earth wants his or her environment to be polluted and destroyed. But different economic conditions can force different environmental objectives and approaches on different nations and communities. While the rich and well-fed are more interested in the environment because they want to secure their future, the poor, caught in a daily struggle to survive, are interested in the environment because they want to secure their present.

But none of the nations has tried to present an alternative vision of how to manage this earth in a fair and sustainable manner for all. European nations, under greater pressure from their domestic environmental lobbies, have been more open than the US. However, the US insistence has finally worn them down and they have caved in. The South did not even get off to a start. It accepted the Northern agenda of global warming and biodiversity right from the start and simply pressed for its traditional demands of additional aid and technology transfer.

In all this, nobody has cared to spare a thought for the likes of a Kalavati Devi, the proud inhabitant of the Himalayan village of Bached. She herself may never come to hear of UNCED. But nobody knows more than Kalavati Devi the importance of nature. She walks miles and miles every day to collect her daily needs of fuel, fodder and water. With the forest line receding, her daily struggle becomes ever more arduous.

Yet she walks lightly on this earth. She emits little, she takes little, she destroys little, and she knows a lot about the uses of trees in her neighbouring forest.

Nobody will mention Kalavati Devi at the conference. But Southern leaders will use her at every opportunity to tell the North that their nations have been abstemious, austere, and have not contributed to the earth's destruction as much as the world's rich, especially those living in New York and London. This will give them the moral.strength to demand money and 4 technology in exchange for their commitments to observe ecological discipline.

But what will they bring back for Kalavati Devi? Everything at the conference now seems to be falling into place. Malaysia's Mahathir has agreed to attend the Earth Summit after making a big ftiss about his right to decide the fate of his forests. The global warming treaty is now ready for signature. There is every likelihood that the biodiversity convention will be ready too. The Global Environmental Facility has been accepted as the intetim funding mechanism for the global warming treaty. The member-nations of GEF have agreed to broaden its decision-making mechanism. There will now be a role for developing countries while donor countriies will also get a weightage for their contributions. The stage is now set for the Earth Summit to become a "modest success".

What does all this have to do with Kalavati Devi? The North is not very wrong when it describes the South's demand for money and technology as a form of blackmail. Of course, the ' Northern leadership says all this only to protect its ecohomic interests and hideous lifestyles. But isn't the Southern elite also promoting its vested interests? It is not the elite of Delhi or Nairobi which keeps greenhouse emissions low or contributes anything to our knowledge about the world's biodiversity. What guarantee has the Southern leadership offered to ensure that the flow of green money and technology that it has been so strongly demanding will end with Kalavati Devi?

Bush, Kohl and Major may not have shown much leadership, guardians as they are of the world's vested interests, but Mahathir, Li, Narasimha Rao, Mugabe and Collor, the representatives of the world's poor, have not shown much either.

Kalavati Devi is not a beggar. She is a very proud woman and she would have held her head high. She would have readily accepted the need for global ecological discipline and convinced everybody how critical it is for her survival. But she would have given the rich and filthy a piece of her mind. She would have demanded a fair and equal world and an acceptance of her rights to her environment - from her immediate forests to her fair share in the earth's common resources like the oceans and the atmosphere.

She would have proudly thundered, "I don't want anything. just give me my fair share and I will gladly live within it like any self-respecting person." She would have added, "Don't preach to me too much about your laws and the need to create more of them. I have seen the likes of many of them in the past. Just create a system'in which I can control you when you harm me and you can control me when I harm you" - a deepening of participatory democracy in the use of the world's natural resources and a democratic system of checks and balances.

Kalavati Devi would probably have gone above the heads of Northern presidents and prime ministers and directly addressed herself to the young and vocal environment movement. She would have brought out the best in the movement, inspired a new vision and argued from the strength of her traditions and her roots - the key strengths.of Southern societies.

Kalavati Devi would have probably not brought home any more dollars than what our trained diplomats and bureaucrats have been as to. But she would have inspired, used the occasion to put her concerns forward, and won the talking point.

Our leaders, however, have failed to make the grade. With all the rhetoric now over, they will quickly make their peace with the Northern elite in Rio. They will use the morality and austerity of Kalavati Devi at every opportunity. But she will not matter to anyone in the end.

The ecological crisis is the result of precisely such hypocrisy.