Why don't we set our own house in order first?

VERY FEW of the pious resolutions made at Rio are going to percolate down to the ground level in our country. On the very day our environment minister was making high-sounding speeches in Rio, I can bet that thousands of resource-poor tribals and peasants would have been displaced and uprooted forcibly from their homes, nabbed by the police for gathering some fuel or firewood from what were once their communally-owned forests or for letting their animals graze on forest land.

I am also certain that he has no intention of altering things after he returns from Rio. This makes our situation particularly tragic. Ours is not the tragedy of arrogance as is the case with America. In our case, we are not prepared to set even our own house in order. At least the First World, out of self-interest is willing to take steps to make its own environment more congenial.

The trouble with the ruling establishment in India is that it is very generous with rhetoric -- its words are always very nice-sounding. But its actions don't match its words.

The reason why the North does not take us seriously is because most countries of the South are today ruled by very corrupt and irresponsible regimes. The voice of the Third World is not a moral voice today. These countries are as brutal in the exploitation of their own people and their own environment as any outsider can be and, therefore, they are not treated even with minimal respect. I know the Americans will be laughing at the speech of the Indian environment minister. Rightly so.

Unless we are willing to provide water, fuel, fodder and basic energy requirements to our people, there is no way that we can persuade the North to shell out money to help us correct the imbalances in our environment. Even if this money were to come, there is no guarantee that we will spend it judiciously, that it won't be siphoned off by rapacious bureaucrats, politicians and contractors.

As for environmental activism, the one positive outcome is that environment issues have become a talking point. To this extent, these issues have made the educated sections somewhat more aware. The poor, of course, have always been aware of these issues because they are the ones who pay the price for environmental degradation. Now at least the elite cannot go on consuming mindlessly. This is a significant development.

But my reservations about the movement essentially springs from my own political predilections. I don't take a movement which isn't self-supporting seriously.

I find it very distressing that the entire NGO sector in India is tragically dependent on western funding agencies. They love to harangue the North about its exploitation. But having made their pious speeches, they stand there with their begging bowls. If one asks for money, the least you can do is to be grateful for it and publicly so.

Hardly any NGOs in the environment movement are self-supporting. They don't even look for the money that is available in India. Most NGOs rely on foreign funding agencies, on the one hand, and try to cajole the bureaucratic and political establishments to patronise them, on the other. This is the sum total of their support base.

They are not accountable to the people on whose behalf they are talking, nor do they need their support in any concrete sense. So it is a very crippled movement in that sense.

Very few activists are even known within the country, leave alone outside, if they don't know English. Those of us who operate in English have a very disproportionate clout. So each of the local movements has to grovel to get patrons from among the powerful NGO outfits. Even the famous Chipko movement is no exception to this rule.

It is a fact that Vimla Bahuguna has been an equal partner to Sunderlal in his struggle. But nobody has heard of Vimla Bahuguna outside her immediate circle. I think the main reason for this is that Sundarlal can speak in English whereas Vimla Bahuguna can't. The mass media, out of sheer laziness, finds it easier to talk to people like me who speak in English.

The other problem is that we have not worked sufficiently hard to help create an institutional base through which local communities can get redress swiftly, promptly and easily. For that you would have to have a very serious decentralisation of power. If, for instance, an industry pours poison into a local community's river, the affected people should not have to go any further than the district headquarters to set into motion that redressal machinery. Nobody should have to come to the Supreme Court which takes 35 years to give a stay order and another 75 years to decide the case. Moreover, its orders are not heeded.

I am very happy that a small section of the business class wants to be involved in the environment movement. I think Ratan Tata has better credentials to go to Rio than Kamal Nath. Unless sections of the powerful elite in this country get involved in a serious way you can't set things right.

---Madhu Kishwar is the editor of Manushi and a social activist.