Only a socially-acceptable path can help bridge huge gaps in policies for preserving fragile environment of Himalayan region

himalayas1By Guman Singh*

The Himalaya is the tallest mountain on Earth, and geologically it is the youngest and also fragile.  It is characterized by high levels of inaccessibility, structural weakness and related ecological complexity. This mountain holds the largest amount of snow and ice on Earth, after the two poles, making it increasingly known by the name “The Third Pole”. The Himalaya is the producer of probably the largest amount of freshwater annually. Through the rivers originating in this mountain, it serves almost half of the world population with supplies of freshwater, the vital product of nature. The Himalayan region is very rich in biological and cultural diversity in particular, of plants with great medicinal values. The Himalaya has been the refuge of populations that have migrated from the plains at various periods, for various reasons, especially invasions from Central Asia.

The valley of rivers originating in this mountain has been the cradle of many important civilizations in Asia, like the Indus Valley, Chinese, Indian, South-east Asian, etc. In the present context, such rivers provide the crucial water supplies to the densely populated areas of north China and north India, food baskets of these countries with very rapidly growing economies. The southern and eastern slopes of the Himalaya are the home of a very large number of people with great ethnic and cultural diversity. The demographic, cultural, environmental and climatic changes in the Himalayan region provide the backdrop for generating scenarios of future options that could be availed for socio-economic advancements in the region in the coming decades in this very important mountain region.

At the same time, the first 100 days of the Modi Government are being celebrated for having allegedly introduced professionalism and efficiency to the bureaucracy and ministers and streamlining decision making. The process is being touted as a model framework for policy formulation and economic preparedness, at the same time legitimizing the mainstream and media propaganda around the resolve to commit the nation to a path of becoming an (self-destructive) economic superpower. Yet, what has been witnessed in reality and notwithstanding the rhetoric, is the systematic dilution, amendment and/or abolition of the jurisprudential, constitutional, fundamental rights based, internationally recognized instruments of environmental and community protection built into the country’s laws, rules, regulations and legal system. Some of the most glaring instances of these have been:

  • Reducing the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) by 50%.
  • 240 projects cleared by the Ministry within 3 months a time period that simply cannot be adequate to undertake proper environmental impact studies, public hearings at local sites, and other mandated procedures
  • Delinking forest clearance from the green signal that is given by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), to projects around tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries. Previously forest clearance could only be given after the NBWL approval.
  • Reducing the need for NBWL approvals for projects within 10 km around protected areas to only 5 km.
  • Relaxing procedures under the Forest Conservation Act, which requires central approval of diversion of forestlands, for linear projects through forest areas, projects in forests and eco-sensitive areas along international borders and in “Naxal-affected” areas.
  • Doing away with the need for public hearings for coal mines of less than 16 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) capacity (from the earlier 8), and allowing onetime expansion of mines up to 6 mtpa if they are already of 20 mtpa size.
  • Exempting irrigation projects affecting less than 2,000 hectares from needing environmental clearance, and allowing state governments to clear those a ffecting 10,000 hectares.
  • The High Level Committee setup to ‘reform’ Environmental Laws has been given a mandate to overhaual all green laws and make them investor friendly, within a framework of 2 months.
  • Proposed amendments to the Green Tribunal and Land Acquisition Acts.
  • Systematic removal of independent voices from critical institutions of environmental and social governance

It is pertinent to note that the extent of this surreptitious clandestine dismantling of citizens communal, fundamental social, legal and institutional protection, has reached a stage where executive and legislative power in connivance with private and personal industry interests have ensured not just a renewed commitment to the flawed and unsustainable growth paradigm perpetuated by previous governments, but also accelerated the process towards resource robbery through citizen and communal/societal disenfranchisement. Environment laws are being grossly trespassed with the Central Government seems bent upon amending all those provisions which will not suit investors. There has been a large scale assault on the rules, laws and institutions meant protect the environment. Simultaneously central and state governments have moved against NGOs and civil society organizations raising social and environmental issues.

The present BJP government is no different from any other mainstream leader or political party, in its unabashed devotion to the model of ‘globalized development’. Environment domestically is in a severe crisis with continuing appropriation and centralized control of land and resources, supported by creating growing material and monetary divisiveness amongst citizens to keep the focus away from the death of the planet. An analysis of the situation suggests that over 70% of India remains deprived of basic needs of one kind of the other, employment in the formal sector has hardly grown, undernourishment and malnourishment are at an all-time high, India ranks amongst the worst in social indicators of various kinds, inequalities between the rich and poor are growing significantly, and ecological unsustainability has already set in. The more we go for large-scale, technology intensive, capitalist investments, these problems can only get exacerbated.

Concurrently, this ambitious ‘growth-at-all-costs’ agenda has a frightening impact not only on the environment and ecosystem but also on democracy. Those resisting or opposing displacement, dispossession, and ecological damage are tolerated up to a point, after which movements and people as such are labeled ‘seditious’, ‘Maoists’ and ‘enemies of the State’!. Political Parties of all hues are unable to resist the temptation to hit back whether they are in Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha, Gujarat, Assam or Madhya Pradesh. Enormous powers have been centred in the prime minister’s office, such that ministers can hardly take decisions without the prime minister’s approval. Civil society is being targeted through Intelligence Bureau reports naming several groups as being responsible to slowing down India’s development, and being hand-in-glove with foreign interests.

Naturally, given this alarming situation the Himalayan Eco-System and livelihoods of local communities are under threat due to the present day developmental model based on extraction and forfeiting the wealth of the communities. Neo-liberalization has aggravated the situation, with state and central governments intent to sell out all common resources to the corporate sector for endless exploitation without considering the consequences there after even when the Constitution has provided legal protection to the regions which come under Schedule V and VI, as well as special protection to J&K and North East. Legal provision under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and concessions traditionally enjoyed for using the forest through Community Forest Rights (CFR) by local communities are not followed and their ownership is usurped by the State and private developers.

The latest reported developments took place in the last parliament session, where Dr Ramesh Pokhrial Nishank, member of Parliament (MP) from Haridwar moved a private member resolution regarding the creation of a new ministry for the development of Himalayan states on July 11, 2014 in the Lok Sabha which was discussed on July 11 and 18, 2014. Seventeen MPs participated in the debate and more than 40 MPs supported the resolution. While the preamble to the bill typically invoked citizen and environment protection, the actual debate was focused mainly on these points:

  1.  To identify backward areas of Himalayan States and ensure their overall development and conservation;
  2. To provide special financial package for development of backward areas particularly, border areas;
  3. To take effective measures to check cross border infiltration, particularly in the State of Uttarakhand;
  4. To recommend to the Union Ministries concerned, for laying of new roads and other infrastructural development projects and to strengthen Railway lines, establishment of hydro power projects, construction of economy by setting up of industries based on natural resources available in the Himalayan States and to prevent migration.

It was in this backdrop that a massive congregation and gathering of activists, peoples movements, academicians, grassroots workers and organizations, scientists, economists, leaders, politicians, citizens and socio-cultural institutions came together in New Delhi on the 08th and 09th of October, 2014  to conduct a Strategic Consultation on the Framework for Himalayan Development and Himalayan Futures. These  serious discussions were made necessary, urgent and critical in the wake of the recent Parliamentary debate on creation of a Ministry for the Himalayas, and intent of the Government to focus its energies on imposing the existing growth paradigm in light of the deadly events taking place all across the Himalayas.

This strategic discussion has resulted in a pan-national congregation of all relevant and affected voices developing the basis for design, policy formation and oversight into the nature and processes of “development”.  The meet strategized on the mechanisms to respond to the rapid dilution in environmental regulations which has taken long struggles to be incorporated through legislations and has unanimously created a forum for action and direct intervention under the banner of ‘Himalay Andolan’.  The broadest possible social movement on solidarity and action on all Himalayan issues – all of which are inherently and intrinsically linked to protecting the environment – shall be setup.

Our Concerns and Expectations

In these existing circumstances we fear that the Himalayas will be totally destroyed through these models.  We believe that any move affecting the environmental, social, communal, local and peoples aspirations must:

  1.  Address the Himalayan Development Framework based on Himalayan geophysical specificity, environmental and livelihood issues through community conservation – which shall generate sustainable livelihoods by considering the stresses and niche of the region.
  2. Ensure that any bill on ‘Himalayan Development Framework’ shall be moved by the government instead of private bills based on the above mentioned aspects after detailed study, public consultation, addressing various sectors of Himalayas and all local socio-political groups and communities.
  3. After addressing the above concerns, the issue of institutional framework or implementation mechanism, such as an authority or ministry, may be discussed.

Also, at present there is a great gap and uncertainty about what is the path for the region that will be socially acceptable and not aggravate the natural environment. In order to make such transitions that would strengthen social harmony and not degrade the natural environment, a good amount of interactive knowledge exchange is needed among academicians, social activists, policy makers, government officials, etc. This has to be based on updated interdisciplinary knowledge, recorded and made available to such a large variety of stakeholders. The diversity of the region being very high, both in terms of natural environment and the people, the amount of background information and data needed for supporting the stakeholders with the necessary information and knowledge base, is also very large.

However, a large gap exists in the case of suitable institutions outside the government and fully accessible to the common people. At the same time, a need was further felt and expressed for the this semi-political non-electoral movement to be supported by a well researched and experienced background of policy research and advocacy that provides the independent, scientific and academic basis for the obvious changes required for putting the engine of economic growth and nature in sync. It has been agreed to create a think tank that shall provided for the reasoned and researched basis for future directional political action and targeted advocacy. To address the task of enriching the people communities and policy makers in the Himalayan region, an institution facility of high professional standing and wide contact with the Himalayan communities and policy makers, a Himalayan Information and Knowledge Exchange (HIKE) is planned to be established. HIKE shall operate upon the following Governing Principles on Policy and seek to propogate and institutionalize these in aspects of Himalayan Policy formulation.

Himalaya Niti Abhiyan demands

  1. There is a need to acknowledge the fact the economic and ecological changes are sweeping the mountains and are somewhat inevitable given the aspirational upswing of communities on one hand and dramatic climatic aberrations on the other. Mountains do not exist in isolation.
  2. It must further put on record that the response mechanism to the emerging crisis has been directionless and inadequate.  While the dominant politics is growth obsessed, the institutions in the mountains have not served the cause either.
  3. It is against these broad framework that the overall policy has to situate itself and firmly argue that with ‘water’ and ‘energy’ being the two pivots around which the dark clouds of climate change will be negotiated and that these can only be sourced from the mountains on a sustainable basis.
  4. On the Himalayan scale the need is to re-create institutions that can offer credible information and solutions to the challenges at hand. As many as 24 research institutes across almost 12 mountain states need restructuring and repositioning to provide participatory models for sustainable growth and management.
  5. The 12 public funded universities ought to create new teaching and research framework – ‘montology’ need to be promoted as a ‘subject’ to develop a comprehensive understanding of the mountain systems. (Montology was adopted as a term during 2002 Year of the Mountains but never developed as a subject.)
  6. The Himalaya policy needs to come clean on whether or how will it look at the payment for ecosystem services  (projected as a solution within the market-driven capitalist economy) as a concept to both promote ecological conservation and create new economic opportunities for mountain communities.
  7. The policy ought to look at social and ecological challenges from an economic perspective embedded in an institutional architecture.

* National Convenor, Himalaya Niti Abhiyan
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