Stone quarrying, sand mining can be carried in India in nature-friendly, people-friendly fashion

GadgilText of the Father Thomas Kochery Memorial Lecture, Thiruvananthapuram, 3rd May, 2016, by prominent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, a former member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India and the Head of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) of 2010:

The late Father Thomas Kochery would have agreed with our Respected Prime Minister, Narendra Modiji that our development concerns, our environmental concerns must all be focused on providing a better life for the people. After all, that is why the nation has been given the new slogan, “Vikaasko janandolan banayenge!” Economics, properly interpreted, tells us that any country should aim at ensuring a harmonious development of the sum total of nation’s capital stocks of natural, man-made, human and social capitals. The current reality does not seem to reflect the slogans, and we seem headed today towards elaborating an economy of violence that is promoting not just jobless, but job-destroying growth abusive of our natural resources.

While we must, of course, continue to develop modern technology-based industries and services, it is clear that these cannot generate employment on the massive scale required. It is therefore imperative that this modern sector must rein in its adverse impacts on the labour-intensive, natural resource-based occupations and livelihoods and nurture a symbiotic relationship with this largely unorganized sector. Our Constitution declares that it is the people who are sovereign and our democracy provides for fashioning such a mutualistic relationship through the 73rd and 74thconstitutional amendments, the Biological Diversity Act, and the Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas and Forest Rights Acts. We must take advantage of this Constitutional framework, and ensure that these significant provisions, currently being sabotaged on an extensive scale, are implemented in letter and in spirit.

I believe that our foremost priority must therefore be to reassert people’s rights over natural resources; agricultural lands, grazing lands, forest lands, rivers, lakes and coastal lands and waters, as also rocks and sand and minerals. A second important priority would be to promote cooperative economic enterprises that could become a significant avenue to create satisfying livelihoods on a large scale for the people through wise use of natural resources. Many such examples are emerging. In Naxal-torn Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, forest resource based enterprises are bringing prosperity to gramsabhas managing Community Forest Resources.  In Kerala women’s collectives are bringing fallow lands back to life. In Andhra Pradesh and Goa gramsabhas are setting up cooperative societies to revive mining in a nature-friendly and people-friendly fashion.

Thus, there is no reason why stone quarrying and sand mining cannot also be carried out throughout the country in a nature-friendly and people-friendly fashion as community-based cooperative enterprises. At another level we must take advantage of modern Information and Communication Technology that has led to remarkably successful cooperative enterprises such as Wikipedia to build up a true picture of what is happening on the ground in the country and to build bridges among the “ecosystem people” of the country.

A tribute

I consider it a great privilege to be invited to pay a tribute to the memory of Father Thomas Kochery, the foremost champion of India’s traditional fisher-people. I recollect that this man of great integrity made news headlines during the 2014 convention of World Forum of Fish-workers and Fish-harvesters, where he was chosen as the Coordinator, when he rejected $ 150,000 award of PEW Foundation sponsored by Sun Oil Company. “The Sun Oil Company is one of the worst polluters of the sea. I will be betraying the fisher-people, if I receive this,” said Fr. Kochery. I had the privilege of knowing Father Kochery personally and indeed talked with him over telephone some three years ago, when he expressed an interest in discussing with me the report of our Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). Tragically, such a meeting could not materialize. I would like therefore to take this opportunity to put before his friends and admirers what we might have discussed had we met in person.

Makers in India

These are days of pronouncements of “sabka saath, sabka vikaas” side by side with invitations of “Make in India”. One must then ask: what would these “makers in India” be motivated by, and in whose saath, whose wikaas this making would lead to? Larry Summers who served as the Finance Minister in Bill Clinton’s cabinet had this advice to American industry: “The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Today India is one of the world’s lowest wage countries and indeed all evidence shows that the makers in India are being attracted by both the promise of low wages, and of the fact that the industry is encouraged to flout all pollution control norms.

Polluter pays? Oh no!

Just to cite one case detailed in WGEEP report, there is a Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation’s chemical industry hub at Lote on Vashishti river in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Our Panel verified that the CETP at Lote cannot handle the quantity of effluent it is receiving, and its functioning is highly defective. As a consequence of the pollution, there has been significant decline in fish landings from Vashishti river and Dabhol creek. Reportedly, the Chemical Industry employs around 11-12 thousand people, while the loss of employment amongst fishing community due to water pollution has been estimated at 10-20 thousand. Shockingly, the Government that fails to take any action whatsoever against the polluters routinely suppresses perfectly peaceful demonstrations by the fisherfolk, following the numerous instances of mass fish deaths in the river.

Of omnivores and ecosystem people

From the perspective of human ecology, one may view what is going on at Lote and elsewhere in terms of the relationships amongst different components of the society and their resource base. From this perspective, people belong to three major categories: (i) ecosystem people, (ii) biosphere people or omnivores and (iii) ecological refugees. The livelihoods of ecosystem people, exemplified by the fisherfolk on Vashishti river, or the coastal fisherfolk Father Kochery stood for, are grounded in natural resources of their immediate surroundings. Today they have very limited or no control over their own resource base of natural and semi-natural ecosystems, and what they market has relatively low value. They constitute, as Sharad Joshi, the farmer leader of Maharashtra puts it, the citizens of Bharat as opposed to those of India. The citizens of India are the biosphere people or omnivores, as Ram Guha and I prefer to call them. Engaging in organized services or industrial production they control much that is of value on the markets.

Their ability to take over resources in demand by the ecosystem people facilitates transformation of natural and semi-natural ecosystems into those managed to meet omnivore demands, including as sites for stone quarries or industrial enterprises, for commercial ports or as dumps of pollutants. In the process, omnivores often deprive subjugated ecosystem people of access to their traditional resources; converting them into ecological refugees. Ecological refugees are then people with attenuated access to resources of natural and semi-natural ecosystems, but with little purchasing power. These ecological refugees constitute a cheap labour force for omnivore enterprises ranging from road and building construction, to quarrying, sand mining and harvesting sugar cane, or eke out a living as hawkers and domestic servants.

In this framework, India today may be viewed as a mosaic of omnivores, about 15% of our population, constituting the wealthy and the upper middle classes, largely urbanites engaged in organized sector, but also large landholders, fertilizer and pesticide merchants, JCB owners and sugar barons of rural India. They are the aspirational classes to whom our Respected Prime Minister appealed so effectively in the last election. The rural peasants and landless labourers, herders, fishers, forest produce gatherers and artisans constitute the ecosystem people, about 60% of our population.

The ecological refugees, the balance of 25% of the Indian population, are exiles from myriads of development projects and people whose livelihoods have deteriorated as artisans have lost access to resource bases such as bamboos, as herders have been deprived of their common grazing lands, as fishers find no more fish in polluted waters, and as peasants have seen their wells go dry with excessive use of groundwater by industries like Coca Cola or crop productivity decline with air pollution by thermal power stations.

Of quarries and landslides

Consider another instance of the interplay of natural resources and demands of ecosystem people and omnivores, that of stone quarries on Chembanmudy hill in Patanamthitta district of Kerala, quarries that feed the real estate sector serving the omnivores. The hill flanks have been extensively quarried and the hill slope and the drainage channels have been severely impacted. There has been a major landslip in the region and an expert team of the Geological Survey of India has reported that “unscientific quarrying activity and dumping of overburden material” was its major cause. The GSI team recorded huge dumps of crushed granite and granite chips on the hill slopes from which originate 15 streams feeding into the Pamba river. Concrete water tanks near a buried stream-course have created additional pressure on the loose “overburden”. Quarrying has created a large pond on the hill separated from the break-in slope of the hillock. GSI warned of chances of a catastrophic pond-break during the peak monsoon, if the separating column containing filled debris material caved in under pressure of the rising water in the pond.

Quarrying, crushing of the quarried stone into man-made sand and transporting the large quantities by trucks have had manifold impacts on the environs and people of Chembanmudy.  The blasting and crushing of rocks releases silica dust that adversely affects forest vegetation, plantations and crops. As many as 125 giant diesel lorries have been plying on roads passing by houses, Anganwadis and schools, making it difficult for students to concentrate on their studies.  The diesel emissions and quarry dust have had severe health impacts, with 150 people, 10 of them children contracting cancer, chronic bronchitis and lung ailments. In view of all these problems the concerned grama sabhas and panchayats have issued safety-related directions to the quarry operators who have been violating them with impunity. Consequently people had been agitating for months altogether and had forced some quarries to shut down. This is a prime example of what the Gandhian economist, J. C. Kumarappa has characterized as an “Economy of Violence”.

Man-made, natural, human and social capital

How are such developments affecting our nation’s four capital stocks; the man-made capital that GDP emphasizes, as well as the natural capital, human capital and social capital?  A GDP-centric view point focuses on economic activity in the organized industries- services sector. So it will count as development gains not only quarrying, crushing and truck transport at Chembanmudy, but the boosting of sales of anti-cancer and anti-asthmatic drugs and increased employment in health care industry as well. Since no proper records are being maintained, other relevant elements of economic activities such as the decline in agricultural productivity and loss of employment for agricultural labour that ought to be counted on the debit side, are being overlooked.

In addition, the GDP-centric approach totally ignores the erosion of natural capital, human capital and social capital. Thus, in the case of Chembanmudy, landslips and blockage of streams are adversely impacting land, water and forest resources. Health, education and employment are three important components of human capital. In the Chembanmudy case, health has suffered, with even young children developing lung cancer. Mothers have petitioned that the unceasing truck traffic continuing till late night does not permit their children to focus on studies, even in the peak examination season. As to employment, there is little for local community members. Most of the small number of labourers employed are ecological refugees, people whose livelihood has been destroyed by rampant mining in tribal tracts of Orissa or Jharkhand. There are horror stories making rounds of how this disorganized labour force is ill-treated, with no compensation for accidental injuries or even death.

The social capital resides in social harmony, cooperation and trust. These too are suffering under the prevalent economy of violence. This economy is promoting grabbing and spoiling of land, water, mineral and forest resources to benefit a few, at the cost of the larger society. This is being facilitated by lawlessness and social injustice; a striking instance is the clear contravention of Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 and grant of excess land earmarked for landless to the airport project at Aranmula in Kerala. With a number of landless families now squatting on this excess land social disharmony is the order of the day.

Jobless? No, job-destroying growth!

Indeed, all empirical evidence now points to the fact that the current spurt of economic growth is at best “jobless growth”. In reality it is not only jobless growth, but job destroying growth, a fact that is hidden behind the fog of false propaganda by simply failing to record the ongoing large scale destruction of jobs as in the case of fisherfolk of Vashishti river. Indeed, the rate of growth of employment even in the organized sector has actually declined from 2% to 1% just as the rate of GDP growth has gone up from 3% to 8%. Careful analysis by the economist Amit Bhaduri shows that the growth in the organized sector, which is all that is measured when talking about India being the country with fastest economic growth in the world, deprives more people of jobs by its demands on natural resources such as land and water than are compensated by the new jobs this growth creates. Even the RBI Governor, Rajan is therefore today talking of “one-eyed kings”.

We must, of course, continue to develop modern technology-based industries and services, but these cannot generate employment on the massive scale required. Indeed the rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence mean that human labour is becoming more and more redundant day by day. It is therefore imperative that the modern sector must rein in its adverse impacts on the labour-intensive, natural resource-based occupations and livelihoods. The modern capital intensive, technology based economic sector must instead aim at nurturing a symbiotic relationship with the nature based, employment intensive, largely unorganized sector.

Our democracy provides for fashioning such a mutualistic relationship through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, the Biodiversity Act, and the Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas and Forest Rights Acts. We must take advantage of this Constitutional framework, and work with nature and people to move forward on a path of genuine development – a path that would be entirely compatible with making development a people’s movement, vikaasko janandolan banana!

WGEEP approach

When our Respected Prime Minister Narendra Modiji pronounced in his very first victory speech in Ahmedabad, “Vikasko janandolan banayenge”, I was delighted for I dreamt of the new Government seriously taking up this very agenda outlined in WGEEP report, an agenda enthusiastically endorsed by BJP in Kerala.  I immediately clarified to those at the helm of affairs such as Hon. Minister of Environment, Shri Prakash Javdekar and the then Hon. Chief Minister of Goa, Shri Manohar Parrikar, how the WGEEP proposals really were proposals for undertaking development of the Western Ghats as a people’s movement. Permit me to quote verbatim from our report:

“Ongoing Development by Exclusion coupled to Conservation by Exclusion

What we see around the Western Ghats and rest of country may be termed   ‘Development by Exclusion’ hand in hand with ‘Conservation by Exclusion’. Despite the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution that have devolved powers of making decisions relating to development to Panchayat Raj Institutions and Nagarpalikas, all development decisions are being thrust on the people. For instance, in Ratnagiri district several Gram Panchayats, and Panchayat Samitis, including the Ratnagiri Taluka Panchayat Samiti, have specifically passed resolutions relating to environmental issues that are being completely ignored by the State Government.

WGEEP would like to propose that we should instead attempt to develop a model of conservation and development compatible with each other encompassing the whole of the Western Ghats region, to replace the prevailing ‘Develop recklessly – conserve thoughtlessly’ pattern with one of ’Develop sustainably – conserve thoughtfully’. The fine-tuning of development–conservation practices to local context that this calls for would require full involvement of local communities.

“Delimiting Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ)

“WGEEP believes that it is inappropriate to depend exclusively on Government agencies for constitution and management of ESZs. Instead, WGEEP suggests that the final demarcation of the Zones (including those surrounding Protected Areas (as also in context of the UNESCO Heritage Site proposal) taking micro-watersheds and village boundaries into account, and fine tuning of the regulatory as well as promotional regimes, must be based on extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies, namely, gram sabhas, ward sabhas, Gram Panchayats, Taluka Panchayats, Zilla Parishads, and Nagarpalikas.

“Guidelines only a starting point for discussion

“WGEEP advocates a graded or layered approach, with regulatory as well as promotional measures appropriately fine-tuned to local ecological and social contexts within the broad framework of ESZ1, ESZ2 and ESZ3. While advocating fine-tuning through a participatory process going down to gram sabhas, (we) provide, as a starting point, a broad set of guidelines, on basis of extensive consultations with officials, experts, civil society groups and citizens at large.

“Goa RPG 2021 model

“An interesting precedent is that of Goa Regional Plan 2021. The first step in this GRP21 planning was a compilation of a comprehensive, spatially referenced, database on land, water and other natural resources of Goa state; this information was selectively shared with all Gram Sabhas and their suggestions as to the desired pattern of land use obtained, consolidated and used as an important basis for the preparation of the final plan. Regrettably, the Government of Goa has not continued with the dialogue, failing to go back to the Gram Sabhas when it felt it appropriate to diverge from the Gram Sabha suggestions. Nevertheless, this is an excellent model that should be implemented in its true spirit.”

Mining in Goa

I specifically clarified to both the Hon. Minister of Environment, Shri Prakash Javdekar and the Hon. Chief Minister of Goa, Shri Manohar Parrikar, that WGEEP was not in favour of simply banning activities like mining everywhere, but urged that mining and other such activities should be conducted only after taking the wishes of the local communities on board and ensuring that the benefits truly flow to the people, especially the economically and socially deprived segments of the society. Thus, Goa could revive its currently stagnating mining business and mismanaged community resources through novel initiatives involving people. In this context, the provisions of the 2006 Forest Rights Act conferring management rights over Community Forest Resources to tribal, as well as other traditional forest dwellers are very pertinent. The ownership of such Community Forest Resources remains vested with the state, and these cannot be diverted to other purposes.

We have excellent examples from Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra of how good management of these Community Forest Resources is bringing economic prosperity to tribal communities that were leading a precarious existence earlier. Notably, now the people are on their own protecting part of these forests as newly constituted strict nature reserves. The Forest Rights Act is especially applicable to villages like Caurem in Goa’s Kepem taluka. Here palpably illegal mining operations have severely damaged water resources, adversely affected farming and horticulture, and created social anger and tensions. The mines are currently closed because of the illegalities and the Caurem Gram Sabha has unanimously resolved that that if they are to be restarted, this should be done through the agency of their Multi-purpose Co-operative Society.

True, the cooperative sector has had its share of problems, but so has the private sector and state enterprises. At the same time there are shining examples like Amul Dairy of successes in the cooperative sector. The Government of Goa ought therefore to seize this golden opportunity and do all that it can to ensure that management of mines by the village level cooperative society succeeds.

An economy of violence

But what has the response of the Government been? Permit me to quote from an article by the highly respected writer and social commentator, Ramachandra Guha that appeared in Hindustan Times on 24thApril, 2016.

“I (then) drove to the south-east of the state, to the village of Caurem, set amidst fields and forests. Here lives a young tribal activist named Ravindra Velip, who has been at the forefront of social protests against illegal mining. Last month, Ravindra was arrested and taken into judicial custody. The next day, with the evident complicity of officials responsible for his safety, he was blindfolded, gagged, and savagely beaten. He suffered multiple fractures, and might have been killed had his screams not brought fellow detainees to the scene, whereupon his attackers fled. Shockingly, the police even refused to file an FIR on this murderous assault.

In Caurem I met Ravindra Velip, his arm in a sling. I also met with the villagers, whose morale and resolve was intact, the women’s especially. The villagers of Caurem argue that if mining is necessary, local co-operatives should be entrusted with the job, since they would take greater care not to damage the environment while retaining the proceeds within the community.

Although most Indian and foreign tourists may not know or care, something is very rotten in the state of Goa. The citizens of Goa know and care, since they see and experience it all the time.”

Trickle down? No, suck up!

This state of affairs is a result of the fact that Independent India has been nurturing an economy in which the rapidly growing organized industries-services sector has developed predatory relations with the natural resource based, labour intensive economy that to this day supports well over two-thirds of the Indian population. The Gandhian economist J C Kumarappa has termed this an “economy of violence”.  He pointed out that the Western Capitalism had elaborated a capital-intensive economy highly wasteful of natural resources because they had successfully accumulated large capital stocks through draining their colonies, and had access to natural resources of whole continents like the Americas, taken over by wiping out the indigenous people.

India did not enjoy that kind of access to capital and natural resources, but had to do justice to its huge pool of human resources. This called for prudent use of natural resources, best accomplished by empowering local communities to safeguard and nurture them, and creation of productive employment on a massive scale. Kumarappa, therefore advocated working out an innovative Indian model of a symbiotic, rather than imitating the Western pattern of predatory development.

In 1971 elections, Mrs Indira Gandhi gave the clarion call of “Garibi Hatao”, which implies our doing justice to our vast population of ecosystem people and continually growing ranks of ecological refugees. All empirical evidence suggests that we have far from accomplished this; India now harbours by far the world’s largest concentration of malnourished people. Yet the call of “Garibi Hatao” has now been replaced by one of “GDP Badhao”! It is asserted, in teeth of accumulating empirical evidence to the contrary, that this growth in GDP would eventually trickle down and with growing prosperity people will ensure environmental protection and social justice.

But, it is argued, that all this must wait, and that we must now focus our attention single-mindedly on economic growth, even if it implies flouting our own laws to degrade environment, and flouting our own constitution to dispense social injustice. But the reality is that what we are currently witnessing is not a process of robust economic growth leading to a trickling down of benefits, but a process of economic growth sucking up resources that sustain many from the weaker sections of society, leading to their further impoverishment and increasing social strife.

Greens and the people

Since the decade of 1970’s and the Chipko movement there has been a rapid increase in environmental consciousness amongst citizens of India. Out of this came the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, and the establishment of a Central Department of Environment shortly thereafter. People from many different sectors of the society began to ponder on concrete steps that needed to be taken to protect the environment. Inevitably, many different streams of thinking emerged. Many from the rich, industrial nations argued that environment will only be protected by the rich and the educated, that poor masses of India would never support an environmental movement.

Movements like Chipko clearly demonstrated that this thinking was in error. Many amongst the weaker sections of the Indian population, living close to the earth, have a tremendous stake in a healthy environment. Their quality of life is closely tied to the availability of water in streams and lakes, on catching fish and crabs, or consuming wild tubers, leafy vegetables and fruit. They clearly visualize their self interest in protecting their environment. Their cultural traditions include guarding banyan and peepal trees, peafowl and monkeys, blackbuck and nilgai, sacred groves and sacred ponds. When in a position to do so, they participate vigorously in good management of natural resources.

Yet, admittedly, people are today often engaged in activities destructive of the natural world. This is a result of their being deprived of all rights over natural resources, especially since the British rule, and of these resources being diverted, often at incredible levels of subsidies to serve urban-industrial interests.  Thus bamboo had been handed over in Karnataka to paper mills at Rs. 1.50 per ton, while basket-weavers, who were being forced to buy it at Rs. 1500 or more per ton, had no choice, but to helplessly watch paper mills devastate it. It was inevitable that under these circumstances, the grass-roots traditions and practices of control over and prudent use of natural resources have often withered away.

We have in India a school of environmental philosophy that only sees the resultant destruction of nature by the poor, completely ignoring its devastation by a corrupt political-bureaucratic combine serving narrow vested interests. The English educated middle and upper classes are heavily represented amongst its adherents. The anti-people machinery of forest and wildlife wings strongly supports this perspective, which is accepted by many influential lawyers, jurists, journalists as well.

Out of this have emerged Acts like Kerala’s Ecofragile Lands Act (EFL), an Act whose experience has been the mainstay of the propaganda that WGEEP is furthering an anti-people agenda, an agenda that is creating “conservation refugees”. The experience of the people of the Kerala Ecofragile Lands Act indeed appears to reinforce the fears that conservation can only imply coercion and extortion. The same Malayalam term is used for ecofragile lands and Ecologically Sensitive Zones. Many people have told me that the EFL Act is draconian, allowing the bureaucracy to arbitrarily declare any lands in the proximity of Protected Areas as “ecologically fragile” without citing any scientific reasons.

It thereby vests such lands with the government, extinguishing all individual rights and titles without any compensation, leading to eviction of 8,000-plus farmers from 37,000 acres without compensation. Even tribals and marginal farmers have lost land and protests against it have been muted. Gramsabhas were not involved in the identification of these lands, and forest officials decided on lands to be taken over without any field visits. Farmers were not given notice; there was only a gazette notification. It is also alleged that the powers have been used by corrupt officials to extort bribes, and that the same process of extortion has been launched again with the publication of the WGEEP report.

Of course, WGEEP report clearly warns against such conservation by imposition. However, since the Government did its best to ensure that the report was not available to the public, it was easy to mislead people and claim, as the Bishop of Idukki so fallaciously did, “If the recommendations of the WGEEP report are implemented, lakhs of people living in the area will lose all their freedom and will be forced to vacate the area by themselves before the government evacuates them.”

Divide and rule

Yet the ecosystem people constitute a vast majority of the Indian population and in our democracy have some, albeit limited clout. Disempowered and increasingly impoverished as they are today, they see little hope of a better life while pursuing natural resource based occupations and livelihoods. So they are eager to get out and join the ranks of omnivores. The tragic reality is that while this is certainly feasible for a limited number of people, India cannot become a country entirely populated by omnivores as the United States largely is. As mentioned above, the omnivore employment opportunities are in fact shrinking with rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence. One human can now produce far more than earlier, a phenomenon labelled increasing labour productivity.

Thus, Jamshedpur steel plant of the Tatas employed 85,000 workers in 1991 to produce1million tons of steel worth 0.8million U.S. dollars. In 2005, the production rose to 5 million tons, worth about 5 million U.S dollars, while employment fell to 44,000. In short, output increased approximately by a factor of five, employment dropped by a factor of half, implying an increase in labour productivity by a factor of ten. Similarly, Tata Motors in Pune reduced the number of workers from 35 to 21 thousand but increased the production of vehicles from 129,000 to 311,500 between 1999 and 2004, implying labour productivity increase by a factor of 4.

But this reality does not deter our political leaders from making false promises. One of the “maker in India” slated to make a large investment in Pune district in Maharashtra is Foxconn and the Maharashtra CM has announced that the factory will create 50,000 jobs. However, this same company is famous for having invested 11 billion dollars in robotics. It currently employs 100, 000 people in its factory in China and is aiming to replace half its manpower by robots in near future. So it is pretty much certain that its production facility in India will be so completely robotized that there will be very few opportunities for the Indians beyond a handful of technically trained people. The number thus employed will certainly be far smaller than the number of people who will lose their current means of livelihoods with the acquisition of land and diversion of water and other resources to the upcoming factory.

Yet people are desperately looking for such jobs in organized sector and if they come from currently socially or economically weaker backgrounds believe that the only way they can get into this omnivore stream is through reservations in educational institutions and reservations in jobs. There is therefore ever growing clamour for more and more such reservations and this is exploited by politicians to divide the society further to secure some votes as well as serve the vested interests that they are in league with.

But this has the unfortunate consequence of weakening the possibilities of cohesive action by the ecosystem people of India. Thus the clamour for reservations by Dhangars, a shepherd community of Maharashtra has pitted them against Scheduled Tribes. Now Dhangars themselves are eligible for reassertion of their rights over erstwhile community controlled grazing lands under the Forest Rights Act, as are the STs over lands that they traditionally used to meet their livelihood needs as Community Forest Resources. But this Dhangar-ST divide is being effectively exploited by corrupt officials who want to sabotage the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, because it will then greatly reduce their opportunities to extort bribes from tribals as well as herders.

Unfortunately, then reservations, an agenda of many pro-people activists, has the clear consequence of keeping the ecosystem people of India divided and unable to press for their rights despite the very many progressive legislations meant to empower them.

Protests and court cases

Let me reiterate that I am entirely opposed to the elitist, anti-people nature conservationists. What then are options before those who, like Father Kochery, are pro-people, as well as pro-nature. The two major weapons in their armory today are protests and court cases. The protests often have tragic consequences like the death in stone pelting of the 20 year old Anoop Vellolippil at a peaceful demonstration by Hindu Aikya Vedi in favour of WGEEP report and against illegal stone quarries at Kaiveli in Vadakara Taluk of Kozhikkode District on Dec.16, 2014. Anoop was a strong activist of anti-quarry movement in that area. Reportedly the attack was orchestrated by CPI(M) activists along with men of quarry mafia.

In a civilized society, the Courts should be the last resort, but tragically in today’s India many view them as the only resort. But this too has severe limitations. My friend, Advocate Harish Vasudevan tells me that in many cases relating to illegal quarrying, the officials often deliberately mislead the Courts, and in absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary, the Courts cannot take any action.

I fully appreciate the role of protests and court cases, but would like to use this opportunity to propose some additional, constructive courses of action. I believe that our foremost priority must be to reassert people’s rights over natural resources; agricultural lands, grazing lands, forest lands, rivers, lakes and coastal lands and waters, as also rocks and sand and minerals. In all human civilizations community control once prevailed over the lands, the waters, the forests and the minerals till first feudalism and then capitalism gradually disempowered the common people.

The 17th century English rhyme comments on these developments: “The law locks up the man or woman, Who steals the goose from off the common, But leaves the greater villain loose, Who steals the common from off the goose!” The economic and social disparities that these developments entailed have only been growing worse with time, and it is necessary to reverse these trends and bring back to people the control over these resources. It is with these intentions that we have passed laws like Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas and Forest Rights Act. To ensure the implementation of such laws and extend them further to themes such as fishing communities and rivers and sea coast should be our first priority.

A second important priority would be to promote cooperative economic enterprises that could become a significant avenue to create satisfying livelihoods on a large scale for the people through wise use of natural resources. Thus, Gramsabhas should not just be asked to give an NOC for stone quarries; this sector should be entirely reserved for community based cooperative enterprises. At another level, also as a cooperative effort, we must take advantage of modern Information and Communication Technology that has led to remarkably successful cooperative enterprises such as the Free and Open Source Software and Wikipedia to build up a true picture of what is happening on the ground in the country. While the official sources may provide a false picture of stone quarrying in Kerala, there are more factual newspaper and TV channel reports, and reports of official enquiries such as by Kerala legislature.

These could be supplemented by geo-tagged smartphone photographs and videos uploaded on Wikimedia Commons. All these could be used to create a realistic picture of stone quarries in Kerala in a reliable social medium such as Wikipedia.  There are 21 Indian language Wikipedias and the new multi-language facility of Wikidata can be used to create an integrated picture on a theme like stone quarries in all parts of India. Such an integrated picture may then be used to build bridges among victims of destructive quarrying, who today are completely disorganized and help them take corrective action such as bringing the business of stone quarries under the control of the “ecosystem people” of the country.

Nature, the great job creator

Under the spell of the industrial civilization, we have forgotten that nature always has been and will remain the dominant job creator on this earth. What is then needed is to use its resources wisely to ensure that humans continue to enjoy satisfactory livelihoods even if robots take over the organized sector in years to come. This is certainly feasible as shown by the story of utilization of that wonder plant, bamboo in villages assigned rights over Community Forest Resources. I was introduced to bamboo utilization when the basket weavers of Karnataka gheraoed the Finance Minister in 1974, protesting that the Dandeli paper Mill had devastated the bamboo stocks, despite the assurance of the so-called scientific forestry that the bamboo resources would not be overexploited and would sustain the mill in perpetuity.

As a result, I was asked to investigate the management of the bamboo resources of the State. When I initiated the studies, the Foresters and the Mill management agreed that bamboo stocks had been severely depleted, but entirely blamed it on the use of bamboo by villagers and grazing of livestock in the forest. I then undertook systematic field research on bamboo ecology and management. Bambusa arundinacea, the principal bamboo species of Karnataka, is notable for the development of a thorny covering at its base. Under natural conditions this covering protects the young bamboo shoots that cattle, buffaloes, porcupines, wild pigs, monkeys and men all relish. The Paper Mill management considered this thorny covering a great nuisance and asked their bamboo harvest labour to remove it. The Mill then proceeded to harvest bamboo right from the ground level, further exposing new shoots.

The villagers, on the other hand, were aware of the ecological function of the thorny cover, left it intact, and harvested bamboo from above waist height. Under these age-old practices, new bamboo culms were successfully added to the clumps that continued to thrive. On the contrary, new recruitment ceased for bamboo clumps being managed by the Mill, and the clumps were gradually wiped out. There were other ways too in which the Mill’s harvesting practices, violating the official prescriptions, were destructive. In the study jointly supervised by Forest Department officials and Paper Mill officials, we reached the clear conclusion that the lion’s share of the blame for decimation of bamboo resources lay with the Paper Mill.

This mindless overexploitation of forest resources has gone on all over the country till very recently the Forest Rights Act has begun to change the picture. Despite mischievous roadblocks continually erected by the official machinery, local communities of Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts of Eastern Maharashtra that have won Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act over extensive areas. They had to struggle hard, for both these districts have substantial mineral reserves, and the mining interests wanted to block any grant of rights to the people. Fortunately for the people of Gadchiroli, there were some very enlightened officers in the district administration that facilitated the implementation of FRA. But, the struggle has been far harder in Chandrapur district and only one village, that of Pachgaon has been assigned Community Forest Resource area of 1000 hectares.

The conferment of these rights activated the citizens of Pachgaon who decided to work out a whole series of community level regulations not just in terms of management of Community Forest Resources, but conduct of civil life in their community. The Gramsabha resolved that all must contribute to the formulation of these regulations, and so each household was asked to offer 5 regulations to kick off the process. This generated a list of some 500 potential regulations, naturally with a lot of overlap. So a committee appointed by the Gramsabha undertook the editorial job and produced a list of about 150 proposals. These were debated over two days of full meeting of Gramsabha, leading to the finalization of a list of 40-odd regulations that were adopted by consensus.  The entire community was thus party to the decisions arrived at and has now taken to their implementation whole-heartedly.

Notably enough the regulations include setting apart an area of 34 hectares, amounting to 3.4% of the Community Forest Resource area as a strictly protected nature reserve, or in the idiom appropriate to their culture as a Pen Geda or Sacred Grove, equivalent of Kerala’s sarpakavu. This is an area along the crest-line of the hillock within the Community Forest Resource area, with the best preserved natural forest, rich in wildlife and the source of their perennial streams. It may be noted that this is close to the proportion of the total forest area of the country set aside as Wild Life Sanctuaries and National Parks. It so happens that tendu is a major produce from their Community Forest Resource area; these leaves are used for bidi-making. The harvest of tendu leaves entails extensive lopping and setting of forest fires. So Pachgaon community has decided to forego this income and instead focus on marketing the edible tendu fruit. With stoppage of leaf collection the tendu trees are much healthier and the fruit yield and consequently the income from marketing of the fruit has gone up.

But the mainstay of income for the gramsabha of Pachgaon is bamboo. With its manifold structural uses other than as a raw material for paper making bamboos command high prices. For the last several decades these other uses were set aside and bamboos were made available to the paper mill as a monopoly at highly subsidized prices. So all that the villagers could earn from the rich stocks of bamboo in what was the community’s rightful forest was very low wages for cutting bamboos forced upon them by the monopoly holding paper mill. The Forest Rights Act, whose preamble talks of the need to right a historical injustice, has now given them management rights over the bamboos and they can now realize its full value. They can also plan on developing many value added products that range over flutes and activated charcoal to medically valuable silica crystals in the hollows of bamboo.

Not only has this greatly enhanced the employment opportunities and incomes, bringing prosperity to the community, it is encouraging the youth to enter the mainstream with dignity. The community is using computers to prepare bamboo inventories and keep tab of the many different commercial transactions, and the youth are learning computer programming and accountancy techniques, scientific methods of resource estimation and videography.

This is just one sample. There undoubtedly are innumerable opportunities to use our country’s natural resources more wisely and fairly and bring not only economic prosperity to the ecosystem people of India, but confer on them dignity and self-respect. As Dr B R Ambedkar has emphasized people must, above all, have the opportunity to live in this world with self-respect, and the reassertion of community control over natural resources is creating such opportunities.

Abandoning all doctrines

I am a scientist and have learnt above all to reject all authority other than that of empirical facts and logical inferences, to shun all authoritative doctrines. This attitude is very much in conformity with the teachings of one of the wisest sons of India, Gautam Buddha: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it; not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason.”  Buddha also teaches us to appreciate how the world functions and pragmatically tread the middle path. I therefore do not agree with extreme doctrinaire prescriptions such as banning all mining and quarrying on the Western Ghats. After all, along with a healthy natural environment, economic well-being also matters to people and quarried stones and mined metals have been playing a key role in human life for thousands of years.

At the same time, I totally reject the doctrine that we must single mindedly pursue GDP growth. As I have elaborated elsewhere in this article the market forces simply do not work the way they are supposed to, with totally unjustified subsidies promoting destruction of natural resources. Furthermore, there is no trickle down, but only a suck-up effect. This has led to distortions of democracy as well; as the Nobel Prize winning American economist Joseph Stiglitz says, not one person – one vote democracy, but rather a rule of one dollar – one vote autocracy now prevails in the US.

Some Gandhians tell me that tribals must never be drawn in the evil ways of modern commerce and my advocacy of their becoming involved in bamboo-based and other commercial enterprises will only spoil them. Unfortunately the only other way in which tribal youth enter mainstream, and they are all the time doing so, is by becoming low wage workers, including sex-workers living in urban slums, and that is a far, far worse a fate.

The leftists, in contrast, are all in favour of modern industrial enterprises, but they are looking forward to a revolution and tell me that if tribals thus become prosperous that will douse their revolutionary fervor, and we should therefore strive only to ensure that they will become ever more impoverished and eventually support the revolution. But I have personally seen and talked to many people pre- and post-collapse of communism in Europe and it is clear that the communist regimes were both oppressive and highly destructive of the environment. This is also the case in today’s still supposedly communist China. At another level I have worked for some decades now in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra and know that the Naxals extort money from both the paper mills and the tribals, and whenever there was a conflict between the paper mill and the tribals, Naxals ended up working as paid agents of the mill.

The way forward

So, I plead that we set aside all such hide-bound thinking and accept that industrial civilization and private enterprise are very much the dominant forces in the world and will remain so for foreseeable future.  Human values are a matter of personal choice and not the subject of any scientific reasoning. I accept as my values wishing for a better quality of life for the masses of people and safeguarding the natural world. I believe Father Kochery too shared these values and probably many of his friends and admirers here do. So let me conclude by putting before you a set of proposals, proposals that are also an integral part of our Western Ghats Ecology Expert panel’s recommendations.

I would like to call this a blue-green agenda for some of the proponents of the so-called green agenda are unfortunately supporters of an anti-people, authoritarian agenda and I want to make clear that I reject this approach. Moreover as an evolutionary biologist I am a great admirer of blue-green algae that gave the earth its oxygen-rich air and waters and came to constitute the chlorophyll-bearing plastids of plants thereby covering the earth with its green mantle.

I believe that the foremost priority under this blue-green agenda would be to reassert people’s rights over natural resources, agricultural lands, grazing lands, forest lands, rivers, lakes and coastal lands and waters, as also rocks and sand and minerals. A second important priority would be to promote cooperative economic enterprises that could become a significant avenue of creating satisfying livelihoods on a large scale for the people through wise use of natural resources. Many such examples are emerging. In Naxal-torn Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, forest resource based enterprises are bringing prosperity to gramsabhas managing Community Forest Resources.

In Kerala women’s collectives are bringing fallow lands back to life. In Andhra Pradesh and Goa gramsabhas are setting up cooperative societies to revive mining in a nature-friendly and people-friendly fashion. There is no reason why stone quarrying and sand mining cannot also be carried out throughout the country in a nature-friendly and people-friendly fashion as community-based cooperative enterprises. At another level we must take advantage of modern Information and Communication Technology that has led to remarkably successful cooperative enterprises such as Wikipedia to build up a true picture of what is happening on the ground in the country and to build bridges among the “ecosystem people” of the country.

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