A minister s choice

  • 14/10/1995

I am really sorry to see Kamal Nath go as the minister of state for forests and environment (mef). Though we rarely met in the recent past, I have come to regard him as a friend, our acquaintance beginning with the preparations for the Rio Earth Summit. I had found him open to views opposed to those of his own ministry's bureaucrats.

The Centre for Science and Environment had then debunked Western environmental opinion that everything was great about the existing and proposed environmental treaties. We found several loopholes in their arguments, and said that North-South equity was being disregarded. I found Nath was prepared to take positions unpalatable to bureaucrats, whether in the mef or in South Block. In the garb of avowedly protecting India from isolation in the international arena, they were really shirking from taking the lead in building up Southern opinion on those issues.

Unhappy with his bureaucrats, Nath would often turn to us for advice on issues like the Montreal Protocol and the Climate Convention. His respect for us grew to a point that he flew from New York to Washington D C, to look me up in the hospital there last year.

Nath's sudden departure now will leave the ministry bereft of an experienced leader. Almost all the senior mef bureaucrats are new, and have had little exposure to environmental issues, especially the global ones. And as India has learnt, much to its discomfiture, these cannot be set aside. During the Montreal Protocol negotiations, nobody in the mef cared to participate, thinking these were of little significance to India. But asked to sign the protocol in 1987, India realised what a bad treaty it was, and had to fight a rearguard battle to push through wholesale amendments. The battle culminated in the London Conference in 1990, which accepted the Indian amendments. Even this was not good enough. But Maneka Gandhi, the then environment minister, keen to project her green image, agreed to it.

Nath told me several times that he was not a green minister. He emphasised that he was a politician -- by which he meant that development was as important to him as environmental conservation. Not that I disagree with this in principle. I have always looked at environment from the perspective of national development, equity, the economic needs of the poor and community rights. But I found that -- unlike as on global issues -- he was not prepared to go far on national ones. He agreed with me that without people's involvement, all our endangered species and protected areas would disappear. "We cannot run our protected areas with walls around them," he had told me. But he made no effort to over-ride the wildlife bureaucracy and allow the Van Gujjars a say in the management of the proposed Rajaji National Park. Similarly, we differed intensely on the proposal to let forest lands be used for captive industrial plantations. I hope the new minister, Rajesh Pilot, will jettison this proposal.

I also have some advice for the new minister. There are three key areas which any environment minister must handle today. One is pollution control and environmental impact assessment (eia) of development projects. The second is the management of natural resources -- from soils, wastelands, rivers, tanks, ponds and groundwater, to wildlife, forests and biodiversity. And the third is global environmental negotiations.

The first should not take up more than 10-15 per cent of a minister's time. The minister's job should end with the establishment of clear and transparent rules, procedures and mechanisms for conflict resolution, and let the bureaucrats sort out each project and its environment-development conflict.

The second area -- the most important for India's sustained economic development and for the survival needs of the poor -- should take up nearly 2/3rd of the minister's time, because this is where complex policies and programmes -- addressing the powerlessness of the poor and the heavy population and development pressures on our national resources -- are needed. It is the most difficult and challenging task confronting the mef. This would then leave only 20-25 per cent of the minister's time for global issues, which should be more than adequate.

But having watched Nath and Maneka at close quarters, I must say that this is not the way they spent their time. Nath, who took over as mef when the Rio conference was looming large, has spent -- my guess -- 60-70 per cent of his time on global issues. The rest was spent on eia and pollution control. As a result, he never spent more than 5 per cent of his time on policies and programmes for natural resource management. During Makeka's tenure, global issues were unimportant, so she spent most of her time on her pet themes: animal welfare, wildlife conservation, and pollution control. She too neglected this crucial area.

I hope Pilot will learn from experiences of his predecessors and set up adequate mechanisms, so that all three areas are fairly addressed and governed. Otherwise, environmental governance in India will not move forward.

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