Videos: Lovraj Kumar panel discussion focuses on the challenges to biodiversity conservation, livelihoods and ecological sustainability

The manner in which biodiversity contributes to poverty reduction and development had recently become a subject of heated debate at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP-11) at Hyderabad. As a curtain raiser to this event, SPWD’s Lovraj Kumar panel discussion on 28th September, 2012 at IIC, New Delhi focused on the challenges to biodiversity conservation, livelihoods and ecological sustainability.

Guest post: Amita Bhaduri

The discussion was chaired by Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The panelists included Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh; Ravi Chellam, a renowned wildlife scientist and Ligia Noronha, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The panelists agreed that environmental sustainability is a fundamental development objective and deliberated on the opportunities that are available for concrete action.

Talk by Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

Ashish Kothari, based his talk on his recent work co-authored with Aseem Srivastava, an environmental economist titled "Churning the Earth: Making of Global India" in which the authors discuss how the current model of development was unstable and had to be fundamentally changed as the dream offered by globalisation was dystopic. His talk centered on the point that development is coming at the cost of weakening of environmental regulation and that globalisation has increased environmental destruction. He challenged the mainstream economic thinking on its own terms and marshaled the comparative account of ecological destruction.

Kothari noted that while the economy is recording the most impressive growth rates in its history in the last decade, the state of society and ecology has been deteriorating. “Do we have ways that not just confront the current crisis that globalised development has caused but also provide answers to human well being?” he said.

Since 1991, which marked the beginning of economic reforms, there has been a single minded pursuit of double digit economic growth rate in spite of the fact that the trickle-down theory has not worked for the poor. Kothari gave an account of some of the interesting trends of what has happened to India’s environment in the last couple of decades.

An analysis of the marine fisheries sector in terms of domestic consumption and export figures indicates that in the last twenty years there has been a quantum leap in the amount that is actually fished out of our territorial waters, and a change in the kinds of operators that have in fact moved into the territorial waters. Traditional livelihoods like fishing and sensitive marine ecosystems are coming under stress from commercial operators. The sea is a vast open space, but it is not unlimited and things cannot be taken out of it without causing damage. Actually for the first time in history we are seeing decline in fishing stock in the territorial waters if not in the deep seas.

As regards mining, since 1991 the production has jumped several fold and its ecological and social impacts has been horrifying. There has been a rapid rise in forest lands diverted for mining. The government has made it easier for mining companies and corporations to invest in India and since 1991 some of the world’s largest mining companies are doing so. But of course, there are also the Indian ones.

Companies can get permits for mining intended for reconnaissance and exploration for mining with ease with the result that 15 per cent of India’s land mass is under mining reconnaissance at present. A company can today get up to 50000 sq km of area for mining exploration. The 2008-09 mining policy actually suggests that if a mining company is given exploration and reconnaissance license, they should be automatically considered for undertaking mining in the area if they find minerals that can be taken out with viability.

Plastic production and use in India has exploded in the last few years well beyond the increase in population. The per capita plastic consumption has gone up significantly, and the country is producing 5500 tonnes of plastic waste every day. As of electronic wastes, India produced around 8,00,000 tonnes of it in 2012. In April 2009, there were 403 million mobile users in India; a little less than half of them did not have bank accounts.

This goes on to show the consumption pattern of electronic goods and the manner in which redundancy is built into the electronic systems so that phones go out of fashion every two-three years and new ones have to be bought. The Supreme Court had in the year 1997 issued an order banning the import of hazardous wastes in the country, yet toxic e-wastes find a way into the country under the garb of recyclable wastes.

While it is widely known that we are facing biodiversity loss, we lack robust figures on this. A few years ago many scientists were of the opinion that the rate of India’s biological diversity loss and threat of extinction ranged from ten to sixty five per cent based on varying projections. This was pretty alarming.

According to a 2008 report “India’s ecological footprint: A business perspective”, produced by Global Footprint Network (GFN) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), India has the third largest ecological footprint in the world next only to USA and China. The report also said that we are using around twice the sustainable level of natural resources that the country can provide.  Also, the capacity of nature to sustain humans has declined sharply, by almost half, in the last four decades or so.  

It is clear that our path of development is clearly leading us to ecological unsustainability. The impacts on us as human beings is very clear in terms of the loss of livelihood of people who directly depend on natural ecosystems – fishing communities, farming communities, adivasis etc. The figures for people who have been physically displaced due to ‘development’ projects in India are estimated at around 60 million since 1947. That is more than the population of most countries in the world. This figure does not include the numbers of people whose livelihoods have been displaced/ destroyed because of ecological destruction. There is no figure available for that.

Environmental protection is not possible within the present framework of ‘development’. If the present kind of predatory economic development continues, even if we create a few protected areas here and there, they would eventually get wiped out because of the opening up of the entire natural resource sectors to corporates both Indian and global.

Several communities, civil society groups and government groups are working on sustainable initiatives without causing the kind of ecological damage, inequalities and displacement that the current model does. These examples are actually exploding across the country but they are still not a critical mass to provide answer to the kind of globalised development that is taking place.

Ashish Kothari discussed the concept of radical ecological democracy, an alternative framework of human well being spelt out in the book by Aseem Srivastava and him. He talked of human equality in terms of opportunities as well as stressed the need for ecological sustainability. This would entail full access to decision-making and equity in distribution and enjoyment of benefits of human endeavour.

There is a need to respect the basic principles of pluralism and diversity. There is need to build government institutions that are truly bottom up and ensure democratic governance that starts from the smallest, most local unit such as panchayats and urban local bodies. It is necessary to build these grassroot institutions and combine and link them across larger landscapes like river basins, which are in many cases ecologically defined. Larger level institutions, at global, national and state levels are also needed.

Kothari also noted that micro-level models that have existed in the past are not necessarily by that fact itself automatically acceptable today. A lot of them had a lot of socio-economic inequalities ingrained in them along the lines of caste, class and gender. It is the decentralized unit that needs to be the basis of a future sustainable society. 

Talk by Ravi Chellam, wildlife scientist, at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

Ravi Chellam discussed the current status of human-wildlife conflicts as well as the state of wildlife research and management in the country. His talk focused on how vast swathes of forests had been converted into government property and 'closed' national parks and sanctuaries were created disregarding the rights of the people living in and around these lands. In his view, Forest Rights Act requires the governments to recognize and hand back the traditional rights of tribals over forests that they were divested of during the colonial rule and after.

We seem to be increasingly moving towards a management regime that excludes people, Chellam said. There is a strong rush by governments, law and several NGOs to define habitats and spaces that are for people – the ‘people habitats’. This is flawed, for the simple reason that wildlife habitats in the country have been shaped by human influence. The numerous grasses that we see today are because people would burn them, do agriculture and move on and would cyclically come back to these sites.

People do not necessarily feel threatened by wildlife in India but yet increasingly the conflict situation is becoming unbearable simply because the costs that they bear are disproportionate even to the investments that are made in wildlife conservation.

Chellam also noted that the current state of knowledge is a worry for him. There has been an explosion of researches nowadays with good information coming out as compared to 1980s when Chellam started his work. Only some species have received attention of researchers and conservationists. Our work is still very focused on terrestrial animals of which the charismatic large birds and mammals are better studied groups in the country. This is a problem because a bulk of our diversity is not restricted to birds and mammals. There is an enormous amount of diversity in other forms of life and we have not done a good job of documenting it to understand their distribution, ecology and conservation status.

He also stressed that the current state of wildlife management is highly protected area centric, inward looking and looks at ecology in a very static kind of manner.

Talk by Ligia Noronha, TERI, at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

Ligia Noronha, Executive Director (Research Coordination) and Director, Resources, Regulation and Global Security, The Energy and Resources Institute spoke about the Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), of which she was a member. She noted that the report had triggered off a vigorous public debate on several vital issues before us. These issues related to environment-development choices and on the proper roles of people and Government authorities in deciding on these choices.

The report had been kept away from public gaze for almost nine months and was finally released on orders of the Central Information Commissioner. Noronha stated that the report had been prepared in a completely transparent and inclusive manner and MOEF’s unwillingness to disclose it to the public is likely to lead to a trust deficit.

The Western Ghats, which stretches 1,500 km from Tapi valley in the north along the Arabian sea, touching six states - Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - 44 districts and 142 talukas. While mining had been taking place in the Western Ghats since 1945, brazen illegal mining activity had become intensified in the state of Goa more recently.

The panel was asked to assess the current status of ecology of the Ghats region, demarcate areas within the region that were to be notified as ecologically sensitive ones and make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the entire area. It was also asked to study the entire stretch of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, including the coastal region and to specifically examine the Gundia and Athirappilly hydroelectric projects.

Noronha clarified that the Panel Report did not prescribe strict prescriptions on curbing ‘development’. Nor did it suggest rigid boundaries for the Zones in the Western Ghats with varying levels of ecological sensitivity. On the contrary, she said that the WGEEP proposed a nuanced layered approach to regulation of activities. It recommended provisional boundaries and guidelines, to allow for tweaking based on deliberations through an inclusive process. She said that Western Ghats needed multi-centered governance and that is what the Panel proposed. There would be a Western Ghats Ecological Authority (WGEA), a statutory authority which enjoys the powers under the Environment Protection Act. There would be State Western Ghats Ecology Authorities in the constituent States, appointed jointly by the State Governments and the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests.

These authorities would connect with the State Pollution Control Board, State Biodiversity Board, but also downwards to the Biodiversity Management Cells and the District Planning Committees. These would function in a networked fashion with the Western Ghats Ecology Authority and this in turn would ensure inclusive governance.

The Panel had designated the entire Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area and had classified the 142 talukas into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1, 2 and 3, she said. It recommended that “no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1. Since both the hydel project sites, Athirappilly in Kerala and Gundia in Karnataka fall in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, these projects should not be accorded environmental clearance, it said.

In the case of Goa, the Report suggested an “indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ 1 and 2, phasing out of mining in ESZ 1 by 2016 and continuation of existing mining in ESZ 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.” Noronha stated that instead of using the opportunity to politically negotiate the criteria used for zoning, the state chose to keep silent about the report. 

The report not only suggests regulatory measures, but also promotional measures such as payments to farmers for building up carbon stocks in farm soils.

According to the report, the moratorium on new clearances in ESZ 2 can be revisited when the situation improves and a comprehensive study on the impact of mining on the ecology, environment, human health, and biodiversity is done. No new polluting industries, including coal-based power plants, should be allowed in ESZ 1 and 2. The existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2016, with an effective system of social audit as per the report.

Noronha said that scores of mines have scarred the land of Goa clearing large tracts of forests and removing soil. Iron ore production in Goa is largely oriented towards export to China, and it stands at 33 million tonnes today. The people of Goa are paying the social and environmental costs of iron ore mining from the state while the profits are being cornered by a few.

Aseem Srivastava, environmental economist, speaking at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

Aseem Srivastava, co-author of the book "Churning the earth: Making of Global India”, called for the need to develop an ecologically enlightened discourse, which takes up macroeconomic policy as a centre-piece of criticism, assessment and to evolve an alternative macroeconomic policy charter.

Providing symptomatic treatment by sensitising the middle classes to the problems that their growing demands are causing is not enough because the systemic forces that are driving the crisis i.e., the macroeconomic policies that have been put in place since at least the 1970s are leading to the financialisation of nature, which is predicated on prior commodification of nature. The illusion of green economy that we keep hearing again and again about while everyday feigns ignorance of the macroeconomic policies is rather strange.

Globalisation is shown off as a sign of capitalist triumph. In fact it has come out of the failure of American capitalism. Since the 1970s, when the dollar was delinked from gold there was this infinite expansion of money and credit, which is now ruining nature. There are too many wealth claims – much more than there is wealth in this planet.  

Sunita Narain, CSE, speaking at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

Sunita Narain stated that there are two discourses within ecology and environment and there is need to understand these. Firstly, there is the movement that was borne out of the west which came after the process of the toxification of garbage generation. These movements spawned in some senses after the creation of wealth, and came up to fix the problems temporarily. They were meant to act as band-aids on the wealth creation machinery and to ensure that the system moved ahead.

The western environmental movement could never fix the problem. They have always stayed behind the problem. The only advantage they have is that they have actually made environment into a business. Fixing up of environmental problems help the western states generate a part of the economy. That has been the model of western environmentalism.

During India’s environmental movement in the 1970s, a rich decade of environmentalism there were two distinct environmental movements with very distinct calls and involved diverse methods to protect nature. The first was modeled on western environmentalism and emerged under the influence of international organizations like IUCN. The model was of protecting areas; there was concern for people but it was not the overriding factor.

On the other hand, there was the peoples based environmental movements such as Chipko movement which was founded on the need to protect the environment for survival needs. In the last few years there has been an increasing emergence of middle class environmentalism in India, one which would like plastic collection to happen and would somehow believe that this would make the problem go away. The co-existence of both the strands makes our environmentalism and environmental activism richer.

The question is how to expand the space for environmentalism of the poor and how can we make the environmentalism of the middle class understand the environmentalism of the poor better and to support it. That is really where the challenge is. 

The playlist of the videos of the entire lecture is available below -

Subscribe to <none>