As we picked wild berries on the Goa University campus, some years ago, my gardener friend Eknath exulted, “Laloo of the RJD is behind bars! Let us hope that the Congress CM of Goa, who is brazenly colluding with miners to ruin our fields and waters, will also get a dose of the same medicine.” Soon after, the Justice M.B. Shah commission on illegal mining in Goa said in its report: “No inspection of the mines has been carried out, resulting in grave losses to the ecology, environment, agriculture, groundwater, streams, ponds, rivers, biodiversity etc.” It estimated illegal gains of Rs 35,000 crore, indicting as conspirators the erstwhile CM and many netas and babus. During the next elections, the BJP promised firm action. Hoping against hope, the people gave it a strong mandate. My friend Eknath and many others are now bitter that the new government has turned its back completely on its promises, continuing to support the same narrow, anti-nature, anti-people interests as before.
All in the name of development, of course. But what is development? Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and one-time chairman of Clinton’s economic advisory council, emphasises that development should enhance the totality of nation’s four-fold capital stocks: that of material goods; natural capital such as soil, water, forests and fish; human capital including health, education and employment; and social capital, comprising mutual trust and harmony.
Our current imbalanced pattern of economic development certainly does not enhance the totality of these stocks. Thus, mining in Goa has severely damaged water resources, agriculture and fisheries and caused high levels of health-impairing air and water pollution. The mechanised mines now offer very limited employment. Somewhat more is generated through mineral transport. Yet, when thousands of trucks were plying ore on the roads of Goa, the chaos on the roads and the accidents seriously disrupted social harmony. The single-minded focus on GDP growth is nurturing a money-centred, violent economy.
We must, of course, continue to develop modern technology-based industries and services, but these cannot generate employment on the massive scale required. In fact, diverting resources to these sectors destroys more jobs than it creates because of the adverse impact industry has on land- and water-based occupations like farming and fishing. We need a symbiosis between the capital-intensive industry sector and nature-based, labour-intensive sectors like agriculture and fisheries. Knowledge inputs will help. Thus Seshagiri, a farmer who is now a pharmaceutical company executive in Bangalore, has developed a productive, profitable system of cultivation of medicinal plants without any chemicals and also generates substantial employment. In Gadchiroli, tribals now controlling bamboo resources are generating substantial new economic activity while setting aside part of the land as strict nature reserves. Our constitutional framework is very supportive of such approaches. This would be the path towards making development a people’s movement, a favourite slogan of our prime minister, yet one that is appearing hollower by the day.
Indeed, the present government’s policies are merely an intensification of what previous governments practised. This is the “development by exclusion, conservation by exclusion” approach that our Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report decried. We suggested that people, the genuine stakeholders in the environment, must participate fully in the decision-making on the development measures and conservation measures that a region must have. Power-mongers colluded to first suppress our report, then unleash a disinformation campaign.
But we do have a vibrant democracy that comes alive at least during elections. We need to move forward and devolve powers to the people so that they will be continually involved in deciding on what direction the nation should take. It is people at the grassroots who are finally affected by development and thus are fully aware of what is happening to the natural, human and social capital in their milieu. Their full participation in the process of arriving at a development strategy is crucial.
Those wielding power must stop sabotaging the Constitution, abide by all its progressive provisions and inform people of the alternative paths development and conservation can take. A well-informed, empowered citizenry can ensure that environment is properly cared for even as we industrialise, as has happened in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
(The writer was the chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. )