As the growth versus green debate intensifies with the Environment ministry issuing benchmarks for marking no-go areas, the coal ministry and the NHAI building pressure for clearances through the PMO and the National Investment Board being rechristened as Cabinet Committee on Investment, both sides are building their case on the poor’s right to a better life. Unfortunately, it is a matter of convenience, and not conviction, for both.
Conservationists are mostly well-to-do hypocrites who fly around the world to fight for virgin nature and thereby seek to perpetuate poverty among the less privileged. Environmentalism is an industry that supports lakhs of activists and experts most of whom are not averse to the good things in life (read large carbon footprints) and deal mostly in banal symbolism of turning off taps or observing earth-hour once a year. Most of them are also anti-people (read anti-poor) and believe in feudal models of conservation through exclusion.
The poor grudge the environmentalism that wants to create inviolate areas by uprooting villages or denying people their traditional rights over natural resources. While it is the most convenient means to protect nature in its pristine form, wilderness often stands a better chance in the custody of local communities. Ownership does not isolate the poor from the cause of conservation. In the three-way battle that is unfolding all over the country, their support is invaluable when the greens take on the forces of growth.
Certain areas need to be left undisturbed -- even if they sit atop mineral riches or stand in the way of roads and railways -- for their irreplaceable ecological value. It is in such places that the growth argument depicting environmentalism as anti-poor gets vocal. Ironically, when the local poor oppose projects such as mines and industries, the growth argument shifts track to go national: what if the ignorant locals do not appreciate the benefits of a project, it must get through in the national interest.
So the growth advocates demand destructive access to the last remaining pristine forests, mountains, rivers or coasts in the name of nation building which apparently entails hauling the poor above the poverty line. Apparently, the state cannot provide the poor tribal basic healthcare or education because the so-called ignorant lot – the green hypocrites and the tribals themselves -- refuse to allow the state to rip apart virgin forests for extracting minerals or setting up factories.
Without encumbering readers with reams of available data, suffice to say that no mine or mega factory has significantly bettered the lot of the local poor. A few low-paying menial jobs are all that come at the cost of displacement and loss of traditional resources and livelihood. At the same time, the gain to the national exchequer has never compared favourably to the largesse offered to investors. Let’s not even go into the obvious dynamics of how money eventually finds its way into deeper pockets.
Growth cannot be achieved without harnessing natural resources. The poverty map of the world overlaps with that of its best remaining wilderness. The same is true for India. Our poorest districts are also the greenest. People like you and me are better off than the poor tribal because our forefathers cut off their share of the forests that once stood on the now-barren but prosperous parts of India. The poor tribals are poor because their predecessors did not monetise their forests.
The growth lobby now wants to usurp those remaining forests to line their own pockets in the name of helping the tribals out of poverty. Worse, now that the value of the last remaining wilderness is appreciated by the greens, they want to dislodge the tribals from the very forests their forefathers conserved.
But as their numbers multiply and forests shrink, the forest communities can barely sustain themselves with natural produce alone. The pressure is telling on the last remaining wilderness across the country. But if forests must disappear, the right of extraction should stay with the communities that historically nurtured those areas and not with the miners or industrialists from outside. If forests must be conserved by imposing rights restriction, the same communities must be compensated for their rights and historical services.
In simpler terms, if we so much value the forests others did not cut down, we must share the wealth we made by cutting down our forests everywhere else. It cannot be a pittance in the name of compensation. Our economy cannot grudge offering the forest communities their rightful share. The state must invest the revenue generated elsewhere in healthcare, education and other civic infrastructure across our poor forested districts. It cannot crib about missing out on the forestland and mines. It must instead factor in the priceless ecological services.
If we do not blindly rush to harness the remaining natural resources and also invest in vast areas we hitherto considered unproductive, no doubt our growth as we perceive it will suffer. But however dirty the word sounds to most of us, sustainability is a reality none of us can escape. Ecological security is the most crucial aspect of national security. That arbitrary benchmark of a 9 or 11 per cent growth is a burnout formula. We have to make a choice if we instead prefer to rationalise our targets and last longer.
Even in a more realistic scenario, some extractive use of natural resources will always be necessary to keep the economy going. The benefits in such cases should first reach the host communities. Instead of merely heaping them with doles, all developmental (and conservation) projects that come up on their land with their consent should offer them an ownership stake.
It is sad enough that the poor tend to have the least say in the debate despite having the material possession of resources on the ground over which the growth and the green lobbies spar. If equity is a distant dream, they can at least be spared the fate of dispensable pawns.