Vulnerable India 5: Can the environment ministry lead on climate change?

By Anju Sharma

The Indian Ministry for Environment and Forests (MOEF)  has been renamedthe Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change by the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is meant to indicate the climate change will be a priority for the Modi administration, with MOEF in the lead. But is the MOEF really the best option to lead action on mitigation or adaptation in India?

I find it difficult to see how the MOEF will persuade the ministries of power, transport, urban or rural development to commit to a major policy shift towards a low-carbon pathway, above and beyond the occasional project. But to me, putting the MOEF in the driving seat on adaptation and dealing with impacts on the poor and vulnerable is even more problematic.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi created the MOEF in 1985, upgrading it from the status of Department of Environment. This was considered an important step to bring environment at par with other development concerns. Sadly, the ministry continued to follow a conservationist, top-down, anti-people and pro-industry agenda that it had inherited, based on India’s 1952 Forest Policy and 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act.

The Forest Policy declared that village communities should in no event be permitted to use forests at the cost of ‘national interest’, which was identified with defence, communications and vital industries. “The accident of village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a whole to receive the benefits of a national asset” it statedThe emphasis was on the conversion of “low” value mixed forests into “high” value plantations of commercial species like teak, and eucalyptus. Thus scientific forestry was equated with growing man-made forests, designed to meet industrial requirements, and diverse forest eco-systems were converted by into a single species ‘timber mines’. Meanwhile, local communities were alienated as community-based natural resource management arrangements such as village ponds, sacred forests, Van Panchayats, and collection of non-wood forest produce were ignored and discouraged. Existing systems of local governance, were eroded in favour of top down, centre and state-led authoritarian modes of governance.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that it has sometimes been outright war between forest officials and local communities, with forest officials accused of resorting to violence and brutality, destroying houses and crops. Economist Jean Dreze records a number of such incidents in his note on tribal evictions for the National Advisory Council (a council of distinguished professionals set up in 2004 to provide input to policy formulation). Such incidents and conflicts over natural resources have lit and fuelled the fire of naxal and maoist uprisings in many forested areas in India.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forests Rights Act, was adopted in 2006 to correct this ‘historic injustice’. However, the implementation of this Act has been lacklustre for many reasons – including interference by forest departments who see poor communities as either competition or the enemies of conservation.

Planning Commission working group report for the Twelfth Plan is scathing in its assessment of the forest and wildlife establishment’s performance. Among other things (such as deliberate manipulation of empirical information, and economically inefficient management), the report finds the management of India’s forest and wildlife has been socially unjust, resulting in grave unrest over much of the forested belt and seascapes of the country. It is deeply critical of the MoEF’s implementation of policies meant to correct the balance in favour of poor communities.

For instance, it finds that Joint Forest Management (a key programme implemented by the MOEF) has failed to spread the benefits of forestry to poor marginalized citizens who live in the vicinity of forests because poorer inhabitants have been marginalized; there is no security of tenure because community control may be taken away through an administrative decision of the forest department of the state government at any time; too much control is vested in the state forest departments to interfere in management; and there is no provision for transparent monitoring. It questions the ‘jointness’ of programme and suggests converting them to community forest management programmes.

The report also finds the forestry establishment has played a ‘notably obstructive role’ in the implementation of the 2006 Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act(PESA), which promotes local governance of forest resources. According to the report, “legal and administrative subterfuge has kept the provisions of as a set of aspirations and the agenda of self-governance remains postponed”.

With this background and history, it is difficult to see how the MOEF can lead a community-oriented response to climate change, or take the lead in what is first and foremost a process of elevating people from poverty to reduce their vulnerability to climate change. If climate change adaptation is mainly about addressing the social vulnerability of the poor, then having an institution with a proven record for being anti-poor as the ‘gatekeeper’ for addressing the impacts on the poor will prove the biggest hurdle.

The ministry’s ‘soldiers on the ground’, forest and range officers of the Indian Forest Service, are trained mostly in silviculture, soil conservation, surveying and handling weapons – hardly at all in the role of forests in poverty alleviation, or participatory and community approaches. Although a number of policies have been enacted to empower communities, they have failed in implementation, and quite a lot of this has to do with the MOEF’s perception of communities as the enemy. This perception is likely to be heightened as climate change threatens natural resources. Unless the MOEF changes to its roots and accepts poverty alleviation and a much more intersectoral approach as one of its core functions, it will result in further conflict in the future.

To get the attention of mainstream ministries and to ensure a well-rounded response to climate change, a cross-ministerial arrangement with high-level leadership (ideally from the Prime Ministers Office), is likely to be a much more effective. Climate change is a cross-sectoral issue, and and should not be sidelined as “just something the environment ministry does” (as the State Action Plans on Climate Change were, by some mainstream state departments).

Gujarat was lauded as the “first and only state” to designate a separate department on climate change when Modi was chief minister but this did not add up to very much in the end. I, for one, will not be celebrating the MOEF’s new name as a progressive step forward on climate change.

About The Author:

Anju Sharma began her career as a journalist before she went on to work in sustainable development in UNEP and Oxfam GB. She currently heads the Policy Analysis and Publications Unit of the European Capacity Building Initiative, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development and work as a consultant for the International Institute of Sustainable Development’s Reporting Services. More of her posts can be found here.