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No wasteland in India, only wasted land: Jairam Ramesh

Sowmini G Prasad

Jairam Ramesh speaking on the New Draft National Forest Policy and the Deteriorating State of Environment in India in Bengaluru on 13th April, 2018.

Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)

Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) (independent charge), spoke on the new draft forest policy and the deteriorating state of environment in India in an interaction organised by the Environmental Support Group and Actionaid Association (Bangalore). The interaction, a question and answer session, covered a wide range of issues. However, this blog post focuses mostly on the discussions held around the new draft National Forest Policy, 2018 (NFP), the Forest Rights Act, 2006, (FRA) and the importance of institutions like the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and Parliamentary Standing Committees.

On the new draft NFP, Mr. Ramesh was of the view that while there are certain elements of continuity from previous policies, there are certain significant departures as well. The new draft NFP, uploaded by the MoEFCC for public comments in March 2018, has been criticised for its attempt to shift the approach to forestry in India – specifically, from a local community and ecology-centric approach emphasised in the 1988 policy – to one on timber and forest-based industries (The Wire 2018). While the requirement to maintain one-third forest cover in the country as per NFP, 1952 continued into the NFP, 1988, it has received additional focus in the new policy as forests have been recognised to act as huge carbon sinks. However, he did admit that the policy gives an idea of the government’s thinking on forests and environment, as the departure from the previous policies can viewed to be geared towards a business led GDP growth. The thrust on forestry in the new policy can be seen to be driven by two forces – one, to meet the COP21 commitment on increasing the carbon sink through a faster rate of increase in forest cover and two, with around 40 percent of India’s forest cover considered to be degraded, it opens up an opportunity for participation of private sector, satisfying its long standing demand to create captive plantations for wood-based industries. On the issue of grassland ecosystem not finding place in the current policy like the previous policies, he admitted that the progressive loss of grasslands is a great tragedy and attributed it to the spread of agriculture and irrigation. He also pointed to how for many years grasslands have been considered as wasteland and that in reality there no wastelands in India, but only wasted land. Addressing apprehensions on the potential of the policy to change or water-down existing legislations in the long term, by changing the definitions of forest areas which are protected under current legislations for example, he pointed to how the government cannot meddle with the definitions too much and that the forests were a state subject.

On FRA and its objectives, Mr. Ramesh spoke about how the legislation is an important instrument which can aid in redressing historical injustices meted out to the forest dwelling communities and how it can be used to deliver justice in the future as well. The objective of FRA is to recognise both individual and community forest rights. While around 14 lakh families have received individual rights, he mentioned how there has been a failure to recognise community forest rights. He pointed to the existence of a fear, especially in the forest department, that granting community forest rights might lead to a sudden empowerment of community-based institutions like the gram sabhas. He quoted the transfer of rights over revenue from such forest land from the forest department to the gram sabhas arising from a situation of recognition of community forest rights as an example of the source of such fears. However, he stressed on the importance of having gram sabhas as the pivotal point of community rights. He gave the examples of Jamaguda village in Orissa and Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra where community forest rights have been successfully recognized to emphasise that not all hope was lost. On the arguments that the FRA is in conflict with the need for maintaining sacrosanct spaces for wildlife, Mr. Ramesh highlighted the importance of the legislation and the need for a consultative process. He also added that any project in a forest area cannot be cleared unless the rights have been settled, pointing to the fact that on account of this requirement, many mining and coal projects had to go through a due diligence process. He emphasised that the key is to recognise due rights of the forest dwelling communities, make them partners in regeneration and conservation of forests, and where necessary, provide them with viable and attractive options to relocate.

The third issue that Mr. Ramesh stressed on was the role of institutions like the National Green Tribunal and the Parliamentary Standing Committees. On NGT, he spoke about the importance of ensuring its independence and maintaining its control outside the reach of the government. He spoke about this in the context of the provisions contained in Finance Bill, 2017 which sought to give the power to appoint NGT members to a government appointed nominee, while the NGT rules provide for such appointments to be made by a committee headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge (The Hindu 2017). He added that NGT is a people’s institution and that it has brought environment related grievance redressal closer to people through its dispute settlement mechanism. He also stressed the importance of having forums where elected representative come to the people to hear their voices. In this context, he spoke about how the standing committee of the environmental ministry can play a significant role through its powers to review policies and call for evidences, including the suo-motu power to call for a review.

Finally, on the difficulties that the environment ministry faces in carrying out its tasks, he spoke about the importance of balance in decisions relating to environmental conservation and how economic growth cannot be dismissed. While India has good policies and legislations, he pointed to weak and sometimes missing enforcement and the need for people holding political power to walk the talk on environmental decisions.

References

Agarwal, Sushant. 2018. National Forest Policy Draft 2018 Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The Wire. 02 April 2018 (https://thewire.in/environment/national-forest-policy-draft-2018-takes-one-step-forward-two-steps-back). 

Rajagopal, Krishnadas. 2017.Govt.’s response sought on Jairam’s plea over Finance Act. The Hindu. 04 August 2017 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/govts-response-sought-on-jairams-plea-over-finance-act/article19429207.ece). 

(Sowmini G Prasad is a 2017-19 participant of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. She can be reached at sowminigprasad@nls.ac.in)


Image source – http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/land-acquisition-act-will-help-tribals-and-farmers-jairam-ramesh/article5182406.ece

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan: Road to Reform

Sumit Jain was part of the University contingent that visited Bhim, Rajasthan in October 2017 to work with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan as part of the field work component of the Master of Public Policy course. He reflects on the concerns with the social security mechanisms in the country.

Flaws in the PDS

Government of India operates Public Distribution System (PDS) in synchrony with state governments in order to provide food security to the people of India. Making Aadhaar mandatory or availing subsidized ration has augmented corruption even further. Point of Sale (POS) machines at fair price shops (FPS) have started failing terribly. Though the government claims the biometric machines will help in eliminating corruption, the exact opposite scenario has taken place on ground. While previously the dealer was apprehensive of getting caught in case an investigation took place, now he/she can conveniently deny ration to a family under the garb of the POS machine not recognizing his or her fingerprint (there exists a parallel mechanism where the dealer can still provide a family with ration, if his/her fingerprint failed to match). In a FPS in Sangarwas panchayat of Beawar, the Sarpanch was openly defending the dealer who had denied ration to a family for last five months. When we tried to contact the panchayat sahayak regarding the same, he was dismissive of villagers and blamed them for their condition. Sarpanch, babu, dealer and Aadhaar –these entities which were entrusted upon to make the system work – have become the very reason for its failing.

Loopholes in MNREGA

Source: Author, data from Wikipedia.

While the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) looks good on paper, situation on ground is appalling. Bureaucracy has found ways to block the implementation of this scheme at various junctures. For example, construction sites tend to deploy a large number of NREGA workers. Given the kind of work, labourers are expected to work in a group of five. The Government servants take advantage of this loophole by denying work to people who approach them in the individual capacity. If that was countered by any chance, the payment of the wage is done on the basis of task and not on the number of hours worked. This has again led to a peculiar condition where the officer present at the construction site would find some or the other fault in the work done and deduct the already meagre wage. This has led to massive frustration among the workers who are willing to work hard but even then not given their own share of the wage.

National Social Assistance Scheme and its impact

Pension amounts in various states are mentioned below –

Source: Author, data from Wikipedia.

For a lot of families who have no one to support them, this pension is the only source of income. However, all is not green in such schemes as well. Take the case of old age pension scheme, a person is entitled to increased pension of 750/- INR (previously 500/- INR) as he/she attains the age of 65. But due to lack of awareness, people involved in disbursing and delivering the pension try to pocket that extra 250/- INR. We found a lot of cases where people had attained the age of 74-75 and were still receiving 500/- INR as pension.

Talk with Aruna Roy

The NLS group of interns also got an opportunity to interact with MKSS pioneer Ms. Aruna Roy. Through her conversation she shed light on her experience in civil services and the rampant corruption in the bureaucracy. Service rules are framed in such a manner that only conformists can survive. Any attempt to reform the system is not taken well by the political establishment and every attempt is made to nullify that step.

She also discussed various aspects of public policy, her stint as a ‘professor of practice’ at McGill University, Canada and how the domain is evolving in various parts of the world. She paid focus on how the civil society plays an important role in the Indian context keeping the democratic values alive and acts as a pressure group on the government. She also laid emphasis on the importance of protests and described taking part in them as imperative for policy students.

NLS interns with Aruna Roy

As mentioned at various places in the report, it is the information gap and lack of awareness which is the root of all problems. While the government legislation has empowered the people with legal rights, the ones who are empowered are unaware of it. It also seems that government has intentionally left this information gap so that they can alter the public opinion as and when required. It is this information gap which the civil society needs to fill. One way to go through this is by organizing meetings and taking the public in confidence. MKSS is doing a great job in this manner and more such groups should come up. Another possible way to curb this problem is by providing consultancy to the government in such a manner that they see their benefit in informing people about their rights. How that would be done in a convincing manner is something all of us have to find out.

(Sumit Jain is a participant of the 2017-19 batch of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. He can be reached sumitjain@nls.ac.in)

Melghat: From Crisis to Cure

Nissy Solomon was a part of the group that visited Melghat, Maharashtra in the month of October, 2017 to work with KHOJ in pursuance of the field work component of the Master of Public Policy programme. She highlights the issue of malnutrition and its impact in the region based on her interactions with the local community and other stakeholders.

Students meeting community leaders at Payvihir village, Melghat, Maharashtra.

In the southern offshoot of Satpura hills, nestled amidst forested mountains is situated the region of Melghat. While it is known for its pristine mountains, it has also been infamous for a high number of deaths due to malnutrition. The severity of it has been under the scanner since 1993, following a Public Interest Litigation filed by activist Sheela Barse in the Bombay High Court. Despite steps undertaken by the government and initiatives by voluntary organisations, the problem of malnutrition continues to persist.

The sustainable development goals that aim to end poverty by 2030 highlight the element of nutrition being central to holistic development. Concerns of nutrition arise not just from sufficient dietary intake but from a host of interconnected processes like education, health care, employment, sanitation, connectivity, and more. In other words, there exists a complex interplay of factors which is poorly understood. In the context of Melghat, a detailed study exhibits that malnutrition is multifaceted and it is both a cause and an outcome of other problems plaguing the region.

According to official government figures, child mortality in two blocks of Melghat – Chikhaldara and Dharni – was 206 in 2016 and maternal mortality was 7 in the year 2016 which shot up to 15 in 2017. On an average, every year 400-500 children between age 0-6 die in this region. The reasons are multi-causal and intricately connected. Eighty-four per cent of women in this region suffer from anaemia, the cause of which is nutritional deficiency. Lower haemoglobin weakens women’s ability to survive child birth.  Surviving a high risk pregnancy causes greater risk to child’s health.

Maternal mortality and child deaths due to malnutrition are a result of systemic failures. Factors like limited Public Health Centres (PHCs), dearth of paediatricians and gynaecologists, high unemployment, poor infrastructure and connectivity, reliance on traditional medicines, and lack of awareness among the tribal population contribute to this failure.  For instance, at Chunkadi village, a remote village in Chikhaldara, there was no PHC functioning. Absenteeism of medical practitioners is common to most villages in Melghat. Complicated cases do not get due attention as a result of which maternal and child health deteriorates. This appalling situation is representative of what confronts the region.

In response to the humanitarian crisis in Melghat, many civil society organisations emerged to maintain and build strong capacities aimed at assuaging the plight of the people. Advocate Bandu Sane, director of one such organisation KHOJ, asserts that there has been a long term presence of government and civil society organisations, each working in their own capacity to improve and mobilise resources for action. However, lack of coordination among the institutional actors has been impeding the desired progress in the region.

When considerable attention was drawn to this region, the state government appointed committees and initiated schemes to fight the issue of malnutrition. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were set up, each with their strategies for the region’s development. Currently, there are over 300 registered NGOs operational in 320 villages. Despite their presence, the problem of malnutrition continues to grip Melghat. This is reflective of a lack of synthesis among the institutional actors.

Understanding the importance of collaborative efforts, KHOJ organised a convergence workshop on October 28, 2017 where prominent stakeholders took part to collectively envision a better future for the tribal population in Melghat.

Convergence Meeting held on October 28th, 2017 in Amravati, Maharashtra.

Given the interrelationships among the range of causal factors underlying malnutrition, efforts to address these problems from individual capacities have resulted in limited success. In order to achieve these strategies of development, a coordinated action that encourages dialogue among institutional actors is imperative to avoid policy discrepancies. Part of the solution in managing complex problems includes successfully partnering across permeable boundaries and engaging citizens and stakeholders in policy making.

At a point when considerable effort has been invested in this area, the time has come to examine whether convergence could be an effective means of governance, since the future demands a collective rethinking of common issues.

(Nissy Solomon is a 2017-19 participant of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. She can be reached at nissysolomon@nls.ac.in)

Lecture on Labour Bondage in India by Professor Jan Breman

Apoorva S and Srilakshmi Nambiar

Jan Breman delivering his lecture at NLSIU.

Professor Jan Breman, an eminent Dutch Sociology Professor delivered a lecture on ‘Labour Bondage in India – the Sustained State of Denial’ at National Law School of India University on 12th August, 2017.

He started the lecture by saying that there is a global crisis for mankind at large. Since 1991, India is experiencing jobless growth, where the informal sector is absorbing about ninety percent of the population. Dr Breman narrated the experiences from his field work in Ahmedabad in 1962, which has lasted over five decades. The findings are presented in his book ‘On Pauperism in Present and Past’. He stressed that whatever progress the people at the bottom of the society have made, is a result of the democratic institutions and egalitarian vision of the Constitution which India held at the time of Independence.

The Rule of Law has not been observed in the society due to the capitalist path of development in recent times. He strongly says that it is used to abuse labour, which is an outcome of inequality. The abandonment of development paradigm to growth paradigm is unsustainable leading to a starker inequality than ever before. The promise of ‘Garibi Hatao’ and equality has not been kept up and social benefits such as Public Distribution System often do not reach targeted beneficiaries.

Talking about Gujarat, Dr Breman argued that the Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) in Gujarat are fenced off from the public. It is easier for SEZ’s to not follow rules, and exploit the rights of labourers. He is critical of a society in which the privileged middle classes and higher classes benefit from this mode of production. The idea of sharing the fruits of economic growth amongst everyone is absent. He added that the scarcity of employment is worldwide; however, it is graver in India than the Global North. This is rooted in India’s history of colonial exploitation which has made the economy more agrarian than ever before.  

According to Dr Breman, agrarian crisis is more encompassing than death. Landowners are no longer interested in agriculture and labour desperately wants to get out of it because of low remuneration. This explains a spurt in informal sector employment, where unskilled labourers face exploitation and low wages. Dr Breman spoke about the phenomena of footloose labor and the dangerous tendency of predatory capitalism in India. He explains that India has two types of migration, one which is migrating to countries like USA and Europe, for secure jobs. The other migrating to the Middle East from Kerala, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, the nature of whose employment is informal and contractual. Further, the change in technology in India causing accelerated mechanisation and robotisation has replaced labor by capital in a rapid way. This has lead to more casual employment with low security and dignity of labor.

Indicating how the the present political regime has totally commodified labor, Dr Breman says the development paradigm in India has failed.

(Apoorva and Srilakshmi are participants of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. They can be reached at apoorvas@nls.ac.in and srilakshminambiar@nls.ac.in respectively)

Autological | Deepa K S

deepa_kylasam_iyer

Deepa K S has been a student of the Masters of Public Policy programme at NLSIU, 2014-16 and is also one of the co-founders of Lokniti. In the capacity of an outgoing editor, she offers some perspective on the inception of the blog, along with its potential as a policy forum.  

Autological is a borrowed title from one of my favourite poets. Like most borrowed things, it gets things going in interesting ways and serves the purpose more than originally intended. I do believe it is better than ‘autobiographical’, at least in the case of Lokniti that began as a journey committed to finding nemos, dorys and other voices that mattered. This is not to sound glib, but the first group of students who signed up to be part of Masters of Public Policy at National Law School had to do two things at once – they had to find both intellectual spaces for themselves and make it as meaningful as it was diverse and they had to announce to the world that they were a distinct species of scholars who could work deliberately different because they were trained to do so. There will be other meanings and other contexts for Lokniti in the coming years, but these were the very first ideas and ideals that shaped the space and lent it whatever voice it has today.

It was born thus on a December morning squeezed in a small tea break, its arrival noiselessly announced through the click of a button. In the first year classroom, when a slide show opened to empty space, we had the joy of having that created space entirely for ourselves. The best thing I remember about working for Lokniti was that it worked on borrowed time and effort always. Like its birth, its form and shape was carved out of talented students chipping away at their assignments and finding some miraculous time to caress the blog as they went, teachers who came with tight schedules from all over the world but generously offering thought bytes to short interviews, and more and more students drawing, designing, writing, thinking and shooting videos to keep this space alive and well. It was teamwork and idealism that gave birth to the blog like all other student-led ventures we had in class.

Anyone who wrote for the blog wrote passionately about what they had seen and inferred from the ground that could shape public policy, laws and vision of this country. I believe it was the confidence that what they thought mattered and consequently what they wrote could influence the world around, that encouraged contributors to keep coming back with work to the blog. And yet to everyone who has been involved, it was primarily a space for friendship and easy comradeship as well as a democratic space to respectfully argue and build a world of ideas. For both this freedoms-freedom to live together and disagree- the cornerstone of every macro institutional setting we will inhabit in future, we are grateful. About the implications of the work presented and the tenderness of labour that nurtured it, we are thankful.

Adios!