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NGOs, activism and economic development
I must admit to being a great admirer of Arundhati Roy. I was so taken in by her article on `the Bomb’ that I almost agreed with her. Time and again I’ve looked for an issue where I too could declare myself `A republic of one with my bell phone in my hand’. (Unfortunately, I don’t own a cell phone). Then after the republic came the `rally for the valley’ and the Gujarat government was besieged. The catchy slogan was lapped up by the media. Damn the dam, Arundhati was here to stay.
In a more glamourous way, Arundhati (and Medha, etc.) now constitutes an important organ of the society, the NGOs, part of the so called `civil society’ (are the rest of the society uncivil by implication?). Today, many of my students are happy to work in NGOs some of which offer attractive salaries. And many of the NGOs have the best scientific minds in their midst.
There is no doubt that the growth of NGOs has been largely an outcome of the world-wide environmental concerns of the last two decades. With environment being a public good, it was not going to be easy for governments to bring in legislation which would imply high adjustment costs to existing industry. In addition, the ultimate beneficiaries of environmental legislation (current and future generations) were too dispersed to be able to act in concert (economists call this the `free rider’ problem). The NGOs came in to fill the void. In India, too, it was the crusade of these NGOs that pressurised the government to bring in legislation on forests, air pollution, water pollution, etc.
Yet the effects of environmental legislation in developed and developing countries cannot be symmetric. Environmental controls also imply costs which the richer countries have been able to absorb easily. Consider some of the recent legislation in India. In 1996 the Supreme Court banned tree felling all over India. The impact was particularly severe on the North East which derived a large part of their income from timber. In some work for a Delhi based NGO, Association for Environment and Development Research, this author visited some of the north eastern states. In Meghalaya one heard of prosperous housewives who had become domestic maids in the absence of wood based employment. In Nagaland, the continued practice of jhum cultivation ensures that vast tracts of land will be periodically torched. What is not commonly known is that 70 per cent of the total demand for timber is firewood demand from poorer households in rural and urban areas. In the absence of alternative sources of fuel, the hill people will continue to steal firewood, legislation or no legislation. Similarly, till the Naga villager is convinced that terrace cultivation can increase productivity, jhum cultivation will continue.
Consider air pollution. Environmental NGOs successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to ban sale of vehicles violating Euro II emission norms from next year. But this is to apply only to Delhi as if pollution is geographically separable. Like water, air pollution also finds its own level and, if the surrounding areas continue to spew fumes, the legislation will be ineffective.
In a recent TV face off, one of the NBA activists was pointedly asked for an alternative source of water. She suggested energising new tube wells! This after experts have been warning us for the last 10 years that it is indiscriminate sinking of tubewells that have led to the alarmingly low levels of ground water.
Similarly, the great environmental hope, Ms Maneka Gandhi, made such good media copy as an animal activist that some misguided people ran off with the monkeys from a national laboratory creating a serious setback to decades of research. For heavens sake, why can’t we leave science to the scientists? Isn’t our R&D effort weak enough without interference from untrained environmentalists?
The media must also take the blame. While largely ignoring the good work that many NGOs have been conducting in the backwaters, they have idealised a few celebrities none of whom has any scientific training to speak of.