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`MoEF trying to divert attention from its inaction'

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

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Interview with Asish Kothari, technical coordinator of the report.

Ashish Kothari of the environment action group Kalpavriksh, was the coordinator of the technical and policy core group that formulated the National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan (NBSAP). He spoke to Lyla Bavadam on how the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) handled the NBSAP. Excerpts:

After you made the report public the MoEF was forced to react to it. In its response to an unstarred question raised in Parliament, the Ministry objected to the "discrepancies and inconsistencies" in the report and claimed that it was part of the reason for not releasing the report. Despite this criticism, it is believed that the Ministry has gone ahead with presenting the original report to the UNDP. Would you have any insight into this ambivalence?

This [report] has not yet been made public, but we have seen a copy. The Ministry has presented a revised version of the report to the UNDP, not our original. There are a few factual mistakes - 15 to 20 - that have been corrected (which have been corrected in our version also), a few changes made because of missing references. However, most of the changes made are in the nature of diluting our critical analysis, or the more radical recommendations that we have made, and have nothing to do with "discrepancies and inconsistencies".

The Ministry's response to the question in Parliament also mentions a long- drawn-out procedure of correcting and revising the report, at the end of which it will be a mere `input' for the draft National Action Plan. Was this the procedure you had been led to expect when the report was commissioned?

Throughout the four-year process, our mutual understanding was that after going through full consultations and peer reviews, the final report we present would be the final action plan. All previous versions of the report were in fact released under the MoEF's name as the `draft' action plan, not as a draft technical report. Each of these versions was subjected to widespread public review; a chance was given to all State governments and all relevant Government of India Ministries to comment. Our final report was based on all these inputs and also on a page-by-page reading by MoEF scientists. Why the MoEF had to repeat the process of peer review after once having gone through all this is not clear; one can only surmise that it was looking for a way to delay the final report.

I spoke to Dr. R. Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, who chaired the review committee that the MoEF has quoted as having found our report to be "scientifically invalid". He confirmed that their brief was to do an academic review, during which they found a few factual inaccuracies, some statements without references, and a few recommendations that were politically slanted which required some language modifications. By no stretch of imagination could this be used as the basis for calling it "scientifically invalid"; indeed Sukumar said that most of the report was left intact by the review team. It is clear that the MoEF is only trying to divert attention from its own foot-dragging and from criticism of its non-transparent approach over the last two years, by trying to discredit us. Its insinuations of "scientific invalidity" or of paying us the fictitious figure of Rs.3 crores, are crude. [The MoEF has alleged that Rs.3 crores was paid to Kalpavriksh by the Global Environment Facility as consultancy fees. Kothari says the organisation received Rs.20 lakhs over four years with the rest of the money going to other partners of the core group.]

What were the MoEF's real objections to the report?

The MoEF has not stated anything beyond what is in its October 5, 2005 press note and a couple of responses in Parliament. In one of these responses in 2004, the MoEF stated that our report had numerous factual inaccuracies and statements that could embarrass India in international circles. Examples given included:

"India's model of development is inherently unsustainable and destructive of biodiversity... it needs a drastic re-orientation."

"In India, a number of biodiversity elements have been subjected to impacts of inappropriate trade systems... impacts to biodiversity from trade are likely to significantly increase in the next few years, with India's acceding to the World Trade Organisation's treaties."

"India has played an inadequate role in advocating conservation and sustainable use of shared resources with neighbouring countries at South Asian fora such as SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation]"

"There has been inadequate use of international human rights treaties and fora by India to promote the cause of biodiversity and livelihood security."

Strangely enough, most of these statements remain in the report that the MoEF has given to the UNDP. The one that has been substantially changed relates to dialogue with and action by `militant' groups, which is also rather strange because the MoEF is part of a government that has an explicit policy and programme to bring such groups to the negotiating table. And this helps conservation... . In Manas Tiger Reserve, for instance, dialogue and incentives have brought the support of Bodo tribal groups, helping the ecosystem recover.

Given the above, the real reasons for `rejection' seem to lie elsewhere. There are two possible explanations. The report has an analysis of the reasons for biodiversity loss, which include a strong critique of government policies and centralised decision-making. We also have a lot of radical recommendations relating to development planning, decentralised governance, reforms in government departments dealing with biodiversity, and so on. Perhaps the MoEF is uncomfortable with some of these. I would not be surprised if this were the case, given the explicitly pro-industry slant that the MoEF has had over the last few years.

Why was it not released for two years? What were the reasons you were given for the delay?

First, we were told that it had to await the finalisation of the National Environment Policy - the supposed logic being that this policy is over-arching so other things in progress have to await its finalisation.... This ignores the fact that the NBSAP started four years before the policy process did, and if anything, the results of the NBSAP should be used in formulating the Environment Policy. And then we were told, after forcing the issue with the Minister in late 2004, that they were taking the report through another review, after which they would finalise the action plan. No further reasons or excuses [were given]... until October 5, when they `rejected' it! Even now, they are not actually releasing the final technical report that they have provided to the UNDP. One of our network members, Mahesh Pandya of Paryavaran Mitra in Gujarat, filed a Right To Information application asking for this report, and has been told that he has to pay several thousand rupees for it... when he asked for it to be provided on a CD and/or put onto the website, the MoEF refused.

The MoEF seems to be playing an old game of trying to keep donors happy and yet get away with what they themselves actually want.This seems to be the case with the Ministry flaunting the report to the UNDP but yet not implementing it. Is there no way their hand can be forced to accept the report using the same arguments that you yourself have mentioned?

We tried this through the UNDP, but they seem unwilling to take on the MoEF except through soft dialogue. We have tried this through the Prime Minister's Office. They said they could intervene but it is not clear if they have so far... We continue to try. We are also trying through the National Advisory Council, some of whose members have promised to take it up. Senior members of the Planning Commission have also been spoken to. Finally, some Members of Parliament have asked questions in the winter parliamentary session. Let us see if all this pressure helps.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 10, 2006.)

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