Agriculture: no relation to ecology

  • 14/05/1996

Agriculture: no relation to ecology In India, the issue of food security has always been intimately involved with that of ecological degradation. In 1he late '60s and early'70s, the green revolution was introduced to increase food productivity, along with an emphasis on large dams, new seed varieties,' chemical Fertilisers and pesticides. It led to an extremely uneven picture in the distribution of agriculrural output and prosperity; states like Orissa and Bihar reeled under starvation deaths despite adequate foodstocks in the country. Kalahandi in Orissa, an agriculturally surplus district till early '60s, was reduced to a faminestruck zone. Congress(i) leader from the district, Sublias Chandra Nayak, claimed the famine was caused by massive deforestation.

The CSE's 'First Citizens'Report points out that given the nation's vast natural resources, feeding even twice the existing population should not be a major problem, provided land is utilised properly. This judgement was substantiated by a report by the ministry of agriculture (1991) which estimated that out of the total geographical area of 329 million ha, around 174 million ha (nearly 53 per cent) faced degradation.

Rajiv Gandhi's ambitious Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, which sought to take up development works directly through panchayats, had the potential to bring employment generation and ecological healing together. But in the absence of environmental priorities in the choice of projects made by panchayats, the Yojana has not had much impact in linking up food security with ecological regeneration.

Water: overexploitation
The Congress's main emphasis has always been on developing the irrigation sector through large dams. RajivGandhi's premiership sawthe intensifying of struggles against mega irrigation projects like Tehri and Narmada.

The party's emphasis on large irrigation projects has led to a neglect of developing water harvesting systems to conserve water locally, with a resultant crisis in drinking water. In the mid-'80s, a national drinking water mission programme was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi to provide water to all villages by digging more wells. According to an estimate given by Jagannath Mishra, the present minister for rural development, about 1,300,000 villages and ba5tiS (settlements) are still to he provided with drinking water.

Critics assert that nonformulation of a regulatory system for water use has led to depletion of groundwater reserves. An attempt in this direction by the Indira Gandhi government was made with the enactment of a model groundwater (control and regulation) bill in 1970, Water being a state subject, no Central law could be introduced. However, the bill was not enforced by any state Congress(i) government except Gujarat, which implemented it partially.

In L987, the Rajiv government formulated a National Water Policy which took some cognisance of the broader issues involved in water use and. management and gave primary importance to drinking water needs. But management of water in the country remains as hamstrung as ever. A 1992 bill for regulating groundwater has, however, met with the same fate as its 1970 counterpart. The mirage of decentralization
The panchayati raj system, initiated following the recommendations of the Balwantrai Mehta committee for devolving power to the people, has failed in its purpose, riddled as it is with political skullduggery and corruption. The Congress(i) leadership has often worked through the sarpanches (panchayat heads) to corner rural votes, and in return let them carry on illegal activities like tree-felling.

While the party has given more powers to panchayats through the 73rd amendment to the constitution in 1992, it has not extended these powers to control over natural resources. However, the recommendations of the Bhuria committee, one of which is that natural resource management in adivasi areqs be handed over to local communities, provide a ray of hope. Tb@ Congress(i) government has promised a speedy execution of the committee's recommendations, but nothing has been done as yet.

Karnataka: liberal devastation
Karnataka played host to three'Congeess chief ministers between 1989 and 190 14-V eerendra Patil, S BangaLi@pa and Vecrappa Moily - before power passed to the Janata Dal (113) after the 1994 polls, Labouring under a liberalisation drive, the state is witnessing a massive influx of foreign capital and mega projects.

The fragile ecology of the Western Ghats in the state is the one under direst straits. The Yellappa Reddy commission, headed by the former forest secretary of Karnataka, had opined, "Idega projects should not be built on the western coast." The Cogentrix power project (signed by Moily), to be set up in Dakshina Kannada, and Nagarjuna Steels, to be set up near Mangalore, are a few amongst man), which have already be@ome controversial on ecological grounds.

The state party leadership favours the liberalisation drive, Former chief minister Veerappa Moily is the Only MLA from Dakshina Kannada who favours setting up of Cogentrix in the district. Says Moily, "The liberalisation drive... does not mean blowing off our soil, and harming our environment, but bringing in development with environmental considerations."

Congress(i) leader H K Patil, however, strikes a different note: "Liberalisation and globalisation, although necessary, to uplift the economy, will act as curses to the environment. The only way out is to listen honestly and patiently to the advice of those who are concerned with our environment."

Apart from Cogentrix, the Kudremukh Iron and Ore Company Ltd project at Mangalore, Harihar Polyfibres at Harihar, Indal Copper Ltd at Narijanginur and a chain of distilleries near Mysore have all been targeted by crusading environmentalists. When asked about these polluting industries, Moily claimed, "Most of the industries have today adopted clean technologies. There are no major polluting industries in the state today."

Belying this claim are the operations of the Birla-owned HariharPolyfibres. in March 1994, largescale death of Fish was observed in the Tungabbadra river near HAnhar and Ranebermur, apparently due to effluents released by the company.

Mines of woes
Illegal granite and bauxite mining operations infKarnataka, claimed to have been stopped by the Congress(i), continues to take a heavy toll of the environment. Moily, however, claims, "My government curbed most of illegal mining by making changes in mining lease laws."

Rampant granite mining is one of the causes for the severe groundwater depletion problem faced by Karnataka. Outmoded methods yield More Waste than Useful Stones. With vast areas needed to dump the waste, the washoffs; from it are affecting water sources and agricultural lands. A former environment department bureaucrat, requesting anonymity, alleges that the illegal mining activities are the handiwork of underworld operators, who enjoy political patronage.

Following questions raised by 11 K Patil over the issue in mid-1995 in Parliament, an enquiry committee consisting of Congress(i) and jD members has been set up. Cynics, however, do not expect a lot from the committee, pointing out that illegal mining had continued during the regimes of both the parties.

In one fell swoop
Figures provided by the NRSA indicate only I I per cent forest cover in Karnataka. While large tracts of degraded forest lands need urgent attention, illegal felling continues. The findings of the Yellappa Reddy commission (1994) in Coorg district indicted the Moily-led Congress government by exposing the criminal-politician nexus in illegal tree felling.

The Congress party workers cite the afforestation project undertaken with aid from the Overseas Development Administration, UK, in the Western Chats (under Moily) as proof of their commitment to afforestation. But the Its 195-crore project has already become a target of controversy, sources allege, "Around 60-70 per cent of the funding is being spent on training forest officers in Europe." Activists of the Appiko movement, which rose to fame for preserving forests in 'Chipka' style, are also unhappy with the project: "The project is going for mouniculture and commercial species like teak and acacia, destroying the biodiversity of the Western Ghats. The local species of the area are ignored. Further, the local people are deprived of access to forests an which they depend for their survival."

A crisis of power
An initiative by villagers of Chikkapadjsalagi in Karnataka's Bijapur district is being put forward be environmentalists as an example to emulate, instead of lonsiructing largescale irrigation projects. With the help of Congress(i) MLA Siddu Nyarne Gowda, the villagers have succeeded in irrigating around 4,050 ha of land by building their own barrage, But Nyame Gowda has failed to influence his party to initiate micro instead of mega projects in the state.

Karnataka's power shortage is cited as an excuse by the regimes in power for going in for bigger power generation projects. Bad planning and accumulated debts of the Karnataka Nwer Corporation have contributed considerably to the crisis. No political party has initiated any action against the industries which owe the Corporation money.

People don't count
Environmentalists in Karnataka feet that "political parties' commitment to decentralisation is key to understanding their commitment to environment."

When asked about the possibility of extending the power Of Village Communities to natural resource conservation, a senior Congress leader countered, "But what is the relevance of panc@ayats to the environment issue? Villagers have been instrumental in destroying the forests. Giving the governance of forests to the local people or panchayars will lead to their further degradation. We need stricter bureacratic governance and policing. Decentralisation of powers in these matters will lead to disastrous results. The local people are not committed to environmental issues."

On their part, local people feel that political parties are not very responsive towards the environment. Environmental awareness is acquiring importance among the people of Dakshina Kannada. The Balakedayara Vedike, an NGO in Basrur laluka in the district had forwarded a questionnaire to the various political parties and candidates contesting in the district's 15 constituencies during the 1994 state assembly elections. The questions reflected the concern over the threats to the fragile ecological balances due to industrialisation in the region.

Although most environmentalists in the state are pessimistic about the political parties' commitments to clean and transparent governance, individuals in different political parties agree that close introspection by all is the need of the day. A major problem, concedes a senior Congress leader, is the corrupt political-bureaucratic system. He says, "The present anti-pollution laws are enough to check polluting industries. However, corrupt practices on the part of politicians and bureaucrats have finished the environment at the cost of local people." However, this acknowledgement of decayed political systems is not fired by a commitment to change it on the part of this leader. Instead, his assertion implies that "What can be done if the system is bad and Corrupt?"

Reported by Supriya Akerkar from Bangalore (Karnataka)

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