Popular pressure must break this unholy alliance

  • 14/06/1993

RICH INDIVIDUALS usually tend to be arrogant. So do rich institutions, such as the World Bank, which is prepared to accept, albeit after much pushing and prodding, that it may have been wrong in hindsight. But it is definitely not prepared to accept, at any given moment, that it is wrong at that time.

The bank has recently completed a review of India"s forestry sector. It takes the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) and the 1988 forest policy to task on a number of counts. Quite a bit of its criticism is well-founded. But there is no analysis in the document of the bank"s own role in shaping India"s forestry over the last decade or so. India"s national forestry policies may not have been shaped by the World Bank, but it has had a profound effect on Indian forestry because of its overwhelming financial support for such projects.

Until the 1970s, the bank funded mainly logging and projects that exploited forests. But in that decade, as understanding of the rural energy crisis grew, and with people like Barbara Ward, renowned co-author of Only One Earth, pushing the then World Bank president, Robert McNamara, to think in terms of the needs of poor rural women, the bank came up with the idea of social forestry. But it distorted its concept: Social forestry had to be a paying proposition. So social forestry became commercial forestry with its farm forestry component predominating. Rich farmers took to growing trees such as eucalyptus to earn a quick buck. And the moment the government twisted the pulp prices to their detriment, they pulled out of such plantations.

The poor got little firewood out of the exercise. And, the species planted were such there was little possibility of getting fodder. Yet in the project documents the programme had been justified after calculating the beneficial impact that increased availability of dung will have on soil fertility. The community woodlot component of the social forestry projects was a uniform failure everywhere.

When the bank entered social forestry, it had no clue about common property management or people"s participation. But now that it has educated itself with the help of newfound Third World wisdom, it believes it has another set of answers.

The new strategy of the bank has three elements: comprehensive intervention; privatisation, and, people"s participation. The first element is something all institutions want because it means greater control. Privatisation is the heart and soul of the bank. People"s participation is an agenda that has been thrust upon it by popular pressure and criticism.

The bank, ultimately, cannot be a problem if the sovereign state of India were not to support its objectives. What are the objectives and priorities of the MEF? The ministry is tight for money. Investments for forestry have not grown and foreign funding, especially from the World Bank, is therefore now considered critical. The ministry will therefore welcome comprehensive or, as it is called, sector-wide funding.

But part of the reason why money is short for forestry is only because of the inability of the forest department to respond to changing times. A substantial amount of money used to come for afforestation from the rural employment programmes. But once the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana was formed and village heads, namely sarpanches, began to set priorities, this money dried up.

Why should this be so if what environmentalists say -- that ecological regeneration is critical for the regeneration of the rural economy -- is true? One reason is the forest department does not yet see itself as an extension agency; it clings to its old territorial attitudes.

Why can"t forest officials go to villages and promote trees and grasses like their agricultural counterparts? Instead, all advice for reforming the forest service has fallen on deaf ears as far as the political-bureaucratic structures are concerned. Hence the desperation for World Bank funds for forestry to continue as before.

The MEF"s key interest is preservation of the powers of its bureaucracy. In this case, that bureaucracy is the forest department. People"s participation is another key area of interest, but secondary to the earlier objective and, like the World Bank, one that has been acquired because of popular pressure and criticism.

There is, thus, opportunity for both conflict and collaboration between the MEF and the World Bank on forest management. How will this collaboration take place and how will the conflict be dealt with? Privatisation is an area of conflict between the two agencies, but as it is the heart and soul of the World Bank, it cannot give it up. The bank is backing powerful economic and political interests in India, which will exert their own pressure against which the MEF bureaucracy is only too likely to yield. Already, there are several moves to let paper companies take up industrial plantations in public lands despite opposition from NGOs and the public.

But what about people"s participation? This is not a primary objective of either agency. True people"s participation -- read as people"s control and management -- threatens the MEF"s key objective: of retaining its bureaucracy"s control over resources. So it is here that the bank has to yield. But as it has to put up a face against global environmental pressure, it will demand something in return. And that something will be a soft strategy of people"s participation that will allow the forest department to remain in control.

Indeed, such a soft strategy for people"s participation has been promoted by the MEF and the World Bank over the last five to six years under the name of joint forest management (JFM). Sounds nice, but in reality, JFM is merely a sharecropping arrangement scheme between the capitalist bureaucracy and the labouring poor under which the villagers put in all the effort to protect their neighbouring forests and regenerate those lands, but it is not in their power to decide what trees to plant, and when or whether to cut.

JFM comes nowhere near the power and control shown by indigenous models developed by people like Vilas Salunke of Pani Panchayat, P R Mishra of the Sukhomajri project, Chandi Prasad Bhatt of Chipko and Anna Hazare of Ralegan Siddhi. But neither the World Bank nor the MEF have shown the willingness to learn from these models and fashion their own policies accordingly. The result: a cheap charade of people"s participation.

Unfortunately, this charade is not very cheap for the country, its people or its ecology. The 1980s were lost in following the World Bank"s social forestry/farm forestry precepts. Only now when everyone has understand the folly of those precepts has the World Bank hit India with a new set of precepts whose folly will perhaps be realised only by the end of the 1990s. And as in the last decade, the forest bureaucracy and the World Bank will work together to deny anything is wrong with their current approach. The trouble with a rich institution"s arrogance is it is accompanied by a lot of power and money, which is what makes it dangerous.

The only answer to this unholy combine lies in popular pressure.