Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, which heralded the rise of capitalism, almost all human societies have ceased to live in harmony with their natural surroundings. Almost everywhere in the world, both advanced and backward societies started exerting huge pressure on the local environments depleting them to catastrophic levels. This is a phenomenon witnessed in different parts of the world, today. In more advanced and complex societies, limitless yearning for material comfort is taking heavy toll on environment. In relatively backward societies existential necessities and struggle for survival is degrading environment to a suicidal level. Unlimited craving for material comfort or satisfaction incompatible with the local resources or environment even drove industrialised nations to colonise backward countries as was witnessed in the 19th and early 20th century. It is needless to say that exploitation of natural resources and environment is inherent in colonialism. As such, when the imperialist forces left the native countries, what was left behind was a highly depleted and degraded environment. The tragedy may be compounded on account of the fact that the local environment was already witnessing a heavy pressure from the native populace even before the arrival of the imperialist forces.
Despite the increased dominance of human society over nature, and the rapid domestication of great tracts of the earth’s habitat, resource depletion has increased apace. By the late 20th century it was felt that an environmental tragedy was looming, and this unfortunately has become quite imminent today. With the advancement of technology and scientific knowledge about the countless utilities of earth’s resources for human comfort coupled with exponential growth of population, transformations wrought by human use of earth’s renewable and non-renewable resources has almost crossed the irreversible stage. Yet, some claim that this doomsday scenario is overplayed, that mankind has managed to resolve such problems in the past and there is no reason to believe that human ingenuity will not cope again. In this context, Yenning would go with the views of those pessimists who may well argue that it is better to be a pessimist and be proved wrong than to be an optimist and be wrong.
Capitalism: The Main Culprit
Notwithstanding the numerous global summits on the fast degrading world environment and ecology, very little has been realised in terms of arresting environmental pollution and depletion. This is largely due to the stark contradictions between the very essence and foundation of capitalism with environmental issues and concerns. In 1974, noted environmentalist DW Harvey said:
Much of the ‘rape of the earth’ to date has been undertaken either by or for the populations of ‘developed world’ countries. But with the changing world political order, the governments representing the peoples whose lands and livelihoods have been exploited in these unequal relationships argue that they should not pay the price of resource depletion and environmental destruction for which they have not been responsible and from which their populations benefited very little ("Population, Resources and the Ideology of Science," in Economic Geography).
Such conflicting positions adopted by different countries, particularly between developed and developing countries and prioritization of environmental issues on national contexts have derailed all efforts to address environmental concerns at the international level. The failure of the Kyoto Protocol is a case in point.
Under capitalism, which champions privatization and corporatization, natural resources of a country or region are often treated as private property. Private operators and corporates are given a free hand to exploit natural resources in the manner they think would be most profitable. Economic well being of a capitalist economy demands continuous exploitation of (natural) resources in order to sustain their competitive position in the world market. At present, the world economy is set and shaped by the champions of ‘open market economy’ which has spread its tentacles to every nook and corner of the world. The tragedy is no country including non-capitalist countries are free from the scourge of open market economy which is characterised by cut-throat competition and exploitation of natural resources to the point of exhaustion, undermining all environmental concerns and resulting threats to all living beings including mankind.
This does not mean that States do not have anything to do with the environmental degradation. States are very active agents of environmental pollutions and destruction at the regional and local level whose power and authority is confined within a political boundary. But in the global context, it is the capitalists and corporates whose capital/investment reaches across continents and their inherent exploitative nature has imperilled the world environment for human habitation.
State Response to Environmental Challenges
If the 1990s was known for the start of economic reforms in India marked by liberalization, privatization and globalization, then the same decade also witnessed organised and consolidated resistance against exploitation of natural resources and destruction of ecology. Hitherto notion of development model espoused and followed by the Indian State was stiffly challenged through mass struggles such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Chilka Bachao Andolan, Beej Bachao Andolan and so on.
In the backdrop of such popular struggles for preservation of natural resources, apparently acknowledging the ever-multiplying threat to environment and ecology due to multiple factors, the Government of India came up with the draft National Environment Policy (NEP) to supplement the National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan (NBSAP). Although conservation of critical environment resources is the main objective of the draft NEP, the policy is audaciously anthropocentric and development oriented. In other words, economic concerns override environment issues. A careful reading of the draft would reveal that the draft aims at sustainable human development rather than environment protection. But this is a paradox in itself as sustainable development is too far-fetched in the absence of a healthy environment in the long run. Noted environmentalist and scholar Madhuresh Kumar observed in 2005, "The draft NEP does not challenge the fundamental nature of the current model of ‘development’ even though it is now widely recognised that this model is at the heart of environmental destruction."
In addition, another worrisome aspect is the continued dilution of the notifications and rules of the Environment Protection Act 1986 and the Ministry of Forests and Environment acting as clearing agency for unsustainable and destructive projects and enterprises. Some of the dilutions include dropping public hearings in the case of Environment Impact Assessment for projects like widening of highways and mineral leases for major minerals under 25 hectares. Clearance of ‘development’ projects without adequate assessment, for example the Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh and Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project in Manipur, reluctance to insist that environmental conditionality are followed by project proponents, framing of a National Environment Policy without public participation, delay in implementation of the NBSAP, siding with the builders’ lobby, ignoring Supreme Court orders and so on. These are some of the failures of the Ministry of Forests and Environment which are defying its fundamental purpose.
Manipur: A Case of Policy Failures
Modernization minus industrial or economic growth, primitive methods of agriculture, lack of awareness and myopic state policies are the principal factors responsible for the fast depleting natural resources and the unprecedented scale of ecological imbalance in Manipur. The utter insensitivity of the Government of Manipur towards environmental concerns is proven beyond doubt by the continued practice of slash-and-burn agriculture by a sizeable section of the hill people. Despite the devastating effect on environment and ecology, the State never bothers to transfer the shifting cultivators to another source of livelihood or replace it with other income generating occupations. The Government deems unnecessary to devise a regulatory mechanism to control unchecked quarrying on river beds, hill slopes and catchment areas although this activities have noticeably aggravated cases of breaching river banks and landslides during rainy season and also siltation in Loktak Lake.
Illegal lumbering is another major cause of environmental and ecological degradation in the State. Forest and Environment Department has been tacitly or openly encouraging wanton lumbering with their eyes on some share of the booty obtained from timber trade at the cost of irreparable damage to ecology. It was only with the intervention of the Supreme Court that open timber trade was restricted (not stopped). Silence of the Forest Department, when several pine trees were cut down right in Langol reserved forest area, indicated that the department is a tacit and indirect collaborator. What is happening in the vast unreserved forest lands in the hills, far away from the eyes of the state, is anybody’s guess.
Realization dawned late. It was only this year, more precisely this month, that some din was made about environment protection in the State Assembly when the soaring temperature and drought situation pricked the conscience of our legislators. Had the State been not so myopic in their outlook, the present generation could have avoided the blame of robbing future generations off a sustainable environment. If the state had the least concern for the degrading environment, it could have made arrangements within its power to replace shifting cultivation with terraced cultivation. This could have been done decades back. By doing so environmental degradation and ecological imbalance could have been mitigated to a considerable extent. The reality is, the supportive capacity of our environment has already been stretched beyond its limits and the cost is heavy. Ukhrul is using fans! Tamenglong is sweltering! Imphal is scorched! Manipur is drought affected!
Wake up, citizens. Wake up! Let the State rest in slumber.
Posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, August 2, 2009