The year 1991 marked a major milestone for the Indian economy – a period when India opened its arms to the private sector, a giant leap forward for the country in its attempts to enhance the well being of its citizens. It is a popular discourse that increased growth (a given after liberalisation) would definitely put a strain on the environment and affect our natural resources. The battle between environment and development is an everlasting one. Adopting a Utopic Model of no growth will rupture the economy. On the other hand, renowned economists have always felt that India is too poor to be green. Economic liberalisation was seen as a holy grail to spur the country’s economy and bring millions out of chronic poverty.
The important question is, has India undergone complete liberalisation? While it is safe to say that the Indian economy is booming, have all sectors of the Indian market been opened up in its truest sense? Some sectors in India are still government controlled, bureaucratic and top-down with minimum contribution from outside actors. ‘Conservation’ is one such sector.
India is infamous for its ‘gun and guard’ approach towards conservation. Indira Gandhi the ‘Iron Lady’ of India, is remembered for the legacy that she left behind in the conservation movement in India. It was under her visionary guidance that fortress based conservation policies and legal frameworks were laid down. Her unbinding love for wildlife resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It was under the umbrella of this legislation that protected areas were formed which constitutes wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. These areas act as fortresses’ which protect the country’s rich natural heritage with minimal human intrusion and net zero development.
The conservation scenario in India, despite Ms Gandhi’s and environmentalists’ efforts, is at risk of being plundered by a Government with a single minded focus on improving the economy. Forests are diminishing with increasing amounts of land being allotted for development, resources are being plundered and functional ecosystems are destroyed.
The Fortress model in such a scenario can best be described as a utopic baseline that has limited relevance and context. Conservation in the 21st century has assumed a complex hue; there are several stakeholders who play a key role in this milieu and it is important to envisage a potential scenario that is dynamic and inclusive.
We need to explore solutions that go beyond the ‘fortress’ to achieve conservation that is relevant in today’s context. 24% of the country’s landscape is forested, while protected areas encompass only 4.89% of India’s area. A significant proportion of the forest cover outside the PA is degraded. In the past 30 years, India has lost large areas of forests to 23,716 industrial projects. It is not just loss of species that is an alarming issue, but the loss of functional ecosystems. These act as green infrastructure that is the backbone to the country’s economy. It is absolutely essential that India’s lost functional ecosystems be restored. For every habitat that has been lost, compensation must be carried out. Payments must ultimately result in the creation of lost natural capital.
Compensation schemes through natural capital restoration form the basic premise of biodiversity offsetting. India is still at the rudimentary stage of implementing such schemes. One such policy intervention in the Compensatory Afforestation Bill in 2015. According to this bill, the developer has to pay the net present value of the forest land cleared for a project in addition to the costs of afforestation of an equal area of non forest (or double the area for a patch of degraded forest). This money goes into a Government managed fund that is used for afforestation purposes. This fund in India is worth more than Rs. 40,000 crores (5.9 billion USD).
Such Biodiversity offsetting programmes has polarised the conservation community globally. The Compensatory Afforestation Bill has faced major criticism in India for improper implementation. Some conservationists construe it to be a ‘sham’ that is a one- way ticket to promote monoculture timber plantations by the government. With rapid development as the norm, which is here to stay, it is necessary to start ‘internalising our environmental externalities’. The ‘handsome kitty’ sitting in the Government fund can be used to compensate every habitat that has been lost to development projects and to restore ecosystems in sites that are degraded, mined; abandoned agricultural land that is no longer cultivatable; restore corridors connecting protected areas. Most importantly, forest communities can be mobilised for ecological restoration augmenting incomes. This fund can strengthen our green infrastructure, create jobs, and be a source of ecological, social and economic security ultimately boosting our country’s economy.
The face of the ‘Corporate Sector’ in India is undergoing a change. As per the Companies Act, 2013, corporates have to spend 2% of their profits in the preceding three years towards social causes. Corporate Social Responsibility can be used to catalyse corporate funding in ‘voluntary biodiversity offsetting’ programmes. This multi-billion dollar industry can make a huge impact with regard to building green infrastructure and brand equity.
With 1.2 billion people, the war between environment and development is still in its preliminary stages in India. Whether we like it or not, we no longer live in an era where conservation is only about maintaining pristine wilderness, which is barely 5% of India’s landmass. We need larger functioning healthy eco systems. We cannot consider ‘man’ and ‘nature’ to be separate entities. The Conservation workspace should no longer be limited to just the ‘Government’ or wildlife enthusiasts but to all stakeholders who believe in its value and significance. Will 21st century India see the onset of a diverse and dynamic array of conservation actors – Corporates, Activists, Communities, Ecologists and Government representatives working in unison to forward the Conservation cause in India?