Currently there is an on-going public debate on two scientific issues of importance for those concerned with the health of our environment and our democracy, namely Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers. These also relate to another matter of serious public concern: the plight of migrants in thousands on their long walk following the lockdown in March. Where did they come from? They are largely victims of rampant pollution, mining, quarrying, illegal construction, highways, railway lines, airports and sea-ports grabbing and despoiling their lands that plagues the Indian countryside. The recent EIA notification will further intensify their plight by giving full license to mining and industry to exploit the country’s natural resources and to pollute with impunity. By largely doing away with public hearings the notification also mounts an assault on our democracy.
EIAs were initiated in the country by the Janata Party government that came into power in 1977. I participated in one of the earliest of such assessments, that for Bedthi hydroelectric project in Western Ghats of Karnataka. It was conducted as a whitewash; we spent two hours at the project site, never held any consultations with people who would be affected. I was forced to sign the report reluctantly. But I decided not to leave the matter there and armed with the detailed project report I contacted local people I knew because of my ecological field studies. Working with them we organised an alternative assessment which clearly showed that the project was not even economically defendable, let alone acceptable from environmental and social perspectives. I was inspired to engage in such an assessment by KSSP’s multidisciplinary assessment of the Silent Valley hydroelectric project.
Three decades later I undertook on behalf of Goa Government’s department of Science and Technology a study of EIAs of 75 mines. The EIAs were all highly defective; they completely neglected ore transport away from mines, the presence of ST populations, the nearness of protected areas and deliberately falsified information on occurrence of hill streams.
Many activists have documented a whole range of the ongoing sabotage of the EIA process over all these years. The statistics is striking; 98% of the EIAs have been accepted despite serious deficiencies being pointed out in essentially every single one of them. Nevertheless, questions could and were being raised about such deficiencies. The 2020 notification would close the option of questioning the illegalities.
Broader public was not conscious of such pernicious practices till the 2020 notification. Quite unexpectedly, it triggered an avalanche of 17 lakh letters protesting against the notification. This sea change is the result of the information communication technology revolution that has created the smartphone. A smartphone is a powerful computer with internet access. The internet, an incredibly rich repository of information and knowledge in hundreds of languages has supported a vigorous growth of social media. The resulting enormous demand has made smartphones as cheap as Rs. 1500.
Seventy crore smartphones are being used in India today; these permit use of Indian languages and have reached even remotest villages. I was involved in a training program for young men and women nominated by gramasabhas holding community forest resource rights in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. These youth are efficiently using the smartphones, doing Google searches for information of their interest, downloading apps and using them to record their forest boundaries on Google Earth images, using free open source data input softwares such as Epicollect to collect and manage data relating to the forest resources and organizing on-line zoom-based discussions. The EIA notification was made available only in English and Hindi and seems to have reached only English-speaking middle classes. If it reaches the grass-roots victims of the notification, not 17 lakh but 17 crore messages may reach the ministry.
But engaging in one-time protests is not enough. Our rural masses are now well equipped to enter the knowledge age and should begin to record and effectively communicate the realities of environmental degradation that they experience to the broader public. The Biological Diversity Act 2002 provides an appropriate platform to do so in the form of Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers. India promulgated this act as a part of its commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) formulated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Its objectives include conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits of biodiversity. CBD emphasized importance of the pertinent knowledge and traditions of local communities and resolved that they should be given an important role in the follow up activities. I was a member of the committee that drafted the Biological Diversity Act and the committee agreed that in the spirit of the CBD our act should require the constitution of Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) in all the local bodies and that BMCs should develop People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR) for the purpose of “promoting conservation, sustainable use and documentation of biological diversity including preservation of habitats, conservation of land races, folk varieties and cultivars, domesticated stocks and breeds of animals and microorganisms and chronicling of knowledge relating to biological diversity”.
The initiatives of the Kerala Govt and KSSP beginning with the literacy mission 1986-90, panchayat level resource mapping in 1991 as a program for the neo-literates, the application of the information generated through PLRM in the panchayat level plan developed for Kalliasseri village in 1991-93, followed by People’s Planning Campaign experiment of taking the Kalliasseri model to all panchayats of the state in 1996 were for me a most instructive and inspiring. The People’s Plan aims at not only documenting the overall context for resource management but also at developing specific plans for implementing a management programme. The Biological Diversity Act expected the Biodiversity Management Committees to undertake similar broad-based management activities and not be confined to some limited documentation. Unfortunately, the spirit of the Act was vitiated by the rules that reduced PBR to a list of biodiversity elements and traditional knowledge. These rules are a perversion of the very spirit of the act and should not be accepted. Instead the Panchayats should go ahead on their own to institute BMCs as specified by the act and then organize their functioning to guide biodiversity resource management as demanded by the Act.
PBRs could be used to guide management in two kinds of contexts. All over the country, including on the Western Ghats, mines and quarries are destroying significant biodiversity habitats and elements. One such victim is the village of Kottamala in Kollam district of Kerala. In their PBR they had documented the undesirable impacts of quarrying on biodiversity habitats and elements and then used this documentation to call for banning quarrying. A Kerala High Court judgement had upheld their case in 2012. Another context is neglect of important biodiversity resources while giving environmental clearances. A case in is areas that will be affected by the Tadadi sea-port in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. For these villages oysters and other shellfish are a valuable resource worth crores of rupees every year through export hotels in Goa. In a rare instance, this has been properly documented by the Centre for ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science. This factor was completely ignored while giving EIA clearance to the port. Indeed, the value of biodiversity resources to people at the grassroots is never properly documented nor recognised in the ongoing discourses relating to Indian economy. These are matters of great concern and people should employ PBRs as a tool to bring these matters to light. People should then submit such PBRs to the government authorities and regardless of the governmental response, use the power of social media to arouse public consciousness. I very much hope that KSSP with its motto of science for social revolution would lead such an effort.