‘Mountains vs Forests’ Discourse

Post  June 16 Kedarnath disaster’s heart-rending narratives and visuals have, even temporarily so, made the various Ministries of the Union Government sit up and take notice of the fast deteriorating situation, especially after Union RD Minister Jairam Ramesh proactively broached the proposal which seems to have been christened ‘Mission Punarnirman’ (Mission R e c o n s t r u c t i o n ) . Reconstruction’ essentially smacks of a technical, or a masonry kind of job — roads, public buildings, heli-pads, houses, power-transmission towers, etc., to be repaired and made functional again. Say something like the sudden crumbling of a Varunavrat in Uttarkashi in 2003, actually an  old glacial deposit ultimately surrendering to the fierce tug of the Bhagirathi current at its base, to be repaired and, period.

Is this how in India we will continue to look at our mountains, either a part of masonry-problem, or broken furniture to be repaired, or still worse a ‘tourist destination temporarily defaced’ to be restored back to its earlier state? In the UP days, it used to be a ‘summer-holiday for babalog cum official trip along Char– dham route’, which I guess is no more considered a loss, considering what has happened recently. This writer could not make a guess whether the recent visit of Union Environment & Forests Minister Jayanti Natarajan to Dehradun was actually a follow-up of this

“Mission Punarnirman” or was it also a belated realisation on the part of her Ministry, as ‘parts of Mountains’ also happen to be a responsibility of her Ministry, as per the existing Business Rules. At least that is how some of us had looked at this Ministry, so far. Maybe, suddenly in the Ministry of Environment & Forests ( MoEF ) someone woke up to the fact that it was only last December they had announced creation of a ‘Mountain Division’ in MoEF, commenced observing an ICIMOD-Day (an apology of an office of ICIMOD in India) besides anchoring an institution exclusively dedicated to work for ‘mountain environment and development’ for more than three decades or so. Lest some one reminds them of their role during such a tragedy and asks inconvenient questions in the ensuing Parliament Session about its overall contribution to mountain development, and so on.

As far as the Indian mountain states are considered they have never felt the need for making use of any institutions created by the Indian government for mountain development and the latter have also never felt any need to involve these mountain states in either deciding their priorities or a review of their on-going agenda, if there be any. This is where the ICFRE, the institutional architecture of India’s forestry sector has been thoroughly out-shadowed by its Agriculture counter-part or ICAR. CSIR, the third set up, seems farthest away, as far as  the states of the Indian Union are concerned. This colossal tragedy has drawn world-wide attention towards Uttarakhand, and continues to attract huge attention of several states because of the human tragedy, and its rather surprising to notice before this no one heard of any initiative on the part of this Ministry, which we always thought had ‘mountain development’ as a part of its responsibility. Otherwise, why should the only central institution, dedicated to mountain development, named after an eminent son of the soil, former Union Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant, should be anchored in it for last more than three decades, and its International Cooperation Division, should be looking after the only regional International Centre on Mountain Development, ICIMOD in Nepal, be controlled and looked after by it. It was, by the way, only last year that the then Union Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, also paid a visit to this very regional centre, and accepted that this Centre has a major role to play in sustainable development of Indian mountains.

Union Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan certainly owed some explanation to this state as to what is the stand point of her MoEf with regard to the development model being pursued in this country and what precisely has been the role of the Govind Ballabh Pant Institute for Himalayan and Environment and Development? It was disappointing to learn that she only dwelt on, rather repeated, various relaxations that have been announced with regard to forest clearances, when it comes to re-laying of roads, etc., and the fact that the Regional Office in Lucknow is going to be shifted to Dehradun. Essentially, for those who follow the progress of forest regulations post the celebrated Gowdaburman case and the control that the Central Committee exercises over all such matters failed to appreciate what was it that Union Forest Minister was trying to convey? It was also a sad reflection on the part of the senior bureaucrats of the state that they neither raised the issue of an enhanced role for the GB Pant Institute, and through it increased technical and other international support which could have been accessed for a score of mountain-specific problems and issues. MoEf must also be faulted for not having been able to actively involve all the 11 Indian mountain states in its sustainable development agenda. MoEF’s rather indifferent and hesitant relations with ICIMOD, of which it is a founding member along with China and Pakistan, has allowed the ‘mountain agenda’ of this country to languish and kept on a low key.

Take Lead in ushering Mountain Agenda

Chief Minister Bahuguna, or for that matter any of the 30 odd MPs coming from the mountain states, would do yeoman service, in the backdrop of this colossal tragedy while it is still fresh in this country’s psyche, to all the 11 Indian Mountain States and their 40 million people, if in his next meeting with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh the following facts could be raised and his personal intervention on each of the issues sought:

1.       Time bound action on the Recommendations made by the Task Force headed by GB Mukherji, the then Tribal Affairs Secretary, constituted on his own orders at the 54th Meeting of the National Development Council, which has been submitted as far back as in October 2010, published by the Planning Commission of India; which contains recommendations made in the past by several Working Groups, Expert Panels and Task Forces. This Report is particularly relevant as it makes an honest attempt to address a basic question, namely the type of development is needed in Indian mountain ecosystems and states; inter alia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may also try to find out why so many past recommendations were taken up seriously and their efforts were trashed and by whom ?

2.       Mountain development in India is severely fractured today. Various Ministries attempt to pull it in their respective sectors and there is now a clear ‘clash of turf’ between MoEF and Ministry of Tribal Affairs on the issues related to Forest. Progress of development in the 11 Indian states is divided between eight states of North East India, by Ministry of DONER, while natural calamity is looked at by Ministry of Home Affairs – this has led to considerable confusion, as MoEF, also anchors, GBPHIED, the only organisation for development of all mountain states, and under the Business Rules, MoEF has also been looking after regional outfits like ICIMOD, etc. Time has come when there should be a Union Ministry for all 11 Indian  states and responsible for integrated and sustainable development of all Indian Mountain States.

3.       Government of India should now come forward with a clear cut policy on sustainable development of  Indian Mountains and besides providing an administrative structure by way of a Union Ministry for Mountain development, also (i) review scores of past recommendations made during the past three decades in a time bound manner, (ii) anchor all mountain related functions in this new Union Ministry, institutions like the GBPHIED, (iii) activate and enhance international learning on climate change, glacier studies, GLOFF, etc., through ICIMOD etc, (iii) make this Union Ministry coordinate efforts of some 30 plus institutions of excellence and Universities situated in the 11 Indian Mountain States, and (iv) activate coordination and mutual learning among Indian Mountain States in a structural and periodical manner, through the Annual Meeting of these 11 Indian Mountain States.

Chief Minister Bahuguna has already been handed over a copy of this Task Force Report by this writer when he had met him a few months ago and also apprised about a loose Federation of the civil society and institutions of these 11 Indian Mountain States that has taken place. It was again in Uttarakhand that an initiative like the Indian Mountain States was convened in Nainital, inaugurated by Governor Margret Alva, in May 2011. This initiative will pave the way for a new era in mountain development in this country and whatever is the cumulative and progressive knowledge gets created in these 11 Indian Mountain States, coupled with their collaboration with the advanced European countries, many of whom are among the richest in the world today, would also be of great help for Uttarakhand and other states.

Union Minister of Water Resources Harish Rawat and MP Pradeep Tamta have participated in a few Indian Mountain Initiative (IMI) related events at New Delhi and Gangtok, Sikkim. It is time that, as Members of Parliament, they should all jointly work for this over delayed Union Ministry for Mountain Development lest these mountains are visited by graver human disasters, which seems lurking on the horizon. Indian mountain states are small, financially weak and they deserve a Union anchor, a Union Ministry to begin with, before through collective wisdom these states are enabled to find better solutions, mount better efforts for developing individual and collective resilience to deal with such disasters.

Mountains, Forests and the ‘Green Bonus’:

All this writer would like to share with the readers is that as he himself is one of the two private members of a 15 member Planning Commission Committee under the chairmanship of Planning Commission Member BK Chaturvedi, which has had so far 5 sittings since its constitution, the issue of Green Bonus for Uttarakhand will have to be decided keeping an all-India rationale or let us say formula in view. It would be noticed that Union Minister Jayanti Natarajan only endorsed her support for the idea, or the proposal of Green Bonus. The latest that this writer is aware of is that the matter has been referred to the National Institute of Public Finance & Policy (NIPFP) which is likely to come up with such a formula, called Forest Disability Index for Hill States. The BK Chaturvedi Committee in the process of its deliberations with the Hill States has been able to get a very good sense of the problems these states are facing when it comes to obtaining forest and environment clearances.

While the solutions that may come up for decision at the Union Government level, once these receive approval of the Planning Commission, and even though there may be a few ‘slips between the cup and lips’, the long term interest of the Indian Mountain States lies in batting for a strong administrative structure at the Central government level, which does not ‘miss the forest for the trees’, and also does not ‘miss the mountains in the thick of forests’. Forest and environment issues are but a sub-set of larger Mountain Issues and for far too long we have mistakenly discussed mountain issues, overly  focussing on merely forests. It is Uttarakhand which taught a mighty colonial power to what extent it should encroach upon peoples’ rights over the use of natural resources (Van Panchayats) and after independence, why exploitative collusion between foresters and forest bureaucracy will not be allowed a free hand (Chipko).

While harping on this Green Bonus, we have overlooked discussing how the eight mountain states in the North East have managed to get two broad, and much larger and durable dispensations like the Non-Lapsable Plan Outlays, and the 10% earmarking of outlays in a few critical Union Ministries, besides having a dedicated Ministry for DONER and a North East Council (NEC), to plan for regional development. While DONER and the NEC have in turn left many an issue with regard to their functional architecture and out-reach, at least they have problems and issues identified, a far better insight into their infrastructural needs and so on.

We have not moved beyond an  elusive Green Bonus demand as if it were our State anthem. This state should also make it clear to MoEf and the forest bureaucracy that is responsible for implementing the various forest regulations and legal rulings that in the ultimate analysis as a department which has near absolute control over more than 60 per cent of the total surface area of this state it is also incumbent upon them to ensure that a corresponding per centage of livelihood opportunities should also be forthcoming from them. Our forest bureaucracy will have to activate their thinking hats and come out with Flagship Programmes and Schemes, at the Centre and in the States, which create such livelihood opportunities for the forestdependent communities.

Though the manner and pace at which the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has so far been implemented in this state does not enthuse observers like this writer, but given the initiatives like the BK Chaturvedi Committee, there some hope, very tentative and remote even if these are at this stage.


R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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