Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Be prepared for trade-offs"

Rather than facing the mirage of bringing a third of our country under forest cover, the union minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, Monday saw the need to shift the public policy mindset on maintaining the quality of forests, in the light of growing conflicts on the common property resources.
“From quantity of the forests, we need to change our focus on its quality,” the minister told a gathering of academics, practitioners, and policy makers,while inaugurating the 13th biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC) in Hyderabad. Sustaining quality forests over a certain area of land, he explained, could do the same amount of carbon sequestration than degraded forests scattered over the vast stretches of land. He said it might also reduce the potential conflicts.
The minister’s remarks are significant in the face of growing demand to open up some forest areas for the mining sector. He said the current legal regime will have to be looked into in the context of multiple pressures on the natural and common resources, and developmental and conservation imperatives.
While India argues for equitable access to sustainable living at the climate change talks, we can’t be oblivious to the skewed domestic distribution, the minister said.
The minister also disclosed that come April, the central government would be putting a 2.5% weight in the annual resource allocation as an incentive to the states managing their environment better, in what may bring environment as a subject on the planning and policy agenda. Ramesh was speaking after the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Professor Elinor Ostrom’s plenary address in which she explicitly vouched for the need to free commons from the institutional monoculture and to evolve a diversity of institutional to deal with the complexities of CPR management. She built up on the empirical studies and field data to support the notion that communities might actually manage their commons efficiently and sustainably. “When the subjects in the laboratory experiments made their decisions anonymously with no communication, they tend of over harvest, but face to face communication enables them to increase cooperation,” she said. Resources in good condition, she said, have users with long term interests, who in turn invest in monitoring of resources and building trust among themselves in polycentric approaches.
Collective action theory at the core of the social sciences and policy is the underlying part of Ostrom’s work in the areas of development economics. Access, withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation, she said, were five identified community rights in the practice.
Ramesh categorically admitted that conventional mindsets and institutional monoculture was a hurdle in management of CPRs such as forests in India. He actually saw four factors in poor implementation of policies and laws in India. “Development dynamics; institutional monoculture; split responsibilities; and old policy mindsets,” he reiterated, stood as hurdles in the way of implementation of law.
More than 700 delegates from all parts of the world and from diverse backgrounds are attending the conference – the first to be held in South East Asia – that would culminate on January 14. The theme is ‘Sustaining Commons: Sustaining our Future’. Within the broad thematic categories, the participants will be deliberating on sub-themes dealing with new and evolving commons: such digital and knowledge.
In the light of increasing conflicts among different stakeholders, the Foundation of Ecological Security (FES), the co-partners of the conference and local hosts, intend to derive pointed recommendations for the 12th plan from this conference. Commons, they expect, could be brought in the planning agenda.
Ramesh said it was time for the country to acknowledge that to sustain a nine percent growth trajectory, there would be an ecological trade off.
“In some cases you can reconcile both: growth and conservation,” he said elaborating on the complex dynamic of development that has led to conflicts over commons. “In a few cases, you can say ‘yes, but there will be conditions’, but there are cases when you have to make a clear choice, and you’ve to say no,” he said. There are occasions where trade-offs are inevitable, he said in the context of increasing conflict between the growth imperatives and conservation urgencies.
Ramesh said the institutional monoculture – and the notion that only the state could manage commons efficiently – need to be done away with. “We need multiplicity of models to manage our CPRs,” he said. That would include of the market driven models that, he said, are still an anathema to many. “CPRs do need regulations, but do they need regulators, who become a part of the problem?” The entire legal, he said, will have to be relooked to deal with the new issues in the changing contexts. Elucidating the issue of river basin management, he said, maintaining a minimum environment flow of rivers amid multiple pressures on water use is becoming a potential conflagration point in public policy debate.
Taking a relook of the current legal regime, he said, had now become necessary.
The minister said the global commons debate, particularly on the climate change, suffers from a total lack of communication between the academics and the climate negotiators. Devising sets of rules to define the equitable access to sustainable development was the biggest challenge before the academic world. “We need a diversity of solutions,” he said, “and a variety of options.”

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