(2014-09-26)On Tuesday, India’s minister for environment, forests, and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, scoffed at the idea of the country reducing emissions to counter climate change. He held the US chiefly responsible for the climate crisis, and therefore it had to bear the responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That has been India’s position on climate change at international negotiations for a while.
Developed nations have polluted the atmosphere and brought the planet to the crisis it faces today. The developing world, lagging behind in industrial development, did little to create the situation. But China is now the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and India is fast catching up as its economy grows.
On the strength of future emissions, the west wants these countries to commit to reducing their impact on climate change. To do so, developing nations want transfer of costly new green technology at low or no costs and compensation from developed nations for reducing their emissions. This is where past climate conferences have remained stuck, with each side entrenched in its position.
At the UN climate change summit in New York on Tuesday, Javadekar is reported to have said: “The moral principle of historic responsibility [those countries which have historically emitted the most] cannot be washed away.”
But while he champions historic responsibility abroad, he’s an instrument of eroding historic justice at home.
India legislated the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, a law that granted state protection to wildlife. But it criminalised many communities living in wildlife areas. Unlike the west, India’s forests are not people-free wildlife havens.
Conservationists and the country’s forest department regarded the presence of marginsalised people – mostly adivasis (tribal communities who have been living in the forests for centuries) – as a blight. They were, and still are, looked up on as people who degraded forests by cutting trees for firewood, clearing land for tilling and hunting wildlife for the pot. They received little support from the government. Some got paltry compensation to give up their traditional lands and settle outside forests.
Much of India was cleared of forests and its wildlife over centuries, some conservationists living in cities had no qualms seeking the eviction of people from forests. They argued that since only 5% of the country’s land area was set aside for wildlife, it should be free of human disturbance. In short, the indigenous people of India’s forests had to bear the cost of conservation, even though most of the country had been denuded of its forests by others.
In 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers Act (popularly called Forest Rights Act) came into force with stipulations for compensation against resettlement. Should any company wish to set up an industry or mine in tribal lands, it had to first seek the consent of forest-dwelling communities. This law sets right historic wrongs suffered by tribals. It also gives them a say in state’s plans that impact their lands and lives.
Although the act is enacted by the parliament, many states haven’t implemented it. Now Narendra Modi’s pro-development government is seeking to do away with the right of forest dwellers to veto industries coming into their neck of the woods.
Earlier this month, Javadekar stated the government would amend the act so it would not be mandatory any more to seek forest people’s consent. So much for historic justice.
In New York, however, he declared India will take action against climate change voluntarily and not at the behest of any other country. Yet at home, if a forest-destroying mine or a carbon-polluting coal plant chooses to plonk down on forest land, local people won’t have a choice.
The question at the heart of both issues is: who bears the cost of arresting climate change and conserving forests?
On the international stage, India argues beneficiaries of past pollution have to bear the responsibility of mitigating climate change. But at home, it shows its hypocrisy by insisting that historically disenfranchised forest dwelling citizens bear the cost of conservation and development.