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The Hindu Notes for 30th August 2018

The crackdown on civil society

With the raids and arrests, activists are being penalised for their unwavering vigilance

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the modern democratic state, armed with technologies of surveillance and control, possesses the kind of power that has never ever been exercised by any other state in history. In a democracy, the individual transits from subject to citizen. Yet there is no one more vulnerable and more helpless than our rights-bearing citizen if the, otherwise, democratic state decides to terrorise, kill and drill fear and trepidation in the mind of the body politic. The other dominant institution of our times, the market, is completely amoral. It is supremely indifferent to human suffering. It has neither sympathy nor room for citizens exploited by the state, and by its own need for resources, labour, and profit.

A vital sphere

The only sphere that stands between the individual and the omnipresent and omnipotent state is civil society. In this figurative space, individuals come together in webs of associational life. Associations have the capacity to challenge the brute power of the state through petitions, protests, dharnas and ultimately judicial activism. Given unresponsive political parties, citizens can access centres of power and privilege only through a vibrant civil society.

Civil society is, of course, a plural sphere, and all manners of associations find space for themselves here, from football clubs to reading groups to film fan societies. Each democratic association is important, but we cannot deny that civil liberty and human rights groups are an essential precondition for human well-being. Some Indian citizens were randomly and arbitrarily imprisoned during the Emergency (1975-77) and the fundamental rights of others were truncated. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the aftermath of the Emergency, the civil liberties movement made a dramatic appearance on to the scene of Indian politics. The movement which developed into, or acted in concert with, the human rights movement took on an extremely significant task, that of protecting the fundamental right to life and liberty granted by the Indian Constitution.

Every political revolution in the world has begun with the rights to life and liberty. These two rights lie at the core of other rights that have been developed and codified as critical for human beings. The two rights stretch from the right not to be tortured or killed, to the right not to be arrested and imprisoned by the lackeys of the state without due cause. The right to life is a basic right, but our lives do not mean anything if we are incarcerated for no rhyme or reason.

In the decades that followed, human rights groups have become the custodian of the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Indian Constitution. They have investigated cases of arbitrary imprisonment, custodial deaths, deadly encounters and coercion of any citizen who dares to speak up against the state or dominant groups. These organisations have carefully documented the causes and the triggers of communal and caste violence, and established an excellent archive on the abuse of power by governments. They have asked questions which few Indians have had the courage to ask. And above all, they have protected the rights of vulnerable sections of our own people, the Adivasis, the Dalits and Muslims.

Civil liberty and/or human rights activists are lawyers, academics, journalists and public minded citizens of India. What matters is their very human concern for the poor and the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the vulnerable. What matters is that civil society activists protect the moral conscience of our society. Not all civil society groups do so, some are in the sole business of getting funds from the state or others. Not all sections of the media do so, they are often cowered down by their corporate bosses, and the lure of fame and lucre. Unhappily, the majority of Indians keep quiet when their own fellow citizens are tortured by the police, stripped of access to resources and livelihoods, lynched, exploited by corporate India, and neglected by the mainstream media. Human rights activists shoulder the fight for the rights of the oppressed.

The turf wars

Their role is crucial for democracy because today we are ruled by a government that openly defies ethics and morality, that casts itself in the mould of realism, and that is supremely indifferent to the plight of millions of its citizens. We are ruled by leaders who dismiss the need for civil society because the cadres and the front organisations of its ideological backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, seek to dominate the space between the individual, the market and the state. The consequences are serious. Over 10 years ago, during UPA I, we were speaking of the right to food, to employment, to education, to information and to land. We theorised that India was moving towards a social democratic state vide civil society activism. Today there are few organisations that articulate the right not to be lynched, or who struggle for the right to life and liberty. Human rights activists are among these few organisations. They have courageously taken on the challenge posed by corporates, a ruthless state and its venal police, and the cadres of right-wing organisations that specialise in violence.

Activists have been penalised for their eternal vigilance, which, as Irish lawyer-politician John Curran said in 1790, is the price we pay for liberty. The government and right-wing organisations have pursued and terrorised human rights activists. On August 28, lawyers, poets, academics and activists known for their defence of the dispossessed were targeted by the Maharashtra police. The houses of Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde and Stan Swamy were raided, and some of them imprisoned.

The reasons for the harassment of these warriors in the cause of justice are unsubstantial and unconvincing. The police simply cannot establish that their speeches at the Elgar Parishad meeting in Pune in December 2017 incited the violence unleashed on a Dalit gathering at Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 2018. It was earlier reported that the peaceful gathering was attacked by activists belonging to two Hindu right-wing organisations: Shiv Pratishthan led by Sambhaji Bhide, and Hindu Ekta Manch led by Milind Ekbote. Mr. Ekbote, committed to Maratha/Hindu supremacy, was arrested in March 2018. Soon he was cleared by the police and the Maharashtra government. Now a completely different set of agents has been brought in and charged with urban Maoism, a term that has neither a history nor a geography. It is simply silly.

Boomerang effect?

This is the latest blow inflicted on civil society by a party that wishes to see only its own organisations dominating the space of associations. The attempt might just rebound on the party. The well-known Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, jailed by the Mussolini government in the 1920s, set out to answer a crucial question. Why had a revolution occurred in semi-feudal Tsarist Russia, and not in the Western capitalist world as predicted by Marx? He concluded that revolutions only happen when the government directly and unashamedly exercises brute power, as in Russia. They do not happen in countries which possess civil societies, for here projects of domination and resistance can be played out. Citizens just do not need to revolt. Is there a lesson our rulers need to learn from this piece of profound wisdom?

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

How not to do an environmental assessment

An urban redevelopment project must apply for approvals in an integrated manner

The “redevelopment” projects of Delhi which have been in the news are caught up in legal tangles. In these, it is the ones related to their environmental approvals that stand out. This article outlines three ways in which these projects have used the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process to subvert the right of citizens to a better environment. A case in point is the approval process for the “World Trade Centre” in Nauroji Nagar in south Delhi.

EIA reports are a critical component of India’s environmental decision-making process in that they are supposed to be a detailed study of the potential impacts of proposed projects. Based on these reports, the Environment Ministry or other relevant regulatory bodies may or may not grant approval to a project. The EIA reports are also important to define measures that the project could take in order to contain or offset project impacts. To ensure that they are an accurate account of scientific facts and observations, the law mandates the engagement of an accredited independent EIA consultant to undertake the study.

A case of no ethics

The EIA reports of the redevelopment projects are an exercise in the worst possible research practices and ethics. The consultant for the Nauroji Nagar project has used material from copyrighted papers, webpages and other EIA reports. It even mentions that the water quality study was undertaken in 2015, one year before the project was commissioned to NBCC. It cites eight water quality monitoring locations for the study which are situated in Tamil Nadu. This content can be traced back to the EIA report of Tamil Nadu Minerals Ltd. which was prepared by the same consultant. Another example is the text under “Hydrogeology of PIA District” on page 42 of the EIA report. This is a carbon copy of material from a copyrighted book (2015) titled “Management of Water, Energy and Bio-resources in the Era of Climate Change: Emerging Issues and Challenges”.

Such research practices in EIAs continue unabated because of the Environment Ministry’s failure to come down heavily on this. In the end, it is citizens who have to bear the brunt.

Gaps and errors

There are many instances of missing or misleading information which understate the potential impact of these projects. For example, the EIA’s ‘Terms of Reference’ (ToR) for Nauroji Nagar, which is essentially a commercial project, fail to mention the word “commercial”. Instead, it states that the project is for the “modernization” of government residential colonies. The NBCC’s “World Trade Centre” that is proposed to be built at this site has been called “a commercial complex” by the EIA report. The ToR requires the EIA report to include a detailed traffic impact analysis, but this is missing. The report is also oblivious to the many archaeological and cultural heritage sites that will be affected by the construction. Other examples are: A “Table 3-20: List of animal species in the study area” on page 76 lists the names of trees, while common plankton has been listed as fish species on page 81.

The EIA Notification 2006 says that “deliberate concealment and/or submission of false or misleading information or data…” can lead to a rejection of the application or cancellation of the approval. But it is unlikely that the Ministry will pursue this line against these projects as it would mean stopping the project of the more powerful Ministry of Urban Development.

No public hearings

EIA-based approvals for most projects also involve the process of conducting public hearings in order that the views and opinions of people who are likely to be affected can be taken on board before a decision to approve the project is made. In a world that is challenged by environmental degradation and social conflicts, scholars have upheld public participation to be a “threshold condition” for development.

Yet, it is disappointing that the government has generously exempted real estate projects from holding consultations. Since Delhi’s “redevelopment” projects were approved without public consultation, any problems raised now by citizens, such as those about the EIAs, will be rendered “post facto”. Nauroji Nagar has already been razed to the ground — homes, trees and all.

Citizen action and litigation has forced the project proponents and the Ministry of Urban Development to state that they will revise their plans to reduce or prevent tree felling. But this response is neither adequate nor legally acceptable. The Delhi High Court that is hearing this matter must ensure that these redevelopment projects reapply for approvals as a single integrated one, and in accordance with the law.

Manju Menon and Vidya Viswanathan are researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

A people’s campaign to rebuild Kerala

A new approach is needed that enhances the sum total of man-made, natural, human and social capital

The material loss due to the Kerala floods has been estimated at ₹26,000 crore, but beyond this there has been an immense loss of natural, human, and social capital for which no estimates are available. There is no doubt that the short-sighted attempts in building man-made capital (buildings in hilly forests, encroachments on wetlands and rivers, and stone quarries) while ignoring the attendant degradation of natural, human and social capital have played a significant role in exacerbating the problem. The immediate task in the State is relief and rehabilitation, but it is crucial to simultaneously identify the root causes of the havoc.

The root causes

These root causes prevail throughout the Western Ghats and, indeed, the rest of the country. The first is the flouting of laws that have been established to safeguard natural capital. The Shah Commission inquiring into illegal mining in Goa observes that mining beyond permissible limits has caused serious damage to water resources, agriculture and biodiversity. Second, we have been ignoring serious degradation of human capital in terms of health and employment. In the case of the Plachimada panchayat in Palakkad district, overuse and pollution of water resources by the Coca Cola factory has resulted in losses to the tune of ₹160 crore. Third, scientific knowledge and advice has been continually disregarded. In the case of the proposed Athirappilly hydroelectric project, an analysis by the River Research Centre showed that the project document had seriously overestimated the availability of water. The data examined showed that the likely power production in no way justified the costs of construction and running of the project. And fourth, there has been serious erosion of social capital. For instance, Anoop Vellolippil, a staunch anti-quarry activist engaging in a peaceful demonstration, was killed when he was pelted with stones by those allegedly employed by quarry owners at Kaiveli in Vadakara Taluk of Kozhikkode district on December 16, 2014.

The right of local communities

Therefore, it is imperative that we abandon business as usual. We cannot just focus on man-made capital; we must enhance the sum total of man-made, natural, human and social capital. The new regime that we must usher in while keeping this in mind must acknowledge that it is local communities that have a genuine stake in the health of their ecosystems and an understanding of the working of the same. The current system of protecting natural resources through negative incentives in the hands of a coercive and corrupt bureaucracy must give way to positive incentives that can be monitored in a transparent fashion by all concerned citizens. Our Western Ghats panel proposes several such incentives — for example, payment of conservation service charges for protecting important elements of biodiversity such as sacred groves (called Sarpa Kavus in Kerala), and payment towards soil carbon enrichment by switching to organic farming.

Turning over a new leaf then, the Kerala government must reassure its people that it will no longer continue the policies of development and conservation by exclusion, and that it will respect the right of local communities to decide what kind of development they want and what kind of conservation measures they would like to see put in place.

To accomplish this, the government must implement the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in letter and spirit. It must empower local bodies at the ward, gram panchayat, and town and city levels to prepare reports on the status of the environment and to decide on how a substantial portion of the budget should be spent on the basis of these reports. It must set up Biodiversity Management Committees of citizens and empower them to document the status of the local ecosystems and biodiversity resources, and regulate their use. They must be given powers to levy collection charges for access to biodiversity as well as to intellectual property relating to community knowledge. In particular, it must accord the Biodiversity Management Committees a central place in the preparation of environmental impact assessments and ensure that these assessments begin to reflect the true state of affairs instead of being the uniformly fraudulent documents that are being submitted today. It must fully implement the Forest Rights Act and empower not only tribals, but all traditional forest dwellers to control, manage and market non-timber forest produce. It must stop distortion and suppression of all environment and development-related information and begin uploading information suo moto on websites, as the Right to Information Act demands. It must initiate building a public and transparent database on environmental parameters drawing on the environment status reports, People’s Biodiversity Registers, community forest management working schemes, and environmental education projects undertaken by students.

Equipped with this information and all pertinent documents such as from the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, the Kasturirangan Committee, and the Oommen V. Oommen Committee, the State government should ask local bodies about the levels of ecological sensitivity in different parts of the landscape on the basis of topography, hydrology, land use and vegetation, regardless of ownership of the land. The local bodies should provide suggestions on appropriate management regimes for regions of different levels of sensitivity. The government should begin to proactively use modern technologies, including smartphones, in a user-friendly manner so that all the inputs from the various local bodies are transparently available to all citizens. Citizens can then assist in the task of integrating all this information and come up with appropriate conservation and development plans that are properly fine-tuned to locality- and time-specific ecological and social conditions.

A sustainable and safe future

This will be a broad-based inclusive approach to conservation and development, and will be in the spirit of the People’s Plan Campaign of the 1990s in Kerala, which was spearheaded by the State Finance Minister, Thomas Isaac. I urge Mr. Isaac to renew the spirit of the People’s Plan Campaign rather than seek to bury it. Only then can the people of Kerala rebuild nature and society and assure for themselves a sustainable and safe future. I fervently hope that the Kerala government embraces such a progressive approach, so that we will be much better equipped in the years to come to moderate, if not fully prevent, the kind of havoc that visited Kerala recently.

Madhav Gadgil is Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel

Challenges at BIMSTEC

Many of the elements that made SAARC hostage to political rivalry can re-emerge in Kathmandu

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Kathmandu this week, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend, will be another milestone for India after the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit hosted by it in 2016, as the grouping has gradually emerged as a key vehicle to take forward India’s regional, strategic and economic interests.

Stagnation of SAARC

Two major factors have driven India’s interests in the BIMSTEC forum. A key reason for India to reach out to its BIMSTEC neighbours has been the stagnation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This limited both the scope of India’s growing economic aspirations as well as the role it could play in improving regional governance.

This, however, did not stop India from revitalising the SAARC grouping when opportunities emerged. Two recent instances underscore its failed attempts. At the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, in 2014, India proposed the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement. However, this could not progress due to resistance from Pakistan. This compelled Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) to sign the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement in 2015. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Kathmandu, regional integration in South Asia would go ahead “through SAARC or outside it, among all of us or some of us,” keeping the doors open for those outside to join when they felt confortable to do so. Pakistan also opted out of the ambitious SAARC Satellite project proposed by India, leading to a change in its name to the South Asia Satellite. There is a tendency in some quarters to see India’s interests in BIMSTEC as part of its strategy to isolate Pakistan and position BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC. The above instances suggest otherwise.

The main motivation for India to push BIMSTEC is thus not Pakistan; rather, it is in the country’s interest to ensure that the region does not lag behind and that an unstable neighbourhood does not drag its growth. India’s desire to link South Asia to the economically dynamic Southeast Asia is also part of this strategy.

The rationale behind making the BIMSTEC mechanism work is to reassure South Asia that the region can work together to achieve common goals with India playing its due role.

A few challenges

There will be challenges for India from both within and outside. These will pose policy dilemmas. India is currently the largest contributor to the BIMSTEC secretariat’s budget. India’s annual contribution was ₹2 crore (or 32% of the total secretariat budget) for 2017-18. With the secretariat planning to strengthen its capacity by increasing human resources and the number of officials representing each member state, India may need to consider allocating more resources. India’s generosity would be a key test of its commitment to the subregional grouping.

Another issue would be for India to counter the impression that BIMSTEC is an India-dominated bloc, a problem that it faced for a long time in SAARC. In reality, the suspicion was mutual in SAARC — while India was wary of the smaller neighbours ‘ganging up’ against it, the smaller neighbours were worried that closer integration might lead to India’s domination.

Today, most of the smaller neighbours are more willing to engage so as to benefit from India’s economic rise. Nonetheless, for internal political reasons, the same issue may re-emerge and pose hurdles in the progress of BIMSTEC. To moderate such suspicions, India will need to show sensitivity to the concerns of smaller neighbours.

The China question

Another strategic challenge for India is that China has long desired to be part of the SAARC grouping. Some SAARC members also have their own interests in bringing China into the equation: they want it to balance India’s dominance. China has observer status in SAARC. When this was given, it only increased the demand to make China a full member of SAARC.

India will have to carefully navigate the emerging regional geopolitics, as many of the elements that made SAARC hostage to political rivalry and turned it into a defunct mechanism can re-emerge in BIMSTEC.

Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London; K. Yhome is Senior Fellow at ORF, New Delhi