Dark side of the boom: Indian growth costs the poor and environment dear

News, 22 January 2007
An Indian law intended to promote economic development is causing environmental damage and harming the livelihoods of some of the nation's poorest people, so it should be repealed or greatly revised.

This is among the conclusions of a report released today (22 January) by IIED and Winrock International India ahead of a major international conference in New Delhi on the role of natural resources in sustainable development.

The report was compiled on the basis of a workshop in New Delhi attended by more than 70 participants including members of India's Parliament, State Biodiversity Boards and Planning Commission, nongovernmental organisations, local communities, research institutes and international donors.

It calls on the Indian government to implement policies to protect the environment and local livelihoods, to repeal or significantly alter laws that promote unsustainable development, and to ensure that poor people have a greater say in how the environmental resources they depend upon are managed.

Participants at the workshop highlighted the way that Special Economic Zones — which are treated as foreign territory in order make exports easier — are exempt not only from taxes but also from stringent environmental and labour regulations.

While an environmental impact assessment is required before an SEZ can be demarcated, a public hearing and disclosure of the intended land use are not needed. The Special Economic Zones Act (2005) is also silent on land acquisition, despite the need to displace people to set an SEZ up.

"The result is that SEZs are spreading on agricultural land, coastal fishing areas, and even conservation zones such as mangrove forests," says IIED's Krystyna Swiderska. "Land and common property resources such as forests are being acquired on a large-scale, resulting in a loss of biodiversity and loss of livelihoods for the poorest people."

The workshop participants recommended that: "The SEZ Act should be repealed, or considerably revised with local people's active involvement, in order to stem the deepening rural poverty and environmental degradation across Indian and provide real avenues for affected local people to give their consent."

Other issues covered in the workshop report include the weakening of environmental regulations such as EIA, poor implementation of existing laws and policies on environment and biodiversity, a lack of transparency and accountability in environmental governance, and a lack of community participation in decision-making.

"The government has still not adopted the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan - which was finalised 3 years ago through a highly participatory process," says Swiderska. "This means that India's rich biodiversity and the livelihoods that depend on it are at serious risk from the industrialisation process."

The report also highlights the way that protected areas have diminished the traditional rights of poor and landless people to sustainably use natural resources such as non-timber forest products.

It calls for local people's customary rights to be recognised and reinstated in national parks and sanctuaries. "Where rights are curtailed, adequate compensation must be provided — for example, a share in tourist revenues or employment as tourist guides," says the report.

The report points out that the National Biodiversity Act mandates the government to protect traditional knowledge but the rules do not reaffirm this. "Local registers of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge are being created,"says Swiderska. "But the absence of any community rights over traditional knowledge will open the door to outsiders exploiting this information for commercial gain."

The workshop participants were critical of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests – saying it appears to have a pro-industry stance rather than seeking to safeguard the environment and associated livelihoods.

They called on the ministry to push for the immediate adoption of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and for India to mandate the legal protection of traditional knowledge and ensure that local communities can take part in decisions relating to access to their knowledge and natural resources.

On 22-24 January, hundreds of delegates will gather for the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, whose theme is 'Meeting the Millennium Development Goals – exploring the natural resource dimensions'. Government ministers, industrialists, NGOs and others from around the world will hear presentations on issues including energy, climate change, water resources, African development, and the sustainable use of natural resources. The meeting is expected to result in comprehensive contributions to the sustainable development agenda.

"India's rural poor, and the environmental resources they depend on, are paying the price of India's rapid industrialisation," says NC Saxena, of India's National Advisory Council. "Poverty and unemployment have been rising in recent years despite India’s impressive economic growth. The result will be a rich country full of poor people and a degraded environment."

Notes to editors

The meeting from which the report’s conclusions and recommendations are drawn took place in New Delhi on 4-5 December 2006. It was organised by IIED and Winrock International India, in partnership with the Swedish international Biodiversity Programme, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency.

Poverty in India increased from 26 to 28% between 1999 and 2004/05, and unemployment has risen sharply from 6 to 9% in the past decade.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit is an annual event organised by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) for international dialogue on sustainable development. Each year, discussions among participants from the corporate sector, governments, international agencies, and institutes result in a comprehensive framework for practical and workable strategies to take the sustainable development agenda forward.

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