It’s just the basic But NEP has little to empower communities in resource use

Monday, 30 May 2005
Parth J Shah and H B Soumya
Down to Earth

The draft National Environment Policy (nep) released by the Union ministry of environment and forest emphasises ‘polluter pays’, ‘cost-minimisation’ and market-based incentives for pollution control. A logical follow up should be to vest stewardship of natural resources with communities that are directly dependent on them. nep, however, falls short here. This lacuna is glaring because most common resources in India degenerate into open resources — over which local communities have very little control.

Let's take the case of forests.

People who converted forests into agricultural land — and then into residential or commercial land — received property titles, but those who let the forests stand are now told that these forests belong to all people, not just to them. This is grave injustice. nep does talk of mending matters and giving legal recognition to forest dwellers' traditional rights. So far, so good. But then how exactly to recognise traditional rights? nep only has trite suggestions of partnerships between communities and forest department officials, and arguments to universalise Joint Forest Management (jfm).

Of course, jfm does encourage community participation. But it offers communities no long-term stake in improving forests. Moreover, where is the legal mechanism that guarantees revenue sharing between the forest department and communities? jfm needs to move towards community forestry management and recognise communities as custodians or stewards of forests. The forest department should merely act as an advisor or consultant.

Water woes

nep recognises that improper pricing policies for water, electricity and fuels have led to water misuse. However, it does not clearly articulate the way to rationalise these policies. It also fails to emphasise that pricing is but a subset of the issue of the user rights to water.

A way to allocate water rights would be to firm up the system of ‘project allocations' used by the government today. Project authorities enter into long-term contracts with municipal corporations and other government agencies for supply of fixed quantities of water. These quantitative allocations should be converted to legally enforceable proportional allocations to water user associations. These rights should be tradable. This approach is very different from the emerging practice of privatising river waters by leasing several kilometres of them to private companies — our method only formalises existing claims.

But what about families who cannot afford to pay? The government can either decide on ‘free' allocation per person or per family — then pay for that water from the general tax revenue. This quota is for all — the rich as well as the poor. Water consumed above this ‘free' quota will have to be paid by each family. As another recourse, the authorities can subsidise only the poor and make the rich pay for every drop of water they consume.


nep omits any direct discussion on management of fisheries. Two approaches that have been tested and have proved successful come to mind. One is calculating maximum sustainable yield (msy) of a given area, and then allocating all fisher families of this area an equal percentage of this msy. T hese quotas should be tradable. The other method involves apportioning stretches of the coast to fishing communities. These egalitarian methods give fisher folk incentives to conserve the resources in their area. Communities can organise themselves into cooperatives in order to regulate fishing in the area over which they have rights. The fishery departments can serve as advisors, putting into place stewardship norms in order to gauge the performance of different cooperatives.

Economic growth necessitates direct or indirect use of environmental resources, it also brings about better instruments for monitoring and compliance. But we have been found wanting here. We need to put in place an institutional framework that creates incentives for environmentally friendly processes as well as guarantees — and expands — livelihood opportunities. for traditional communities.