the evolution of china’s environmental policy

The latest issue of Conservation and Society is out. And it contains an interesting account of the evolution of China’s environment policy by the Peking University’s Maohong Bao.

For instance, did you know that…

“Since China’s leadership purported to employ the mechanism of unified planning with due consideration for all aspects of the economy and the society, which was supposedly more superior than in a capitalist system, the Chinese government did not recognise environmental problems. The aim of socialism was to satisfy the needs of the masses, so how could it damage the masses? It was only in a capitalist society, where capitalists received profit at the cost of environmental destruction regardless of the welfare of workers and peasants that environmental problems existed. However, there was the question of why the Soviet Union had environmental problems, where socialism was built for the first time in the human history. It was believed that the Soviet Union became a revisionist country. In the context of the ideology of this era, China did not have an environmental policy, even if environmental problems had already appeared.”

From there, Bao details how things began changing around 1972, the creation of the Chinese environmental policy, its initial implementation (by state dictat), its early fate (failure) followed by better results thereafter, and closes by describing the four problems that continue to stymie sustainable development in the middle kingdom. To a large extent, all the problems come back to this infernal tradeoff between environmental wellbeing and economic growth. Read on. You will see.

“The first problem is bureaucratic fragmentation. The various organisations that are responsible for formulating, implementing and supervising environmental policy have overlapping functions and unclear rights and responsibilities… The National People’s Congress is the highest legislative body. The Committee of Environment and Resources is responsible for crafting law on the environment and natural resources. It (in turn) mandates that the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafts environmental legislation because the members of this committee are usually retired officials from the CCP and administrative organisations who are not themselves qualified to undertake investigation and to draft law…. The National Committee of Environmental Protection in the State Council, which consists of the members from various ministries and committees, is in charge of harmonising the environmental affairs of related departments. It also supervises the State Council in creating the national policy of environmental protection within the context of drawing up a national economic plan. The Committee of Environment and Resources of the National People’s Congress has started supervising and checking. It is obvious that these three organisations have no separate functions and lack the mechanism of supervising each other.

Various ministries and committees have their own environmental bureaus that are not subordinate to the national EPA (it was approved as a ministry in 1998). From the perspective of administrative relations, these bureaus generally follow the regulations of their own ministries and committees when the ideas of the national EPA and its own ministries differ. Local environmental protection bureaus at all levels have incomplete vertical relations with the national EPA. While the national EPA leads the professional work and policy decisions of the local bureaus, local party committees and governments allocate their personnel and administrative funds. When local authorities push for high economic growth and pursue administrative goals, local environmental protection bureaus are often unable to implement environmental protection policies.

The second problem is that environmental protection is in conflict with economic growth. The core work of the CCP and the central government still focuses on the economic development of China. This means continuing to seek high economic growth, while trying to follow sustainable development. Promotion for officials at all levels is mainly based upon their ability to promote economic growth. Under such circumstances, environmental policy is mainly an economic instrument. Therefore it has defects.”

For instance, take China’s township and village enterprises.

“…there were previously no available concrete environmental policies for townships and village enterprises that were developing rapidly. The discharge fee and penalty system were aimed mainly at state-owned enterprises. They were allowed to add this fee into the cost of the product and transfer it to the price of the product. The increase in price did not affect its sale because most of these enterprises were monopolies. The rural township and village enterprises depended on the low price of products to scramble for market shares because they lacked monopoly privileges. Once the fee was added to the cost of product, the enterprise was less competitive. Therefore, these enterprises attempted to escape the fee levy system by every means possible. Since the number of rural township and village enterprises was very large and dispersed, the local environmental protection bureaus were unable to manage these enterprises, which often lacked their own environmental protection departments. Serious environmental problems also took place in private enterprises. These defects resulted in rampant environmental deterioration in the countryside….”

The third problem, he says, is structural contradictions or defects within the law and its implementation of environmental protection standards and practices.

“China’s environmental law system contains eleven sources (Alford and Shen 1998). They are: the constitution of the People’s Republic of China; the international agreements that China has signed; the basic law of environment enacted by the National People’s Congress (NPC); other laws related to the environment issued by the NPC’s standing committee; interpretations of the constitution and the basic law issued by the standing committee; administrative regulations having the force of law issued by the State Council; ministerial regulations and national environmental standards issued by national ministries and commissions; interpretations issued by the State Council, national ministries and commissions, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procurer to carry out their work; environmental regulations issued by the People’s Congresses at the sub-national level; regulations and other legal orders issued by the executive branch of the people’s governments at the sub-national level; individual cases decided by the Supreme People’s Court and lower level courts.”

Confusion between law and administrative regulation, he says, weakens the seriousness and authority of law, while also reducing the efficiency of administrative regulation.

“… courts and procuratorates at all levels have the right to interpret law and regulation in the process of implementing and supervising laws and regulations. The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate should have had the highest right of interpretation, but all the courts and procuratorates at subnational levels offer their interpretations in the light of locally specific conditions. Thus various explanations resulted in confusion and lower efficiency of law implementation and local protection. Additionally, since the funds and salary of courts at all sub-national levels are allocated by the local government and they are answerable to (because the court is appointed by the local people’s congress) the local people’s congress, party committee and government, the judiciary could not be independent and was heavily influenced bylocal officials. The implementation of environmental law often served the so-called
overall situation of local economic development. Thus, environmental law lacked the power of criminal punishment and its standards were seriouslydistorted. Ultimately, the efficiency of its implementation was seriously damaged.”

The fourth problem has to do with the Chinese peasants. As in India, their “nice and simple environmental protection consciousness… has been destroyed.”

“Under Mao, peasants became the main force who fought against heaven and earth and tried to conquer and remake nature. Under Deng, peasants cultivated new value orientations that include ‘Looking toward money in everything’ (Shapiro 2001). Peasants over-cultivated and over-used chemical fertiliser and pesticides in their contracted land; herdsman overgrazed in contracted pastures; peasants created farmland in the contracted waste hillsides. The only aim of these activities was to get rich actively, which not only resulted in the exhaustion of fertility in contracted land, degradation of vegetation, soil erosion and desertification in contracted grassland,but also created a serious ‘tragedy of the commons’ in public land. Since they did not carry forward new measures for rural reform, especially with respect to the right of property, the task of improving the rural ecological environment is still extremely arduous (Menzies 1991; Yeh 2000).

Grassroots environmentalism only appeared in urban areas and peasants were hardly involved. The first environmental NGO in China was set up on March 31, 1994. It was the Academy for Green Culture (now called the Friends of Nature) established by historian Liang Congjie… (similarly) over 2000 environmental NGOs were established by November 2001… NGOs have devoted themselves mainly to reclaiming wasteland, observing birds, planting trees, protecting endangered animals, establishing green communities and launching green consumption, etc. It has been difficult for them to register and to get adequate funds. Membership is compose d mainly of the middle class; ordinary people and peasants have not taken part in them. Thus, the efficiency of their activities has been unsatisfactory (Brettell 2000). Environmental NGOs can play a more prominent role in China only by combining environmental protection with poverty elimination. The weakness of environmental awareness amongst Chinese peasants has seriously affected the implementation of the environmental protection policy in China.”

another day in jarawa life

Some days ago, I posted about the Jarawas. And I said that the local administration in the Andamans is venal, that its public stance about leaving the Jarawas alone is a lie, and that the tribals are in huge trouble. (readthisthis and this). Well, here is a story from the latest issue of “The Light of Andamans” (Issue 22, 20 May 2006) to buttress all that I said. More will follow.

By Staff Reporter
The Andaman Adimjan Jati Vikas Samiti and the Directorate of Tribal Welfare seldom miss a chance to put its foot in its mouth. Jarawas were suffering from measles and getting admitted into the hospital in droves. There was panic all over. The Directorate of Health Services deputed a team of doctors to Middle Strait and Kadamtala for an on the spot investigation, treatment and for taking preventive actions. National and International press was plastered with the Jarawa affliction.

But, for reasons best known to AAJVS and DTW, they were engaged in some other sinister move to shift the Jarawas from Middle Strait to Tirur. Vehicles were engaged, labour hired and trucks carrying 45 of the tribesmen reached Tirur village one evening during the last month end. The villagers however did not swallow the pill. They stopped the truck and did not allow the Jarawas to get down. When asked who had directed them to Tirur, the Jarawas said “Ghoshal”. The villagers asked the incharge to call Mr. Ghoshal. The Pradhan of the Panchayat Mr. Mahadev Majhi too was not in the locality at the time.

By the time Mr. Ghoshal reached there, Mr. Majhi too had arrived. A prolonged discussion ensued between them. The villager itself was suffering from measles and the Pradhan did not want to complicate the matter further. Secondly, the villagers of Temple Myo, Herbertabad and Tirur were fed up with Jarawas intruding their home and hearth every now and then. They did not want another battalion of Jarawas trooping into their gardens, plantations and homes at will.

“There were five people on the roll of AAJVS working at Tirur. But I never saw more than one at any given time. Are they working in your homes?” he had asked Mr. Ghoshal. Mr Ghoshal’s reply was that the workers were paid on the basis of attendance rolls submitted by the Police. The Policeman standing nearby didn’t like it kindly. “You pay them even before we submit the attendance rolls” he retorted. “What about supply of banana to the Jarawas every week?” Mr. Mahadev Majhi fired the next salvo. “I never saw or heard of any banana supply in the past year and a half” he continued. Mr. Ghoshal had nothing better to do than fumble for words.

Talking to The Light of Andamans” Mr. Majhi confided that it was a big racket. The Jarawas were exploited to the hilt by the AAJVS and the Department of Tribal Welfare. Nobody was interested in the welfare of the Jarawas or any other tribe. ‘They appoint people from far off places to work at Tirur. They never turn up and yet get paid. Why not appoint unemployed boys from the same Panchayat? We too can keep a watch in that case” he fumed. “Banana! Why can’t they buy from our people who suffer at the hands of the Jarawas? Because then the racket would be busted” he concluded. Mr. Mahadev Majhi was exploding with fury.

Saving India’s Ridleys

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists.

In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success? an article examining this question in the specific context of the olive ridley turtles was published in the hindu businessline.

UPDATE (2018): I cannot find that link any longer. And so, here is the text of what I had written at the time.

Headline: Saving the Ridley

Shoulder: In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success?

Matter begins: It all began with a Greenpeace protest. Late in April, it lined up dead Olive Ridleys, all shrouded in white, all covered with marigold garlands, in front of Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik’s home in Delhi. It was classic Greenpeace. The idea was novel. It attracted the media. And the combative environmental NGO ensured that its message, that the Ridleys continue to die, that the Orissa CM is not doing enough, got transmitted unambiguously.

And yet, the event made one wonder what it would achieve. Orissa is one of the poorest states in this country. How much consideration could the government of such a state spare for turtles, especially if saving them involved impacting local livelihoods? And given that, what did the future hold for the Ridleys?

Chances are you are familiar with the contours of this story. Every year, between November and March, anywhere between 100,000-200,000 of these sea turtles nest at the shores of Orissa — mostly notably, Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and the river mouth of the Rushikulya. They swim up from their feeding grounds, mate in the rich, shallow waters off the beaches, drag themselves ashore, lay eggs, as many as 120-300 to every nest, and then disappear into the sea for another year.

Things began to change after the early-eighties boom in the state fishing industry. Bigger boats came in. And tens of thousands of Ridleys began drowning in the large nets these boats sieve the seas with. In 1982, since the trawlers were eating into the local fishermen’s catch as well, the state passed the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act (OMFRA). It told trawlers to keep at least ten kilometres off the coast. It warned fishermen with motorised boats to stay at least five kilometres off. Only small fishermen, fishing with unmechanised boats, would be allowed to fish within 5 kilometres of the beach. For an assortment of reasons, like the political clout of the trawler lobby, like the fishermen’s lack of awareness about their fishing rights, the OMFRA was never implemented. And the large boats continued to fish wherever they wished.

And then, as the turtles continued to die, the greens resurrected the OMFRA. it was perfect. Nearly all the turtles are killed within 5-6 kilometres of the shore. The OMFRA banned all mechanised fishing in this zone. The small fishermen could still come in, but they are not the ones killing the turtles anyway.

Unfortunately, however, they interpreted the law selectively and focused only on the turtles. The result? With the state government more worried about the fishermen than the turtles, the state wildlife department was unable to enforce the laws. And, unlike parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where trawlers respect fishing limits because the traditional fishing communities vigilantly monitor them, the local fishermen in Orissa evinced no interest. they saw the law as elitist, more concerned with turtles than them. The trawlers kept flouting the act.

And now, the OMRCC (Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium), a body formed by fishworkers’ unions in orissa, conservation organisations, development NGOs and turtle biologists, is trying to change all that. And, oddly, it doesn’t focus too much on the turtles. The OMFRA, says Kartik Shanker, a turtle biologist, and one of the members of the consortium, could “have succeeded if it was enforced to protect the livelihoods based on that natural resource rather than a single enigmatic species.” Today, in most places, traditional fishermen are too unorganised to fight the trawlers off. Once, they can stand up to trawlers and make them keep out of the near shore waters, it is an incidental benefit for the turtles.

And so, the OMRCC is trying to raise awareness among the local community about its fishing rights, and encouraging them to report trawlers that flout the fishing act. Booklets in Oriya with pictorial representations of fishing zones are being distributed in all the villages in the mass nesting areas. Boards are being put up in these villages showing fishing zones for different crafts and gear. It’s also trying to ensure that the fishermen will not be harassed by the police if they report infringements.

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists. Wouldn’t that, I wonder, be just as applicable to terrestrial conservation?

In the meantime, the turtles continue to bleed numbers. In the past thirteen years, 129,000 dead turtles have washed ashore on Orissa’s beaches. Other turtles, nobody knows how many, drowned but floated out to sea. Given that very little is known about them – the total population, the number of juveniles who graduate to adulthood every year — and the fact that these are slow growing, late maturing, long-living species, it’s hard to quantify the precise damage the nets are leaving in their wake.

In the absence of such information, two other metrics are used to keep tabs on their numbers — the mass nestings, and the size of the turtles. No mass nesting, says Biswajit Mohanty of Operation Kachchapa, a conservation programme supported by WPSI, “has taken place at the Devi’s river mouth (a previously huge nesting site) in recent years due to uncontrolled illegal trawling.” Similarly, mass nesting also failed to occur in Gahirmatha in 1997, 1998 and 2002.” Studies by Shanker revealed a decrease in the sizes of the turtles being caught in the nets. This, he says, can mean two things. A growing population, with a large number of juveniles entering the adult population relative to numbers of adults. Or, two, a decline in numbers of adults relative to a more or less fixed number of juveniles entering the population. “Given the mortality data from Orissa”, he wrote, “Scenario two is more likely.”

Newer threats are emerging as well. Tata Steel and Posco are constructing private ports very near the nesting sites. The state is expanding another 13 ports along the rivers and the coast. And then, there is Reliance’ offshore drilling project, plumb in the middle of the route the turtles take to Gahirmatha.

Worries persist.

A backpacking trip to Orissa

(this post was initially written for that site has since been shuttered. and i thought i would repost this article here. the year spent freelancing was the start of my introduction to india. and this was one of the more seminal trips. backpacking across the mining districts of orissa taking a first-hand look at industrialisation and local communities, there is a lot i saw and learnt.)

I have just returned from a ten day trip to Orissa. Eight of those days were spent travelling through Kalahandi, Sundargarh and Keonjhar. Each of these districts is seeing a huge wave of industrialisation — mainly power plants, sponge iron plants, and mining for ore and coal. And it seems to me that this industrialisation will increase poverty — not reduce it. And, for that reason, showdowns between the state and its people, just like the one at Kalinga Nagar, are on the cards.

For one, despite all the promises of employment, very few of the displaced are getting jobs in the plants coming up. The companies prefer to hire workers from other states. Smelting is dangerous work. Fifteen people had died last year alone, NGOs in Jharsuguda told me, while working at one of the largest smelters in this town. Knowing that agitations would follow the death of any local in their plant, the companies prefer to hire migrants. By doing that, all they have to do is ship ex-gratia money across to the worker’s family and tell them to hush it up. All this was subsequently independently corroborated in a conversation with a contractor who supplies labour to that plant.

What about the compensation money? Most of the affected villagers I spoke to owned between 2-3 acres of land. Compensation rates ranged between 1-2 lakhs. Very few villagers have been able to convert that money into new livelihoods. Most of the people living in this area are tribals. Take Jambkhani, this village near Gopalpur is under threat from a proposed coal mining project of Bhushan Steel. The villagers practise subsistence agriculture (paddy) during the rains. The rest of the year, they barter forest produce for household provisions. How do such people negotiate for appropriate compensation? If the largest denomination i have seen in my life is a fifty rupee note, I might think that Rs 80,000 will last me a lifetime. In one village where 12 displaced people had settled, revealed that 4 were dead (of drinking). 6 were destitute (they had spent all their money on bikes and so on). One had invested his money in chit funds and lost it all. It was the 12th who had managed to make the transition. He had opened a pan shop.

Given the poor utilisation of compensation monies, a familiar story is playing out in this state. Companies follow a tiered structure while making their compensations. X rupees for land. A higher rate than that if it is buying a villager’s land and house. What companies are doing is buying out just the land, leaving the villagers with the island of land on which their house sits.

What happens next is predictable. A villager runs out of money. Panics. Asks the company to pay him something for his house. Gets something in what is suddenly a buyer’s market. And then wonders what to do next. Urban migration is not much of an option in this nitwitted state. There is precious little industry to speak of. And God knows that this country is running out of woods where people can settle.

It is a quandary that the landless face as well. Only difference is that they get no compensation at all. The new R&R policy envisages a Rs 10,000 payment to the landless as well. But for now, they get no aid. They are just told to pack up and leave.

And then, there is a third lot of people who will be displaced as well. These are people who live next to the plant. It is pertinent to mention here that sponge iron plants are among the most polluting in the world. Inhale their gases for three years and chances are you will come down with cancer. If you follow the centre’s guidelines, there would be a ten kilometre space between two sponge iron plants.

One village I went to had three sponge iron plants within a single kilometre. One to the west. The second in the middle. With houses less than ten metres way from its fence. And the third one another 500 metres to the north-east. In this village, the trees were black. So was the land. The kids and the elderly were down with asthma. The cattle were dying. In the same district, at another village, Nepaj, rules had been flouted even more egregiously. 14 sponge iron plants had come up within 5 kms of each other.

Owing to the massive explosion in sponge iron plants in the country, as the head of the local sponge iron association in Rourkela told me, there is a glut right now. As people wait for demand to catch up again, they are cutting down on costs to stay afloat till then. And one form of cost cutting is to shut off the electricity intensive emissions controlling systems – the electrostatic precipitators. Pollution is bound to be high.

All this is a failure of the state. It is negotiating on behalf of the companies with the people. Not the other way around. As for the NGOs, a lot of them were fledgeling, set up by the locals, and all fighting to stave the companies off — not focusing on managing the aftermath of dislocation.

I went in assuming that industrialization, while, probably calamitous for the environment, would be helping the state with poverty reduction. But now, looking around, I am not so sure. There isn’t any direct employment. I am still trying to gauge the potential for indirect employment. But I am not sure if it is the displaced who will end up capitalising on that opportunity. Ask what they plan to do with the money and most of them will say they will start a business. What business, you ask, and there are no further answers. I am now trying to understand if the third ray of hope – that the rising state GDP will create capital that can be used to drive an aggressive rural development agenda – can deliver.

Even here, there is a problem. This urgency to sign MoUs is inexplicable. India follows a rudimentary system for pricing its ore that doesn’t link the government’s royalties to market prices. the result: Orissa makes rs 25 per ton of iron ore that is extracted from its mines. The market rate? Anywhere between Rs 1,400-1,800. Surely, in such a situation, the state would be better placed to wait till the country finishes overhauling its ore pricing laws (the review is under way right now).

What is more certain is that the people are drawing a line in the sand. As I traveled into more industrialised districts, the people were increasingly combative. The first few villagers I met spoke in terms of petitioning the state for jobs and alternative land. As I moved north, towards Kalahandi, that attitude vanished. The villagers felt that the political parties were not interested (the industry is their biggest funder now), appeals to the administration have gone nowhere (there are cases of collectors forcing sarpanchs to give their consent for plants to come up near their villages; pollution continues unabated, thanks to bribery; peaceful protesters have been arrested), the process of environmental clearances itself has not been followed (the villagers are not told about the public hearings — an essential part of the entire clearance process. in one case, the minutes of the proceedings were doctored to make it appear that the villagers wanted the projects), the law itself (with most lawyers in this area unfamiliar with environmental tort) has been dismissing villagers’ petitions to stop the plants.

Talking to the NGOs, to the local media, the sense I got was that naxalism will rear its head in this state as well. We do appear to be heading for a flashpoint. At one end, there are the villagers, unwilling to accept such industrialisation. Think of Kalinganagar here. The tribals there have successfully held off the state for months now. At the other end, there is Naveen Patnaik, under pressure from the PMO, from the Plancom, from the companies, his own party, with his state’s reputation as an global mining destination at stake. There will be a showdown. It will be bloody for the tribals in the short run. In the longer run, i wonder how the BJD will fare in the elections. So far, such protests have been isolated instances in this state. But now, with every district seeing displacements, a groundswell of protest is starting to take shape.