Friday, May 30, 2008

15. ENVIRONMENT. A Waterfall Refusing To Die!

A peaceful protest has been underway since Feb 25, 2008 at Athirappilly (Kerala, India) demanding the scraping of the proposed 163 MW Athirappilly hydroelectric power project. Over 70 different social, political, environmental, and youth organisations from across Kerala have continuedto support the protest. Despite the Government underplaying the significance of the protest, the picturesque waterfall is refusing to die. Two Public Interest Litigations have been under hearing with High Court of Kerala

As the peaceful protest at the proposed site for the controversial hydroelectric project at Athirappilly clocks hundredth day, the stand off between people and powers-that-be underscores the fact that growth engine remains unilaterally focused to undermine human rights and ecological costs. But is it the first time that an economically unviable and ecological destructive project has got the undesired push at the corridors of power?

Do the doubtful gains of the project measure up to the irreversible losses it will inflict on the environment and the tribal population? That it is hornbill habitat with home to four distinct species; that it has rich fish diversity with 104 different species; and that it is most frequented elephant corridor with a high density of 2.1 elephants per sq km seem at best relevant for the environmental discourses to follow!

Does it matter that the proposed 163-MW dam will displace 78 families of the Kadar tribe, the primitive hunter gatherers endemic to the river valley? Haven't displacement and rehabilitation been the persistent cry across river valley projects across the country? So, isn't the issue of rehabilitation of 1500 members of the primitive tribe on familiar grounds? All this to usher in the rare distinction on the 144-km long Chalakudy river, to be the most dammed river in the country....more

Monday, May 19, 2008

14. REFLECTION. Reinvent employment guarantee!

Should employment guarantee mean minion labour for the poor? Could there not be other ways in which the state can compensate its poor?

Suspecting me to be a government official, the tribal in village Gunnar in Koraput district of Orissa rushed forward with their job cards. Not having seen a magic job card that ensures 100 days of guaranteed employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), I was curious to have a careful look at it. To my surprise, all the 42 cards in a 45-household village were blank. Not a single day worth of job was ushered to any of the poor tribals during the past two years. Second year of the UPA government's flagship scheme had come to a close, signalling that almost a million from the country's taxpayers money have been siphoned off from just one village.

With the scheme been extended to the entire country, previously restricted to 330 districts, securing employment rights of such hapless villagers has only become more compelling. While there have been success stories in NREGA files, exceptions fail to correct the abysmal failure of the scheme that could generate only 18 days of average employment across the country during the first two years. In the process, Rs 12,000 crore of taxpayers' money was devoured last year. Incompetent state machinery, riddled with corruption, will only better its previous year's achievement!

All said, the proponents of the scheme argue that there is nothing wrong per se in the idea of assured employment to the rural poor. That all governmental schemes of this magnitude invariably fall short of its targets must therefore be accepted as given. That a large fraction of the money ending up in the pockets of various intermediaries at the cost of the poor must not be frowned upon. An editorial in one of the business magazines has estimated that, in 596 districts where the scheme is being implemented, some 4,000 new millionaries will be created if the money siphoning process is not reversed.

Can the NREGA be made to deliver any better? Spending huge amount of manpower to create non-tangible assets such as kuccha roads, which will be washed away during the rains, could ensure employment but cannot create durable assets. Cleaning of village ponds and creation of water bodies may seem tangible but there is a limit to which these could be done, year after year. No wonder, some economists have even suggested enacting a law to help the government make a minimum monetary transfer to poor households every year. It is argued that if digging the earth is an excuse to distribute money, direct disbursements are sure to work better!

As the employment guarantee scheme transits into new areas, more questions related to defining `wage work' have started to surface. Farmers in drought-ravaged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh wonder if tilling one's own land could be considered worthy of wage compensation. Why dig a pit in no-man's land when similar effort can help prepare a piece of farm for cultivation instead? Villagers in Sangrur district of Punjab desire that the workforce they hire from other states should be covered under the employment guarantee scheme, even if it amounts to direct subsidy.

The crucial question, however, is whether the state finds comfort in converting its massive rural communities into minion labour. Further, creating dependent millions may become a huge financial liability too. Can the poor farmers not barter their knowledge instead? Should the tribal not be compensated for preserving country's natural assets? There are several ways in which the productive potential of the economically poor could be assessed, measured and compensated. The poor harbour in them the living culture of survival techniques, of livelihoods ecology, of exquisite handmade objects, and of passionate folk songs.

The tribal households in Gunnar could do without wage labour provided the state can compensate them for their low-carbon lifestyle, evolved after centuries of living in harmony with nature. Converting such vibrant cultures to menial labour is also a crime, when the opportunity cost of such transformation is considered. There has been talk of initiatives to make communities stakeholders in conservation. These financial incentives should not be seen as subsidies, but necessary policy interventions to protect the environment and create wealth via the carbon trade route.

The employment guarantee scheme offers an opportunity for its innovative application across diverse situations, provided flexibility in its implementation is permitted. Since such populist measures find political support of all hues, the challenge will be to convert a resource-guzzling scheme into one that generates wealth and self-respect for the economically weaker sections of the society. A bad script that the NREGA is at present can indeed to turned into a good story!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

13. ANALYSIS. Getting a sense of Coca-Cola's philanthropic ideas!

In a country where 70% of irrigation water and 80% of its domestic water supplies come from its rapidly depleting groundwater reserves, groundwater recharge is bound to get unstilted support. What if the recharge is funded by Coca-Cola from out of the profit it nets by extracting groundwater in the first place! That the company's expanding business eyes country's groundwater reserves is pushed aside. Not without reason as everybody is brainwashed by the corporate PR that passes for news these days, which makes everyone think that the Coca-Cola groundwater recharge model is the greatest invention to come down the pike since the wheel was invented.

It needs multiple voices and committed cheerleaders to hold aloft the corporation's water stewardship credentials. That it's bottled waterbrand Dancing was awarded with `Consumer's International 2007 International Bad Product Awards' - filtering drinkable tap water andselling it back to the market, particularly in Europe; that it faces charges for human rights abuses of union members trying to organise Coca-Cola plants in Colombia; and that two-thirds of freshwater used by Coca-Cola is converted into wastewater globally are facts that the company will see erased sooner from the public memory!

Co-opting unsuspecting civil society organisations to support corporation's green makeover comes handy. Coca-Cola's long-term partnership with the World-wide Fund for Nature; it's recent supportof $1 million to the Global Water Challenge, and its ongoing funding for more than 100 community water projects in 49 countries are designed to help the company avoid addressing reasonable questions. In India, where the privatisation of the state is nearly complete and where the idea of capitalism is fast sinking into middle-class psyche, the propaganda that a beverage company is recharging groundwater gets accepted without question....more