Envionmenial activism has to extend beyond planting and protecting trees. Nepalis must be ready to address more complicated present and future problems with their environment.
Many people believe that the environmental problem in Nepal begins and ends with talk of deforestation and degraded hillsides. But the issue is a complex one and involves more than merely the protection of woodlands and prevention of topsoil loss. As the country enters a new era, hopefully of economic development, other environmental issues will have to be faced. They already range from the questions of high dams in the Himalaya to factory effluent on the Narayani river, air pollution, water and soil quality, and the negative impact of highways and other activity on ecosystems. The seriousness of these diverse environmental problems should not be doubted.
Environmental concern in Nepal is newer than other “modern” issues such as development, infrastructure-building or land reform. No agenda for environmental action has been set by the government. In the absence of appropriate legal backing, state agency action, or coordination among committed environmentalists, the concern has only been expressed and talked about. Environmental talk must now get serious. Nepali experts, social scientists, lawyers and activists have to begin identifying environmental crises and develop indigenous legislative, scientific and grassroots mechanisms to tackle them.
In the past, there used to be muted opposition to environmentally unsound policies, but timid suggestions had little or no impact in the central corridors of power in Kathmandu, where the governing criteria was banker-friendly rather than environment-friendly. Prevailing “etiquette” discouraged criticism and questions about mega-projects. Honest investigation was not tolerated, and was even regarded in extreme cases as “anti-national”. Environmentally unsound and economically disastrous projects were placed before the public as fait accompli. All this was due to the rush of well-connected commission agents and contractors, before whose greed the “petty concerns” of the environment proved no match.
The unrepresentative government of the Panchayat era did not allow lobbies to function, including those for the environment. Most certainly, that will change now. The Nepali people have fought for the right to know and the right to get involved. This includes the right to light for and get involved in order to save our environment.
Take the examples of the proposed Karnali project or the Arun III hydro scheme, which the Panchayat regime has bequeathed to us in an advanced stage of agreement. It is proposed that a significant portion of Nepal’s natural heritage be tampered with, perhaps even for good reason. While in the past, a governmental fiat would have been enough to carry these projects through, now there will have to be public hearings and an openness on the part of those accountable. There will have to be open discussion of everything from economic cost-benefit, to possible alternatives with less environmental impact, the displacement of local inhabitants, the impact on flora and fauna, and protection of indigenous cultures.
MINISTRIES & WATCHDOGS
As socioeconomic development surges ahead, the threats to the environment are bound to increase. There is a need for active watchdog institutions that can balance the needs of development and the right of future Nepali generations to inherit an untrammeled environment. Strategies will have to be worked out within the new democratic setup so that there are checks and balances in the realm of environmental management.
Semi-governmental organisations like the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation can be retained and given the responsibility and resources to monitor government activity or inactivity in relation to nature conservation. At the same time, the atmosphere is now favourable for the growth of genuine non-government organisations. These NGOs can take different shapes, from village groups acting spontaneously to petition local government to expert groups with investigative expertise to study a wide variety of environmental questions.
At the governmental level, Nepal needs a Ministry of Environment to draft legislation and directives and ensure the implementation of environment-friendly projects. In coordination with other arms of government, including those that deal with water quality, forestry and occupational health, it would ensure that a sustainable environment is preserved for future generations. A word of caution: the new ministry should not be manned by the discredited bureaucrats who presently run the Ministry of Forests even if they think the mantle should fall to them. Those who have been unable to protect Nepal’s forest resource should hardly be let loose to manage the larger Nepali environment.
Besides a Ministry of Environment, the country also needs a high-level specialised entity which might be called the Environmental Monitoring and Protecting Agency. The body would be answerable to Parliament, like the Auditor General. It would be provided with adequate legislative backing and financial resources, technical and legal skills, as well as the moral authority to act as the guardian of the nation’s environment. The agency could prepare annual “state of the environment” reports that would identify environmental problems and prescribe corrective action.
While institutions are important, it is the people who run them that will make a difference if our environment is to be rescued from its current decline. The persons who are charged with the challenging task of revamping present policies and societal mind-sets should be intellectually honest and politically courageous, and beyond the reach of party or palace politics. Only then will our air, water and woodlands share a fair future.