Commenting recently on the process behind the coming of the Draft National Environment Policy 2004 I observed that in the hidden hierarchy - first the Experts, then Counter-experts, then 'Citizen-experts' and finally the common man - it is only the first category of people who form the policy community of the day, and only they are likely to have a decisive influence. (See In the Closed Kingdom of Experts, The Indian Express, November 27 2004). The draft policy, available officially only in English and laced with technical environmental and economic principles throughout its forty-or-so pages, is inaccessible to a large segment of even the educated citizenry.
In that context, at least the consultation conferences planned post-draft need to move out of the capital and to as many regional locations as possible. Also in all the locations across the country they need to be preceded by adequate publicity through mainstream media and alternative or traditional information dissemination sources wherever suitable. Plus, the conferences proposed should aim to bring together a sizable number of citizens - lay participants and not experts! Of course, apart from the lay citizens, advocacy groups, local NGOs and experts with special interest and knowledge would be a part of these conferences. The conclusion from the deliberations in these conferences than should be publicly presented with copies of the discussion reports being widely circulated including to Members of Parliament , local bodies and institutions.
While suggesting all this I was conscious that to most readers, the proposal would sound too radical to be right. A respected colleague saw a tinge of cynicism, and those more charitable saw an 'activist' approach to policy making, in the suggestions. Perhaps they could see that the growing complexity, indeterminacy and intractable nature of environmental problems would ensure that the hold of the policy community would not only last but would perhaps tighten further in times to come. Precisely because of the odds stacked against such a suggestion, I feel compelled to elaborate on why I think the suggestion continues to make great sense to me.
The argument for making an effort to rope in more lay participants and not experts in policy making is grounded in my understanding that any approach to environmental questions involves values as much as facts, and as much 'cultural rationality' as scientific expertise. In fact the approach to problems - as distinguished from mere technical competence to deal with them - could be a decisive factor while deciding most environmental issues of the day. The relevant points that I draw from this understanding are that (a) an Environment Policy cannot afford value-neutrality, and (b) the value-neutrality cannot be addressed by even more expertise from the policy community.
Those who fear the gray emotions associated with values might argue that this can hardly provide a sure and sane basis for policy-making. I disagree. While individual values fluctuate and can be inconsistent, it is possible to arrive at 'representative values' held by groups and sections of society through sustained debate, greater participation, and consensus-building where possible. It is here that multiple and inclusive conferences prior to finalisation of the environment policy can help underpin decision-making with the right values. Whether it is hijacking of a forest in Kerala, or farmers agitating and losing lives in Rajasthan over irrigation waters, it is clear that people across the country are driven by strong 'environment values' and without having a policy process that channelises their perceptions and crystallizes them in policy statements, it is not possible to sequence and prioritize our environmental problems.
My limited understanding also provokes me to say that for most environment problems, the choice of definition of a problem typically determines its solution. Frequently in the past we have approached issues thinking that we had the solution while in hindsight it was clear that we were not even sure what the problem was! The growing community of environmental consultants - the brains behind the gray literature that sponsored studies produce - is not likely to confront this understanding. (I have been part of this community myself!)
This again throws up two challenges to our comfortable mindsets: One to recognize the limits of scientific, technical and economic rationality; and two, and more importantly, the pervasive existence of 'cultural rationality'. There are people outside this country like the political scientist Frank Fischer who are advocates of cultural rationality, who trust process over outcomes and who believe that the solutions to environmental issues are to be found not in greater scientific clarifications but in answers to questions about our ways of life. In a multicultural nation like ours, this argument should not be too difficult to sell especially when it s clarified that cultural rationality with the citizens needs to supplement, not supplant, the inputs of the experts in framing of the policy.
• Court opinion amiss?
• A poor imitation
The last political justification for the 'activist' policy making process I recommend is provided by the notion of deliberative democracy - which values popular rule as a means of encouraging public deliberation on issues that are best understood through open, deliberative processes. The emphasis on deliberative democracy has value today in an environment where Environment Impact Assessments of our projects are seen as just procedural bottlenecks for the project proponent and the mandatory legal requirement of 'consultation' with tribals (in Schedule Areas) prior to setting up a project is treated as just one more necessary step in executing the project. Effective consultation and genuine involvement of people in environmental decision making is possible only when we internalise a simple truth: The environment needs not only correct decisions, but also decisions which are taken correctly, and this is only possible in a vibrant deliberative democracy.
It seems the policy community is is deeply grounded in ideas of representative democracy and the welfare state. Their argument is that instead of obsession with active participation, the limited participation encouraged by coming up with a draft and thereafter making it open for comments and select consultations, serves the end well. However, this raises two big questions: In the limited participation model that is advanced by the policy community, is the operative word 'limited' or 'participation'? Would the existence of a 'representative' executive - iself hardly so in the polarized polity today! - take away the need for natural justice, specifically, the opportunity of granting effective hearing to all affected by a policy?
The policy making non-processes behind the Draft National Environment Policy 2004 are an eye-opener - clearly showing that we cannot agree on what policies we should adopt before we have answered the 'why' and 'how'.