Gobar times: Environment for Beginners


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C O V E R  S T O R Y

N O W H E R E  T O  G OT

Legally: Again in no man’s land…

“Displacement from one’s home is bad enough, but when it is done in a manner that is shoddy, inhuman and insensitive, it is lethal,” said Anil Agarwal, founder editor, Down To Earth, in his editorial, way back in November, 2000. This, he believed, was the most crippling problem that the environmental refugees — irrespective of what category they belonged — faced at that time. The situation still remains the same. Why? Because strangely enough such refugees are not recognised by law — whether international or national.

First lets take a look at the global scenario. Article 1A (2) in the UN Convention related to Status of Refugees defines the criteria of being a refugee as those with a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion’. Even The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distinguishes between ‘real’ refugees and ‘merely’ displaced persons.

This essentially means that the UN member nations are under no legal compulsion to acknowledge environ-mental refugees, nor to offer them succour. And if these homeless communities do not cross international border, they are not even officially considered to be refugees. So the millions of people who are ‘internally displaced’ are completely left out in the cold!!

No relief in sight
Now let us consider what has been the impact of this legal vacuum. First, how does it affect the people who are ravaged and displaced by natural calamities? Because there are no official guidelines to generate and regulate inter national relief, they often fall victim to political prejudices of different populations, governments and individuals. How? Let me give you an example. In 1983, the Red Cross launched separate appeals for Polish food needs and for drought victims in north eastern Brazil. Poland received four times the amount required. But by the end of the year not more than 56 cents per Brazilian to be assisted could be raised!

“Where governments or other agencies have resettled with impunity, the basic rights listed in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights have often been violated. In other cases, the rights to adequate housing, education, participation in cultural life… all listed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have been breached,” says a survey done by World Bank. “No one asks the displaced people will they be psychologically, socially, and culturally prepared for a new way of life?,” says Walter Fernandes, social scientist who has worked exclusively on tribal issues for many years.

Whither India?
In India, the relocation strategy works like this: the Union government in New Delhi provides financial assistance, and the state government is expected to identify land for relocation. Interestingly, till date only three states in India — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka — have resettlement legislation.

On the ground what happens is inhuman. Resettlement breaks family ties and completely disrupts livelihood. The tribal community of one village is relocated into different villages, separating brother from brother in many cases. In most instances when land is given, it is marginal and of poor quality. As Anil Agarwal pointed out, ‘It
makes the destitute even more destitute than the destitute’.

Social scientists and activists say the environmental refugees will remain rudderless and poor till every nation recognises their sovereign rights over the natural resources, including land, forests and water. They should be involved in every stage of the rehabilitation process.

And above all, they must be allowed to set their price and given legal rights to choose. After all, they have paid the price for our development...


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