District Task Force on Environment

By Toki Blah

A vernacular paper recently carried a news headline titled “Yn peit ki DTF ia ka jingtih & jingkit ia ki maw, shyiap,” (The DTF shall henceforth supervise the mining of boulders and sand). On further enquiry from relevant sources it was discovered that this news item relates to the Government of Meghalaya, Forest and Environment Department, Notification dated January 12, 2022 which in turn is based on an NGT order No 360/2015 Dt 26/02/2021. The Govt of Meghalaya notification mentioned above was all about the constitution of a District Task Force (DTF) to check illegal mining and transportation of minor minerals within each district of the State. The DTF in turn was to comprise of the following. The Deputy Commissioner (Chairperson) ,the SP, the DFO (Member Secretary) , DTO, Rep of Meg State Pollution Control Board, EE Water Resources, Divisional Mining Officer and two independent members from retired Govt Officials, retired school teachers /ex service man, or ex-members of the judiciary.
The DTF is obviously a body, once again purposely set up to check and regulate environmental irregularities that arise from the illegal mining of minor minerals and river sand. On the other hand there are many more environmental offences and crimes; activities currently being carried out in Meghalaya, that threaten the fragile eco-system of the state. These 101 other misdeeds against the environment of our state exist despite the existence of a plethora of Central and State Acts and Rules , that aim at the preservation of our forests, our wild life, our water resources, our biodiversity, control on charcoal burning, felling of trees, wetland preservation so on and so forth. Committees, Task forces and Commissions have been set up to implement the above. Unfortunately at the end of the day one has to admit that the failure rate on environmental protection far exceeds our rate of success. It therefore it will not be abnormal or disparaging to say that there will be little or no chance of the above mentioned DTF to be able to implement and perform its mandate. Its chances of success is dismal at the least and therefore it is important to determine the reason for such pessimistic conclusions .
First and foremost, the setting up of such task forces or commissions to safeguard the environment are usually a reaction to pressure from above either from the Central Govt, the Supreme Court, the High Court or the NGT. It is simply a bureaucratic reaction of the State Government which on its own has never bothered to even set up an agenda to discuss such environmental matters in the Legislature. As a matter of fact discussion on such issues would prove an embarrassment to most of our MLAs and discretion demands that the sooner such matters are swept under the carpet, the better it is for those in power. Therefore such commissions as set up simply to avoid a rebuke, a reprimand from a higher authority. They are not meant to produce results. They lack imagination, creativity nor any sense of commitment to the cause they espouse. Such bodies are usually, if not always, top heavy with bureaucrats or technocrats with very little involvement of the public which the Act /Rule is supposed to serve. For example in the present DTF under discussion, the public representation and participation is strictly confined to retired officials. For goodness sakes, why can’t we be more imaginative; more resourceful; more inspired in identifying persons who can provide more positive contribution through their commitment to the cause. Retired officials are retired and they have other priorities, like tending to their grandchildren or their own health problems than contributing to management of the environment. Question then is why can’t such task forces seek the meaningful participation of people, persons or groups to whom environment preservation is a priority and a passion; people who actually see, observe, live with and witness these acts of environmental degradation in surroundings and situations in which they themselves live in; people who actually want to do something about the better management of their natural surroundings? Why can’t we have participation of those who are actual stakeholders in the matter involved; A Bottom Up, Demand Driven approach to environmental protection; a Participatory Natural Resource Management paradigm as solutions for our Environmental problems?
If I question and critique the composition of the DTF and its delivery competency, I must be equally prepared to provide a better solution. Environmental protection in our case will mainly be associated, except in the case of garbage and waste management of towns and metro areas, with the better management of our natural resources. The area and theatre of operations will be our rural villages. We have our Dorbars that serve as grassroots units of self-governance though they are yet to receive legal recognition. Why can’t the Government set up a Natural Resource and Environmental Management Group (NaREM-G) for each village. One man and one woman from each household of the village will be members of the NaREM-G. The NaREM-G functions under the Dorbar Shnong and their mandate is strictly limited to Management of Natural Resources and the Environment. They advise the Dorbar on such matters. They choose their own Chairperson who could be a woman or an educated youth of the village with a passion for environmental preservation. (No bar for the concurrent Rangbah Shnong to be elected Chairperson of the NaREM-G and we leave such decisions to the wisdom of the community). Individual NaRM-Gs will also elect two from its members to represent the NaREM-G at the cluster level. All NaRM-Gs falling under any particular C&RD Block will form the cluster association of that Block where the BDO will be Chairperson of such NaREM-G association. Discussion and prioritization on issues of Environmental concerns shall form the mandate of the Association and this Cluster Association will also identify one individual from among its members to represent the concerns of the cluster to the DTF.
One NaRM-G member from each Block Association will be elected by his peers to be the community representative to the DTF than the useless retired officials identified in the present notification. In this manner the DTF will receive upto date and pin point location accuracy of any environmental infringement, breach, violation or contravention occurring within the District. The mandate of the DTF will necessarily need to widen from its present narrow focus only on illegal mining of minor minerals. Within its scope will fall first hand community reports on all types of abuses on the environment that could range from illegal felling of trees; illegal hunting; illegal mining; acts of destruction on our rivers and fishes and rampant illegal exploitation of our natural resources. It must be recognized within our culture and land tenure system that natural resources are community owned. No single individual can own and exploit them but sadly because of lack of community empowerment, rich and ruthless business persons have managed to exploit such resources for their own private use. The drilling of underground water for commercial purposes is rampant in Shillong and is a case study which the administration has failed to address. Meghalaya must develop a Public Trust Doctrine which primarily rests on the principle that certain natural resources such as air and water are of utmost importance for the survival of humanity as a whole and that it is wholly unjustified to allow private ownership over them. It is such a Doctrine that must determine the nature and mandate of the DTF.
In conclusion a warning would be most appropriate and the warning is that the proposals made above to revamp the District Task Force on environment will be opposed tooth and nail by vested interests who happen to head the governance in Meghalaya, for these proposals are a direct threat to the environmental abuse with which such people have exploited the natural resources of the state with which to finance them to positions of power that they now hold. The safety and preservation of our environment and the future of our children however will rest on how ready we are to protect and preserve the Community Natural Resources that we possess. As a first step towards such a goal will be the public reaction; response in writing, rejoinders and criticisms to this article so that those who rule us realize what the public expects out of them.
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