A Dangerous Void

The Parliamentary hearing on COP15 and effects of Climate Change on Nepal, called by Parliamentarian Gagan Thapa, It was the first time   Parliamentarians were briefed on how climate change effects Nepal and what Nepal's positions have been in international climate negotiations. Photo: Kashish Das Shreshta

The Parliamentary hearing on COP15 and effects of Climate Change on Nepal, called by Parliamentarian Gagan Thapa, It was the first time Parliamentarians were briefed on how climate change effects Nepal and what Nepal’s positions have been in international climate negotiations, 2009. Photo: Kashish Das Shreshta

World Environment Day, 2012 has come and gone, but the international and donor community’s buzz on its ‘Green Economy’ theme and Rio 20+ will reverberate for some weeks and climax later at the end of the year. Nepal’s bureaucrats have been carving an increasingly prominent role for the country to represent the issues of least developed countries in the climate change and sustainability context in the international arena. But its domestic political disarray has left its own internal dealings on these issues in a precarious state.

On May 27, when the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and Parliament took place, it also put in jeopardy the country’s fragile ecology and precious natural resources. Those two elements, though rarely discussed in these terms, are also central to the socio-economic aspirations of every community vying for space in the New Nepal.

While the nation’s attention has mostly been on the constitution writing process, many have not paid as much attention to the Constituent Assembly’s second role as the Parliament. In that capacity, the parliamentarians had been serving some very important functions, especially through the various parliamentary committees.

Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means:
In the last four years, the parliamentary committee on natural resources and means has taken on some of the most difficult and controversial national issues in that time, the most recent of which was perhaps the investigation on the West Seti project deal. Now, as Nepal enters a new realm of political turmoil without a Parliament, our natural resources are left in a dangerous void of oversight.

Historically, Nepal has always witnessed gross abuse of natural resources during political crisis in the country. It is our ‘open natural resources’ that always fall victim to such instability. And the instability in the country today is of an unprecedented scale. As it is, natural resources and the environment are not ‘hot’ topics in national political discussions. On top of that, in this case, it is extremely unclear how long the political transition process will take, or in which direction it will head. It is in that transition where our natural resources management will take a hit. The difference is, while Nepal may have been in a political transition the last four years it was a transition with an interim Parliament. This time, however, the transition will take place without such a body.

But even when we had the interim Parliament, we have to remember that we neither witnessed many discussions on natural resources and the environment, nor drafted any major new resolutions on the subject. Some of the ideas floated hardly seemed appropriate for the nation’s long-term interests.

Through the natural resources and means committee, parliamentarians brought about informed policy debates, it brought together stakeholders of all levels to discuss and help shape national policies, and it put in place mechanisms for policy changes.

The committee also responded not just to issues raised by civil societies or the media but even cases petitioned or brought to their attention by individuals. And finally, the committee maintained a pro-active approach. It was not only looking into issues brought to their attention, but also seeking out issues it wanted to look into and address on its own, in its own initiative. The last such initiative, to work for restoration of river systems and their ecologies in the Kathmandu valley, was just getting started when the Parliament was dissolved.

The parliamentary committee was a policing body that was taken seriously by all concerned parties. In fact, many parties that dealt with issues related to the committee dreaded having to deal with it, if not outright fear its interventions. The committee would regularly follow up with ministries it was looking into, calling them periodically for hearings until the issue reached some kind of policy resolution.

Climate Change:
In 2009, in the lead up to COP15, the committee hosted a hearing on what Nepal’s policies and agendas were for the global conference. Also on the table was the issue of how the phenomenon would affect Nepal and what policies are being set in place to mitigate or adapt to them. For a fresh batch of parliamentarians, as well as veterans of the institution, it was an introduction to an issue that politicians in Nepal don’t often find themselves thinking about.

Illegal Mining of Chure Hills:
In 2010, when the media began reporting on the subject, the committee immediately began hosting hearings on the subject with the highest level of officers from the Ministry of Forest. The devastation of Chure Hills through the illegal gravel and stone business that ravaged one of the country’s most fragile ecologies also came to light in 2010. Political and business interests in the issue were highly intertwined, but the committee managed to conduct investigations and create strict policy guidelines on how the industry had to be regulated.

Agriculture and Monsanto:
In 2011, as the Monsanto issue flared up, the same committee hosted a series of policy discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives as well as Nepal Agriculture Research Council to develop more coherent seed policies as well as guidelines on testing new seed technologies for a longer period of time before it is introduced to farmers. This, the committee rightfully argued, would create an extra layer of protection for the farmers from accessing seeds that were not fully tested.

These are just a few examples from the last four years. However, starting last week, it is unclear how the issue of natural resources management will unfold in the country. But recent history alludes to the fact that it could be quite devastating. Even at a time when the committee existed and worked on issues proactively, there were heads of ministries and top bureaucrats who would try to over-ride any oversight. Now, there is no oversight mechanism. Ministries have unquestioned authority.

Strengthened Institutions:
The parliamentary committee on natural resources and means was an example of how strengthened institutions could be effective. The Constituent Assembly had its natural resources committee too. It too had done extensive work to draft the subject it was responsible for dealing with in the new constitution. The work had been completed long in advance of this May 27. It is impossible to express how regretful it is that both bodies don’t exist anymore.

A Dangerous Void:
So where does that leave us? Nepali politics has a history of being more interested in natural resource extraction than it does in natural resource management. We know leaders from all political spectrums tend to amplify those tendencies during transitional periods. As political tensions rise in coming days, the already marginalized issue of natural resource management will only find itself more isolated, if not outright abused. It is now urgent to somehow create not just public awareness but a public discourse on any sign of abuse that may be witnessed within a ward, VDC, or any of the proposed federal state boundaries. Our forests, water systems, and farms cannot be compromised any further.

The people’s elected representatives of the last four years are no longer their voices. In this void, an unprecedented responsibility to be vigilant and pro-active has also been shifted to our civil society and the media. It is unclear when a Parliament may be reinstated. But until then the burden, and the privilege, of protecting and fighting for our country’s fragile ecology and shared natural resources is solely upon the citizens of the country.

Thapa was a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means and worked on several of its reports. Shrestha worked closely with the Committee. This piece was originally published by Republica national daily on June 6, 2012.