The Dilemma of Environment and EcoNoMics!
In a recent media interaction, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that he might reshuffle his cabinet. We don’t know what its shape will be. But it’s near certain that he’ll replace Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) junior minister Jairam Ramesh by someone more pliable and pro-industry. The Singh-Ramesh relationship began spiralling downwards with the MoEF’s banning of genetically modified brinjal after Mr. Ramesh held unprecedented public hearings on the issue. Next came the refusal of a mining licence to the Vedanta group in Orissa’s Niyamgiri Hills, which would destroy a fragile ecosystem and a vulnerable tribal community.
Mr. Ramesh’s latest “offence” was his reluctance to clear the Navi Mumbai airport project. Dr. Singh is pressing for the new airport, although it will destroy 400 acres of mangroves. These sturdy saltwater trees uniquely protect the coastline against sea-storms and waves. Dr. Singh is pushing large mining/industrial projects of South Korea-based multinational POSCO, and Indian groups like the Tatas and the Mittals. An official report found the POSCO project to have violated clauses of the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act which require the entire tribal village to consent to transferring land. But under pressure from global and Indian business and South Korea, the government has appointed a committee to countermand the report. Dr. Singh believes — wrongly — that India’s environmental regulations are excessively tight and discourage industrialisation; they will “perpetuate poverty” and bring back “the licence-permit raj.”
Actually, India is one of the world’s least regulated countries, with a deeply flawed environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, few enforceable standards (on safety, or pollution levels), and no penalties. India ranks extremely low in the Columbia-Yale University Environmental Performance Index –123 of 163 countries. As a former member of a MoEF Expert Committee on River Valley Projects, I can vouch that most EIA reports are fraudulent or doctored by unscrupulous consultants who merely change the project name. Yet, the MoEF approves incomplete applications, without wildlife and hydrological clearances.
The MoEF approves 92% of all project applications. In recent months, it was clearing 4 to 5 applications a day — clearly without much scrutiny! Two major laws to protect fragile ecosystems, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991, have been cynically manipulated for their exception and exemption clauses to transfer forest land to industry, and permit construction dangerously close to the high-tide line.
India is losing prime rainforest year after year. Trees are planted over 1-1.5 million hectares a year. But plantations aren’t natural forests. An alarming 27,000 ha of forest land is being transferred to non-forest uses annually. According to the MoEF’s State of Environment Report-2009, ecological deterioration is pervasive in India. 45% of India’s land is degraded from deforestation, poor drainage, mining, water and wind erosion, water-logging and salinity.
All of India’s 14 major river systems have been heavily polluted with industrial and municipal waste. Half of them have turned into sewers. Total coliform bacteria count in the Ganga ranges from 17,000 per 100 ml in Allahabad to 240,000 in Kanpur and 500,000 in West Bengal. The safe limit is 50 per 100 ml. Potable water is a rarity. Water is contaminated with fertilisers and pesticides, industrial effluents, and animal and human excreta. Heavy metal and arsenic pollution is increasing alarmingly. People spend 5 to 10% of their household budgets on filtering and boiling water, or buying treated water.
It is impossible to walk 50 yards in any Indian city without noticing discarded plastic wrappings, carry-bags, soft-drinks bottles, and “disposable” plates, which are choking rivers, springs and stormwater drains. India’s vehicle population is rising at 25%-plus annually, clogging roads, poisoning people, squeezing out pedestrians and bicyclists, and killing 120,000 people a year. Urban concentrations of respirable suspended particulate matter are two or four times higher than the air-quality standard. A grey haze of suspended particulates, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and soot from the incomplete burning of coal and biomass, constantly hangs over most Indian cities.
Using wood, animal dung, crop residue/grasses, coal, etc. as cooking fuel releases toxic air pollutants, which cause acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. 74% percent of India’s urban households and 91% of rural households use such fuels. Prevalence of tuberculosis among them is as high as 924 per 100,000. Related to all this, and to global climate change, is an acceleration in the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which feed seven of Asia’s greatest river systems (the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang Ho) and are vital for 1.3 billion people. The Greater Himalayas are warming two to four times faster than the globe.
India is following China’s trajectory of ecological destruction. In 2006, a Chinese official estimated that “environmental damage (everything from crop loss to the price of healthcare) costs 10% of GDP — all of the economy’s celebrated growth.” In India, The Energy and Resources Institute — no radical think-tank that — estimates environmental damage at 7 to 10% of GDP — a little higher than the GDP growth rate. These estimates, if even halfway right, cast doubt on the sustainability of India’s growth path. Clearly, India’s top priority is to tighten regulations to protect land, water, air, forests and the coast to ensure people’s survival and well-being. Yet, Dr. Singh sends out the message that the environment is dispensable, but growth isn’t.
He wrongly counterposes poverty to environmental protection. Sustainable industrialisation demands protection of natural resources, which support peoples’ livelihoods. Reckless, unsound industrialisation uproots and impoverishes people. The term “licence-permit raj” is a pejorative, which detracts from a primary responsibility of governance. Surely, Dr. Singh doesn’t want profiteering corporations exploiting and defiling precious resources. Or has he learnt no lessons from Bhopal? Dr. Singh must give up his obsession with environmental deregulation. Or India’s citizens will have to pay dearly for his myopic GDPism and pampering of Big Business.
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