No mood for a party

  • 30/05/1999

T he country is clearly not in a mood for a bash. But that did not stop the event-managers of India Incorporated, the Confederation of Indian Industry ( cii ), from holding its annual bash with the fancy title of National Conference and Annual Session on Preparing for the Next Millennium. But unfortunately, in typical Bollywood style, the bash (wrongly called a conference) had mostly form rather than substance. The state of the economy was the highlight of the meeting. But what was amazing was that there was not even a platform to discuss the growing problem of industrial and vehicular pollution and how Indian industry will respond to this concern.

When it comes to the issue of environment, Indian industry plays the ostrich. Undoubtedly, its feathers are pretty but its head is buried in the sand. While the buzz of e-commerce has been accepted, the discordant noise of environment has been conveniently left out.

Industry makes sweet sounds about protecting and caring for the environment. It says the right things but invariably does the wrong things. And this is because it does not internalise the issue nor does it care to understand the seriousness of the concern. For example, hardly any company has good environmental experts to advise it on corporate policy.

The ostrich syndrome aside, environment is an issue that will in future pinch and increasingly hurt industry. The New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment publishes a monthly database of clippings on industry and environment. Its monthly listing of industrial firms that are taken to court on environmental issues shows that there are over 10 such cases reported by the media every month. There are probably many more which are not reported as citizens' groups, environmentalists and even villagers are now taking polluting factories to court or contesting the setting up of industrial and infrastructure units.

The recent Supreme Court order on air pollution that not only advances euro - i emission norms by 10 months and euro-ii by five years, but also literally places a restriction on the number of cars that can be registered in the capital, is yet another case.

What industry fails to understand is the precarious situation it is in. That it works in a country that has a high population density and, in particular, a large number of poor people. And that in such circumstances, the environment provides for the basic needs of the people. Therefore, it is not an aesthetic matter of clean water, but a life and death matter of drinking water.

The destruction of the environment affects livelihoods and lives and not just lifestyles. High population pressure also means that there is no plot of land or water body that is not used - and used with intensity - for daily survival. Short-changing the environment will, in these circumstances, inevitably lead to conflict.

Furthermore, it must be noted that industrialisation per se, is extremely polluting, as it makes intensive use of resources and energy. Estimates are that over 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, India's Gross Domestic Product ( gdp ) increased by 2.5 times, industrial pollution load increased by about 4 times, and vehicular pollution load by about 8 times.

This is not surprising. The post-war economic boom had immediately landed cities of the industrialised world, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, into devastating air pollution problems even as all water sources near them began to be poisoned to death. Having learnt from their mistakes, Western societies have conducted themselves with much greater discipline with respect to the environment and have also invested substantially in relatively environment-friendly technologies. Japan is said to have spent over 20 per cent of its gdp on pollution prevention investment in the 1970s. Even then, the battle is far from won. Various quantities of toxins still enter the global ecosystem as a result of economic processes in the West.

An industrial and automobile boom is unfolding in India. Therefore, Indian industry will have to move forward in a manner that is both responsible and yet economically effective. This can definitely be done. First of all, this will need a restructuring of the mental framework of industrial managers to take into account environmental considerations. Then will come changes in industrial practice and this does not always mean higher costs because there is a tremendous amount of resource wastage by industry at the moment. At another level it will require foresight and an ability to leapfrog into clean technologies. It is not necessary that we have to take incremental steps to improve our environment. The automobile industry, for instance, may well find that it is more economic to move straight into euro ii emission norms from its current pre -euro i norms.

But one thing is clear: that if the current mind-set persists, Indian industry will ensure that the next millennium will be a living hell for all of us. May be industrial managers should start preparing us for the new millennium by training all of us on how to survive bouts of cancer.

---- - Anil Agarwal

Related Content