Learning from mistakes

  • 30/01/1999

I have written this before and I want to repeat it again: The Western economic model which we are following with such keenness is a highly toxic model. Toxicity is inherent in it.

It is built upon an intensive use of energy and materials. To do this, it mobilises an enormous amount of resources of the Earth (from a wide variety of minerals to oil and coal reserves) and then processes them into a wide variety of artificial products which are then used widely by human beings. As a result, all the resources that lie in a concentrated form in various parts of the Earth begin to spread throughout the entire ecosystem - through air, through water, through soil - and then they begin to affect the biological organisms, including human beings, that survive in these different spheres of the ecosystem.

One aspect of this toxicity which is little understood, is the speed with which it can grow. Recent studies done by the World Bank have been stunning. When Thailand doubled its Gross Domestic Product ( gdp) , its industrial pollution load went up 10 times. It is not surprising, therefore, why Southeast Asia, East Asia and China which have recently seen unprecedented growth rates in human economic history, are today suffering from extremely high levels of pollution.

India has not enjoyed the same rapid economic growth as these regions of Asia but it too is suffering from increasing levels of pollution. The Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ) study which we present in this issue of Down to Earth shows that in the period 1975-1995, during which the gdp increased 2.5 times, the industrial pollution load increased four times and the vehicular pollution load increased by eight times. And there is reason to believe that these are underestimates. Add to this, additional pollution loads from the modern agricultural sector and from urban households. The environment is, therefore, getting increasingly poisoned day by day - and at an extremely rapid rate.

Unfortunately, even most environmentalists have not internalised the scale and speed of this toxification process. I can cite my own case.

In 1986, when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had asked me to address his council of ministers on the environmental challenges facing this country, I had told this powerful group that rural environmental problems are more important than urban environmental problems. I had said so because land and forest degradation affects the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people, especially poor rural women, extremely adversely. Delhi was still quite clean. I had no idea about the speed with which this capital city will turn into a hell-hole in less than 10 years. And today every metro and small town is rapidly following suit. I now realise how stupid I was and how poor environmental leadership I had provided to the country's political leaders. I should have emphasised the importance of preventing the pollution disaster that was soon going to hit us. But I had no idea of the speed with which it would hit us.

If I had carefully studied the Western world's environmental history, I would have not made such a mistake. It was in the post-World War II period that the world began to see what was then an unprecedented economic boom in Europe, Japan and North America. By the 1950s itself, cities from Tokyo and London to Los Angeles were choking under pollution. It was, in fact, this pollution which kicked off the global environmental movement. Rachel Carson's celebrated book Silent Spring , for instance, was published in the early 1960s. A few years later Japan was stunned by the Minamata disaster.

Over the 1960s and 1970s the Western World responded with increasing investments in pollution control. According to Mohammed T El Ashry, head of the Global Environment Facility, "when Japan began to clean up its environment in the early 1970s, pollution abatement investments surged up to 25 per cent of all industrial investment.

It is obvious that we have failed to learn from the mistakes of the West. The question today is: will we now learn from the mistake we are currently making?

Let me say it will not be easy. This is a time when the political and public mind set in India, as in other developing countries, is mainly focused on economic growth - and let me say this is not necessarily bad. We do need economic growth and as rapid as possible. But then what do we do to restore the balance between economic growth and environmental conservation and public health?

The simple answer is a civil society which will force farmers, industrialists, urban households, politicians and bureaucrats to take environment into account in their decision-making. But there is a weakness here. Pollution issues in particular are highly technical and few civil society institutions have good technical expertise. This weakness becomes a severe disability for the civil society when the government observes a conspiracy of silence and refuses to provide information to the public. Even the scientific community in India does not have enough of a great culture of sharing information and interacting with the civil society. A mass of knowledge exists in research papers but it does not spread in a way which creates mass consciousness.

But despite all this, the problem has to be addressed. There should be a local pollution watch-dog in every Indian town and city.

I invite the readers to send us any suggestions on what cse or Down to Earth can do to help. Do let us know.

- Anil Agarwal

Related Content