The Cogentrix episode

  • 30/01/2000

Now that Cogentrix has decided to pull out of its offer to build a power plant, India's administrators have suddenly realised that the liberalisation process is being threatened. Therefore, the government is falling all over itself to reassure the foreign company that it is still on board. Hopefully, the company will not disappoint the supine government. But media commentators are already out with their barbs against environmentalists who had filed an internecine series of petitions against the company and the courts for having entertained such 'frivolous' cases. Some are once again raising the hackneyed argument whether a desperately poor country like India should not give greater importance to development as against the environment. These commentators have not got it quite correct. The problem is neither environmentalists nor the courts or public interest litigation, for that matter. These are all part of India's democratic process and the stronger they are, the better it will be for the country. And, if not our people, then at least a us company like Cogentrix understands this fully well. Environmental litigation in the us is just as common, if not more, as in India. And us companies know that they have to deal with the civil society.

The problem here, however, is the extremely poor quality of governance that we suffer from unlike the us . Protection of the environment is an objective that our lawmakers have put on the country's statutes. This was not something that the environmental community did. But, as has been the case, our lawmakers are quick to pass laws but don't respect them at all. Few governments have shown any desire to respect and implement the laws that they themselves promulgate, including the nation's environmental laws. Otherwise the state of the country's environment would not be as bad as it is today. Air and water pollution alone kill at least a million people every year and, with industrialisation growing, there will be more and more deaths in course of time. Do we truly want to pay this price for development?

Politicians are quite happy to make deals with industrial firms and then leave the public to suffer the consequences. The area of the Western Ghats where Cogentrix was going to set up shop has seen numerous protests. But hardly has the Karnataka government or the Central government done anything to translate these protests into policy and thus reassure the people that their environment will not suffer.

The governance of the environment is so poor that the government once it clears an environmental impact statement of a company has no mechanism to ensure that the commitments made by the company are actually followed through. It is interesting that one of the protesters against Cogentrix was Maneka Gandhi, a person who is no less than a minister in the current government at the Centre. None of this would have happened if she had done a better job as the environment minister in ensuring that the country's environmental laws are properly followed or, for that matter, to add in her favour, had been allowed by her political colleagues to do so. V P Singh had no interest in environmental protection and obstructed her at every stage. Among those who followed, H D Deve Gowda was also one of those who ranted and raved against environmentalists and not against the state of poor governance.

The key upshot of all this is that hardly anybody has any faith in the implementation of the country's laws. Therefore, with the judicial process opening up to the public, thanks to our honourable judges, people are going to the courts to seek the implementation of precisely what our own lawmakers have put on the statute books. Until our great governmentwalas - both the bureaucrats and the politicians - understand that public confidence in public institutions is today at its lowest point and work hard to restore that confidence, India's democracy will generate protests of all kinds against the current state of affairs.

The government's track record both in environmental protection and in rehabilitation of project-affected people has been nothing but a string of hyperbole and totally false promises, leaving hundreds of thousands totally destitute. The record is nothing short of being pathetic if not downright dishonest. If there was indeed greater confidence in the processes of the government, then people would not protest in this way and the courts would also not entertain such petitions. We would argue that given the state of corruption in the country, the best way for the government to protect the environment would be to further encourage environmental litigation, letting the public and courts take the upper hand. In fact, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, one of the few prime ministers who took a keen interest in the environment, was convinced that environmental litigation would have to play an important role in environmental protection. Of course, it would help companies if the courts had sufficient resources to deal with these cases fast. And that would also arrest any misuse of the judicial process fast. That should be the key task of the government.

So if we want to save the likes of Cogentrixes, then our humble suggestion to our media friends is, please take the prime minister and his worthy colleagues to task for this state of affairs. Not India's democracy.