The new order

  • 14/11/1999

Once again we have a new environment minister, T R Balu of the Dravida Munetra Kazagham ( dmk ). Nobody knows how deep is his understanding of what needs to be done in this field. As past experience has repeatedly shown, unless the politician-at-helm, namely, the minister, provides a vision, everything can become extremely routine. Which would be really sad because every day lost means that problems will only continue to grow. Every rupee added to the economy will mean a 4-10 times increase in pollution and increased pressure on forests and water unless the government ensures that the economy heads in the direction of sustainable development.

Even Atal Behari Vajpayee's grandiose dream of providing everyone with clean water will disappear with the growing pollution of our groundwater and rivers, an issue that has already become serious in urban India. The new government has created a separate department of small-scale industry. This sector has proved to be the most difficult to control from the point of view of pollution. This technology is not available for small enterprises and solutions like common effluent treatment plants have proved to be ineffective because of the total lack of interest amongst small-scale industrialists.

Therefore, while promotion of the small-scale sector may push industrialisation and dispersal of that industrialisation to different corners of India - all laudable objectives - it will also increase uncontrollable pollution. One can see this happening today in Jetpur in Gujarat, Ludhiana in Punjab, or Tiruppur in the minister's home state. Former environment minister, Kamal Nath, literally gave up trying to control pollution from small-scale industry and relieved them of submitting any environmental impact statement.

Challenges like these are innumerable. And unless some visionary approaches and good management systems are tried out, India will continue to head all the way towards the environmental precipice. The sad part is that reaching the environmental precipice does not mean that the Indian economy will disappear. If indeed that was the case, then our environmentally-errant industrialists would wake up in one shot. All that it will do is that many more millions will start dying unnecessarily, and many millions of poor and marginalised individuals, who do not get much media coverage in any case, will lose their livelihoods.

Shankar Prasad, an environmental health expert with the California government, recently said in Delhi that air pollution levels seem to be higher than during the London smog episode of the 1950s which killed numerous people within a few days and shocked the Western medical community. If that be the case, then why hasn't the Indian government told us about it? If indeed any pollution control is taking place in India today, it is only because of the honourable judges in the Supreme Court and the High Courts. Even with air pollution reaching emergency levels in the country, the Central government as well as the state governments have yet to launch city-by-city plans to control it.

So what should the minister do in such circumstances? Our simple suggestion would be for the minister to take up just a few actions that may improve action across the board not just within the environmental bureaucracy but across the nation. The most important thing about environmental degradation is that it affects human beings and, therefore, the civil society and local communities have a key role to play. If the minister is serious about doing something for the environment, he will not think of just being the boss of a few bureaucrats but a friend of the civil society and put in place mechanisms that open up the entire ministry to the citizens of the country. A starting point would be to start doing better and detailed monitoring of the state of India's environment and ensuring that all data collected is made available regularly to the public. The resulting public pressure would improve environmental management programmes both at the central and state levels. If there is one country that teaches us the importance of this strategy, it is The Netherlands, whose official strategy to deal with the environment has been hailed as one of the best in the world.

The second action that will go a long way to improving environmental management will be the establishment of an inter-ministerial coordination mechanism. Environmental problems are not created by the environment ministry, they are created by the policies of other ministries.

The third action that is urgently needed is a mechanism to project the future environmental challenges so that preventive action can be taken now. Once poor investment has been made and jobs created in a polluting activity, then it is very difficult for politicians to put that activity into reverse gear. Which is why environmentalists now seek the support of judges more than ministers.

The ultimate challenge for the new minister is to become more important for the environment than the judges of the Supreme Court. Let us see if Balu takes it up.

- Anil Agarwal

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