Power for the people

  • 14/09/1997

Environmental de-gradation has now reached a level in India that the country's highest leaders are talking about it in their speeches. First, the nation's new pre-sident, K R Nara-yanan, said in his address to the nation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary celebrations of India's independence, 'social movements are required for fighting… environmental degradation. In all this I call for a new partnership between the government and the people.'

In his Independence Day address from the Red Fort, Prime Minister Inder Gujral probably became the first prime minister to use this major national occasion to talk about environmental degradation. I cannot think of any prime minister who considered environmental issues to be important enough to be included in this major annual event. Gujral talked about the dirty surroundings in which the Indian people now live, about growing pollution and its impact on health, the lack of concern amongst the rich, the growing pollution of groundwater and the need for the government to awaken the people to launch an anti-pollution campaign. This is the first time that an Indian prime minister has clearly pointed out that wealth can itself be a cause of pollution contrary to the general argument that poverty is the biggest polluter. This is important because generating wealth is the top most objective of the government. Thus, Gujral recognises that economic growth is a double-edged sword.

Both the president and the prime minister have spoken about the need to create people's movements to protect the environment. Indeed, nothing could be more important. For two major reasons. Firstly, there are far too many polluters for the government to keep them under check. Moreover, unless there is a conscious public, there will be limited pressure on the government to do so. The public must give the right signals to its leaders. Secondly, a lot of the pollution comes from the public itself. Disposal of solid waste is a fine example.

President Narayanan, however, made another critical point - that such a movement will be possible only if there is a new partnership between the government and the people. It is sad that he did not elaborate what would be the key elements of this new partnership. Probably what he wants is mentioned in his speech delivered when he assumed the office of president a few weeks ago. In that speech he said, 'The under-privileged… and the poor of every strata of our society… must be made to feel the sensation of participation and empowerment.'

Indeed, empowerment is vital for communities and individuals to take action against polluters and to accept responsi-bility for their own behaviour. And empower-ment alone can lead to genuine participation - that is, parti-cipation in programmes that the community decides on its own and not just participation in programmes that the government decides for the community - and a sense of responsibility. But what should be the elements of this empowerment? This is clearly a very important issue.

In a recent interview with environment minister, Saifuddin Soz, I asked him what are the three or four most important things he would do improve the country's environment. Soz described a number of actions that he would take against polluting industries. I argued that that has been the stated responsibility of the ministry of environment for over a decade, yet the environment has been degrading relent-lessly. I suggested that the answer - to the rolling back of the growing environmental threat - probaby lay in the minister of environment rising above the ministry of environment, spending time to create government support systems that help the members of the country's civil society to become the protectors of the environment. Then the efforts he makes while in office will probably be far more long-lasting.

At the meeting of the National River Conservation Authority held earlier this year, the prime minister, as its chairperson, suggested that the public must be made aware of the deplorable state of our rivers. I, however, expressed a serious doubt about this. What diffe-rence does it make if the public becomes aware but can do very little about it. The discussions had clearly shown that the state governments were responsible for the level of pollution. Under the nation's laws, it is their responsibility to stop the pollution but they don't. Politicians give no support to pollution control boards. Even the Central government money to clean up the rivers gets diverted for general government expenditure and no money is provided for operation and maintenance of the sewage treatment plants.

I, therefore, suggested, in front of the chief ministers of Delhi and Haryana that a public interest litigation could be filed in the Supreme Court that if a certain state government allows a river to get polluted then it should be liable for all health-related damages arising out of that pollution to citizens of downstream states. In other words, in the case of the heavily polluted Yamuna, the citizens of Delhi should sue Haryana for these damages and the citizens of Uttar Pradesh, living further downstream, should sue both Haryana and Delhi governments. If the court passes an appropriate judgement, then all citizens of India will be empowered to fight river pollution. The chief ministers said nothing but later Gujral told me, 'Public interest litigation has an important role to play.' Well, that is empowerment that the Supreme Court can give to the people. Equally, the government must think through how it can empower the people.

Anil Agarwal

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