Stupid growth

  • 29/11/2003

The Sensex stock index has risen by 75 per cent since April this year. The rupee is at a three-year high. Global investment analysts Goldman Sachs predict that India is the fastest growing of the four " BRIC " - Brazil, Russia, India and China - economies expected to it big in the next 50 years or so. We are "feeling good", say financial planners.

I don't wish to deflate bubbles. But from what we are learning - not just about the sheer wretched poverty in vast parts of the country the Sensex does not touch, but also about the sheer toxicity of the wealth we are creating - it is time we did a rethink about progress and "feeling good". Otherwise, the steps of the tango will change. With each step forward, we will end up taking 10 steps backwards. Growth will come at extraordinary societal costs and conflicts. I say this not because I am against growth, but because I believe it does not have to be so stupid and mindless. We can and must do better.

Why do I say this? Take what we learnt this last fortnight. The directorate general of commercial intelligence and statistics, based in Kolkata, has released data on the imports of mercury into India. It shows that we have become the world's largest importers of mercury: imports have increased from 250 tonnes in the mid-1990s to roughly 550 tonnes last year. Organo-mercury compounds - used in pesticides and other industries - have increased a whopping 1300 per cent over these last 7 years. In this grand economic plan, we are also exporters of mercury-based products - from pesticides to lamps and thermometers. Add up all this and you find that India is now processing up to 70 per cent of the world's total annual mercury production. What steps to become an economic superpower. Staggering.

But can we call this progress? The reason we are the preferred destination for mercury and its compounds is because the rest of the world, including China, knows that mercury is deadly. Its compound methylmercury is a known neurotoxin - it damages the growing brain. Worse, it can pass through the placenta and the blood brain barrier. It threatens the unborn. It cripples life.

Therefore, the world is phasing it out. Consciously, deliberately. Europe has decided to close down all its chlor-alkali production units, which use mercury cells in manufacture, by 2010. Countries are looking for substitutes to all products that use mercury. As a result mercury mining is down, from over 7,000 tonnes in the 1980s to less than 2,000 tonnes in 2000. But the industrialised world has huge stocks of mercury - just Europe only, on ending chlor-alkali production, will have between 13,000-18,000 tonnes of mercury, ready to dump in the world market. The price is falling. The problem is that there is no market left.

Correction. There is that sucker-economy called India. Here, even as the world phases out mercury, we phase it in. And we do this not even with careful planning and regulation of the rich and organised. We phase in mercury with negligence that is criminal.

We currently regulate - in terms of emissions and waste products - roughly 0.2 tonnes of mercury. That's as little as 0.03 per cent of the mercury we imported in 2002-03. We do not even know where mercury is being used. The only industry that is regulated - marginally - is the chlor-alkali sector. Amazing. We are importing more of this highly toxic substance, but without any internal capacity to inventorise use, to regulate waste and to minimise and re-use this known toxin through policy.

I call this stupid growth. Because it is. We don't have to use mercury. The world has already found substitutes for most mercury-based products. We could have easily leapfrogged. The "intelligent" world is talking about comparative risk assessment - introducing only those products that are less toxic than those already in use. This is not only true for mercury, but for the countless other engines-of-growth industries and products we believe will make us the world economic leader.

This wealth will come at a cost we cannot afford. But who will explain this to our industrial leaders and planners? For them, health and environmental considerations are luxuries we cannot afford. According to them we revel in dirty industries, toxic products and lenient regulatory standards because we are poor. In their pernicious brains, when it comes to importing the most toxic products, we must do so, because we are a modern economy. But when it comes to regulating that toxic product - something the industrialised world does precisely because it is a modern economy - we become poor and persecuted. Environmental considerations become a Western conspiracy.

At this rate, Indian economic growth will be an Indian conspiracy - against its own people. Let us be clear that the only reason industry gets away with murder - slow and deliberate - is because we know so little about what it is doing to our health and our environment. We allow huge mercury imports, because we don't have researchers and epidemiologists working to uncover the horrendous diseases it is leaving in its trail.

It is, in the end, a conspiracy of silence. And it is working.

- Sunita Narain

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