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THE OTHER ILLITERACY
- The Indian road to unsustainability

In her recent book, Green Wars, the environmental journalist Bahar Dutt, writes: “The editor of a leading media house, everytime I pitched a green story, would invariably complain: ‘Environmentalism is stalling growth; all I am interested in is double-digit growth for this country.’”

The idea that environmental protection and economic progress are at odds is widely held among India’s elite. It is shared by newspaper editors, economists, businessmen, and, not least, politicians. The free-market thinker, Gurcharan Das, has written with disdain about what he calls “the fundamentalist and irrationalist nature of the ecology movement”. While he was minister for civil aviation, Praful Patel insisted that “in a developing country, environment standards laid down by developed countries can’t be taken as the thumb rule”. (This was in response to a question about the environmental damage that a proposed new airport in Mumbai would cause.)

This conventional wisdom has been challenged by scholars and activists who have field experience in different parts of the country. They make two central arguments. First, that industrialization and economic growth in Europe and North America was enabled in part — perhaps large part — by the access to the land and resources of the colonies that those countries controlled. Developing countries like India have no such colonies; and they have far higher population densities. Therefore, they must in fact be even more environmentally conscious than Europe or North America were at a comparable stage of their development experience.

The second argument focuses on the social consequences of unregulated economic growth. For, in countries like India, it is the poor who most directly bear the burden of environmental degradation. Depleting forests deprive peasants of fuel and fodder. Polluted rivers deprive them of irrigation water (and sometimes of drinking water too). Opencast mining brings debris to fields and dries up springs. Meanwhile, in the cities, air pollution makes the urban poor — badly housed, overworked, and undernourished — more vulnerable to respiratory and other diseases than their richer (and better-fed, better-protected) counterparts.

These two arguments were first made in the 1970s, by popular movements such as the Chipko Andolan, by scientists such as Madhav Gadgil (of the Centre for Ecological Sciences in Bangalore), and by campaigning journalists such as the late Anil Agarwal (of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi). The combined efforts of activists and scientists led to the formation, in 1980, of a department of environment and forests at the Centre, upgraded to a full-fledged ministry five years later.

The environment ministry was meant to be a regulatory as well as a prescriptive body. On the one hand, it had to frame laws to check environmental damage, monitor air and water pollution, and assess the environmental impact of proposed new mines, highways, dams, and factories. On the other hand, it was meant to fund scientific research so as to forge sustainable policies for forestry, wildlife, agriculture, energy management and so on.

Sadly, for much — if not most — of its existence, the environment ministry has not fulfilled either objective. The ministers who head it have generally ignored or disregarded the advice of India’s top scientists.

Every major project is supposed by law to prepare an environmental impact assessment. In other countries, this is prepared by a group of independent experts. In India, most bizarrely, it is the project promoter who himself (or herself) chooses the consultant to write the EIA. Naturally, the ensuing report minimizes or downplays the negative impacts of the project.

In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, the ruling United Progressive Alliance was worried that large corporate houses were inclining towards Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. A market-friendly Congressman, Veerappa Moily, was placed in charge of the environment ministry. Three weeks after taking over, Moily boasted to the press: “In 20 days, I cleared over 70 projects.” These projects were cumulatively worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore. How their varied and complex impacts could have been investigated so soon beggars the imagination.

In the event, Modi and the BJP still easily won the election. Worryingly, in its first weeks in power, the new government has worked in haste to dismantle or weaken the environmental safeguards that do exist. To begin with, the procedure for getting new mines approved has been simplified. Mining, especially opencast mining (the norm in India), can have major negative impacts: soil erosion, depletion of water sources, deforestation, and the loss of rural livelihoods. On the other hand, mining generates very little employment, nor (because of political corruption and the low royalty rates that this encourages) does it generate much money for the public exchequer.

As studies by Felix Padel, Samarendra Das, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Chitrangada Choudhury and Bahar Dutt show, unregulated mining has already led to environmental degradation and popular discontent in many parts of India. But rather than make scrutiny of new projects more stringent, the environment ministry has made it more lax. Previously, six environmental parameters were considered in assessing the impact of mining. These have now been reduced to four — astonishingly, the crucial parameter of the hydrological value of forest cover has been dropped. As the ecologist Jayanta Bandopadhyay, has pointed out, water, not oil, is the resource most crucial to sustainable economic development in India. Our country has 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only 4 per cent of the world’s water. A steady supply of clean water is absolutely fundamental to agriculture and to industry, to rural and to urban households. Already, our rivers are massively polluted, our groundwater aquifers depleting at an alarming rate (more than 70 per cent in some states). And yet the new government is happy to permit the destruction of forests and the priceless stocks of water they store, merely to oblige a few mining companies.

The environment ministry’s next move was to make the National Board for Wildlife more amenable to political control. By law, the board was to have 10 non-government experts on it; now, it shall have merely two. Other such proposals will follow — for the BJP and its ideologues are perhaps even more contemptuous of environmental safeguards than their Congress predecessors.

Lax laws and dishonoured safeguards are compounded by widespread corruption. Paper and chemical factories are obliged to have effluent treatment plants; these sometimes work for one day a year, the day the pliant government inspector comes and certifies that the law is being complied with. Even at the highest levels of the Central environment ministry, bribes to clear projects quickly are (to put it euphemistically) not entirely unknown.

Mainstream economics — whether neo-classical, Keynesian or Marxist — has traditionally disregarded the ecological consequences of economic activity. However, there is now a growing school of environmental economics. This is represented in an important new book, Greening India’s Growth, edited by Muthukumara Mani. This looks at the costs to society — in the form of ill health, lost income, and increased economic vulnerability — of specific forms of environmental abuse: among them air pollution, forest and pasture loss, degradation of crop lands, and poor sanitation and water supply. The study estimated that in the year 2009, the cost of environmental degradation in India was about Rs 3.75 trillion, equivalent to 5.7 per cent of the gross domestic product. In other words, if the air had not been so polluted, if the forests had not been so rapidly felled, if the soil had not become so toxic or saline owing to over-use of chemicals, if water sources had remained uncontaminated and so on — in that case, India would have added more than five percentage points to its annual growth rate.

In the conclusion to Greening India’s Growth, Mani et al hopefully write that “the cost of degradation exercise undertaken here could be instrumental in moving the environmental debate beyond the ministry of environment to reach other sectoral ministries, especially the finance ministry”.

In a recent article, T.N. Ninan quotes from a United Nations report that arrives at similar conclusions. The report estimates that India is depleting its stock of natural resources at a rate that equals 4.9 per cent of GDP — this, in real terms, more or less cancelling out the 5 per cent growth actually registered. Most alarmingly, India is drawing as much as 33.9 per cent of its renewable water resources (the comparable figure for China is 19.5 per cent). Citing these figures, Ninan notes that “if one factors in the additional point that the people who suffer the most on account of environmental damage are the poor, then it should be clear that a growth process that is environmentally harmful is also anti-poor”.

The decision-making elite living in cities are themselves insulated from the debilitating forms of degradation that the poor suffer from. That is why they are so contemptuous of environmental safeguards. But their ignorance — or arrogance — is undermining the prospects of long-term economic growth in India. The poor, today, and the unborn, tomorrow, are paying the costs of the environmental illiteracy of our political and intellectual leadership.

Among newspaper editors, Ninan stands out for his alertness to the environmental challenge. Likewise, Muthukumara Mani and his collaborators are unusual among economists in being fully aware of — and willing to systematically study — the true costs to society of different forms of environmental degradation. If India is to move away from its currently unsustainable pattern of development, it shall need more such editors and economists. But some ecologically literate ministers (and chief ministers) would help even more.