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Five things the environment minister must do

Last updated on: June 08, 2009 13:43 IST

Our new Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has a reputation for sensitivity towards ecology carved through his exemplary speech in the Rajya Sabha wherein he had eloquently denounced the world's biggest and most ecologically disastrous project of interlinking of rivers.

Armed with rigorous facts and figures, he noted: "India's track record in resettlement and rehabilitation has been pathetic. This is a blot on our collective conscience. With the type of track record that we have had, if we embark on this fanciful scheme of river linking with 30 storage reservoirs involving massive displacement of people, I think it is going to be fraught with grave consequences."

In one of his first responses sent to the Campaign for Environmental Justice – India on May 29, which hoped that there will be drastic change for the better in the way this ministry is led, he said, "I don't know what I can do but I will listen and try to make a difference."

Environmental researchers and activists are keeping their fingers crossed because one of the very next few things the environment minister has revealed is that "the prime minister has told me to clear this impression that the environment ministry was a regulatory hurdle in the process of economic growth."

Clearly, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and the prime minister are not yet alive to the collapsing ecosystem.

The stark question is whether the CCEA will let the environment ministry make the structural changes required in terms of reversing the current policies which have resulted in manifest adverse impact on environmental health or whether poisoning of our blood streams and amputation of river basin systems would continue to be deemed collateral damage.

The threat to the integrity of the natural systems is a threat to human heath, and such threats have become routine because of myopic industrial agriculture, blind urban development, regressive transport systems and criminal neglect of non-human species.

While legislative safeguards for environmental protection do seem to exist on paper, the role of the political class which is funded by corporations illustrates that homicidal ecological lawlessness that has led to rampant industrial pollution, soil erosion, agricultural pollution, and genetic erosion of plant resources are quite crucial and merit more acknowledgment.

Be it blood contamination, congenital disorders, preventable but incurable cancer or extinction of known and unknown living species on our planet, it creates a compelling logic to re-examine the premises of Industrial Revolution and design a new one. In the developed world the model of development is under interrogation because of environmental problems.

Between 1975 and 1995 the Indian economy grew 2.5 times, industrial pollution went up four-fold, and vehicular pollution went up eight-fold. This analysis seems factually correct but it has ended up internalising the pollution and externalising the human cost of pollution. In such a context, health indicators of the deteriorating environment is witnessed in terms of a double burden of disease but the political class seems to have been rendered spineless by the corporate empires.

A beginning seems to have been made with the appointment of a seemingly sensible minister after a long while but environmental crisis merits more than rhetoric or cosmetic solutions. If one were to identify five key areas seeking immediate and urgent remedial attention, it would be:

1. Adopt mandatory emission cuts as a national, domestic and enforceable objective even as we affirm the validity of the 'principle of historical responsibility' which is indisputable and incontrovertible. The current stance which states, 'subjecting national aspirational efforts to an international compliance regime may result in lower ambitions' is fine but our ability to reach a certain emission reduction target under a national plan as a national legal obligation would enhance India's negotiating position. In fact the National Action Plan for Climate Change should be revisited to ensure visible and truly 'credible actions' within our own framework.

It is inconsequential for citizens whether some post-dated international humanitarian law is being followed in letter or not, what is of consequence is whether or not its governmental actions factor in the spirit behind a law that will have ramifications not only for the present generation but also for the future generations. Disassociation with carbon trade is also a must because benefits from it are suspect.

2. Get the National Water Policy and National Environment Policy that was drafted by the BJP-led NDA government, besides the industrial policy, rewritten. The UPA government must disassociate itself from it because among other things it entails agreeing with Tamil Nadu's irrational demand for interlinking of rivers. As part of the same effort, overhauling the National River Conservation Directorate to ensure a river basin approach is a must to undo the unhealthy legacy of bulldozing rivers, flood plains, forests, biodiversity, natural drainage etc in manner as if citizens are irrelevant.

The National Council for Applied Economic Research has also made recommendations for the setting up the National Commission for Basin Management. This is required also as a response to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report that states, 'Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate'.

The River Basin Authority must be fashioned in manner that it does not remain a rubber stamp or a paper tiger because if all industrial projects are cleared by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, what role can an effete body of the environment ministry do to undo the wrongs committed by the CCEA? In fact, if one undertakes an investigation of institutional accountability for Bhopal gas leak disaster, it is quite likely that the buck would stop at the CCEA. The environment ministry must save itself from its regressive influence.

3. Publish a database of environmental criminals and fugitives with their photographs and profiles with the name of the companies which fall under the 64 heavily polluting industries under the Red category (highly polluting industries), 34 moderately polluting industries ('Orange' category) and 54 'marginally' polluting units ('Green' category). Also publish a list of India's Most Wanted Environmental Criminals with wanted posters.

4. The environment ministry must get enhanced budgetary allocation for rejuvenating the decaying institutional infrastructure including the Central Pollution Control Board. One parliamentary report too calls for saving the CPCB, the nodal body for regulating environmental norms. Currently, environment clearance, compliance and monitoring are in a very sorry state. It should be strengthened.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests said the CPCB is being 'reduced to a near-defunct body'. The 141-page report of the steering committee on the environment and forests sector for the eleventh five year plan prepared by Planning Commission deals with environment and development. It refers to 'the regulatory challenge' and states: 'In the past some years, intensive economic growth, which has increased economic wealth, has led to massive pollution and degradation of the natural environment. One of the main reasons for this is that the regulatory and institutional framework to control pollution and degradation of natural resources is unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing economic, social and environmental situation in the country.'

'The number of polluting activities -- and the quantum of pollution generated -- has increased in the last several years. Furthermore, newer and newer environmental challenges are thrown up -- from solid waste disposal, to disposal and recycling of hazardous waste, to toxins like mercury, dioxins and activities like ship-breaking to management of vehicular pollution.'

It is high time environmental regulation keeps pace with environmental crimes. Even Interpol has a Pollution & Environment Crime Working group; India too needs one.

5. Stopping transboundary movement of polluting technologies, hazardous wastes, creating an inventory of hazardous chemicals and wastes besides conducting an environmental health audit along with the ministry of health to ascertain the body burden through investigation of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. In one such study in the US, of the 287 chemicals detected in umbilical cord blood, 180 were known to cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. Absence of such studies in India does not mean that a similar situation does not exist in India. Until and unless we diagnose the current unacknowledged crisis, how will he regulatory bodies predict, prevent and provide remedy.

Currently, India is a victim of the unfolding Lawrence Summers Principle. Lawrence Summers, director of the White House's National Economic Council for US President Barack Obama as a World Bank chief economist, sent a memo to one of his subordinates justifying transfer of harmful chemicals from developed countries to developing countries. Indian position on the Basel Convention, Rotterdam Convention and the recently adopted IMO Convention reveals the same.

Our ecological space is a living entity but it is faced with the cannibalistic propensities of illegitimately totalitarian scientism which is married with political consensus. Its linear, piecemeal and closed technological thinking fails to acknowledge that no unlimited development is possible in the nature of things

While a beginning can be made with the above steps, it must be realised that the economic ideology that has led to the current global financial crisis is the same ideology that is accountable for the ongoing ecological disorder of the lunatic ilk.

Therefore, nothing short of the death of the old industrial policies of the pre-climate crisis era and the rebirth of an enlightened policy-making that takes into account intergenerational equity with regard to natural resources would be sufficient.

Gopal Krishna is a New Delhi-based environmental activist

Gopal Krishna