In June 1992, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister in the Government of India, delivered the Foundation Day Address of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development (SPWD). He spoke on the topic ‘Environment and the New Economic Policies’. In his talk, Singh urged “objective standards industry-wise for safeguarding the environment, asking industry to certify compliance with these standards, institution of an effective system of verification and industry audit and heavy penalties for non-compliance with approved environmental standards and norms”.
Back in 1992, Singh expressed the hope that the new economic policies, by ending bureaucratic regulation of economic activities, would “set free a substantial amount of scarce administrative resources which can then be deployed in nation-building activities like rural development, education, health and environmental protection”. The finance minister ended his lecture by saying that, “I for one am convinced that the new economic policies introduced since July 1991 will provide a powerful stimulus to an accelerated drive both for poverty reduction and the protection of our environment.”
There is a vigorous debate on the impact of economic liberalisation on poverty reduction. I am not qualified to intervene in this debate, but as a long-time student of environmental issues, I can confidently state that in this latter respect Singh’s hope has been falsified. The past two decades have seen a systematic assault on our lands, forests, rivers, and atmosphere, whereby new industries, mines, and townships have been granted clearances without any thought for our long-term future as a country and a civilisation.
In the 1980s — the decade before Singh addressed the SPWD — the environmental movement had forced the government to introduce a series of important ameliorative measures. Pressures from popular agitations such as the Chipko Andolan had made the nation’s forest policies more sensitive to local communities and to ecological diversity. A movement led by a professor-priest in Banaras had committed the government to a Ganga Action Plan, which aimed to clean the polluted holy river as a prelude to the restoration of other rivers and water-bodies. The scientific and social critiques of large hydel projects had compelled a closer look at decentralised and non-destructive alternatives for water conservation and irrigation.
When speaking of environmental issues, it is important to recognise that in a densely populated country like India, these have both an ecological as well as human dimension. Programmes to clear-cut natural forests and replace them with exotic species deplete the soil even as they deprive peasants of access to fuel, fodder and artisanal raw material. Mining projects, if not properly regulated or carried out with state-of-the-art technologies, ravage hillsides and pollute rivers used by villagers downstream. In this sense, in India, environmental protection or conservation is not a luxury — as it might be in rich, under-populated countries — but the very basis of human (and national) survival.
This was the key insight of the Indian environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which informed both scientific research as well as public policy. After economic liberalisation, however, environmental safeguards have been systematically dismantled. The ministry of environment and forests has cleared destructive projects with abandon. Penalties on errant industries are virtually never enforced. Although by law every new project has to have an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), these, as the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh candidly admitted in March 2011, are a “bit of a joke”, since “under the system we have today, the person who is putting up the project prepares the report”.
As a consequence, the natural environment has steadily deteriorated over the past 20 years. Levels of air pollution in our cities have increased. More rivers are dead or dying owing to the influx of untreated waste. Our forests remain under threat. The chemical contamination of the soil continues unabated.
This undermining of India’s natural life-support systems is ignored, indeed at times encouraged, by state and central governments of all ideologies and parties. Consider the official hostility to the comprehensive, fact-filled and carefully written report on the Western Ghats prepared by a team of experts led by the world-famous ecologist Madhav Gadgil. The Ghats are a natural treasure more precious even than the Himalaya. Their forests, waters, and soils nourish the livelihoods of several hundred million Indians. The Gadgil report urges a judicious balance of development and conservation, whereby local communities as well as scientific experts are consulted on mining, tourism, and energy generation projects. The report is in the spirit of the democracy and social equality professed by the Constitution. However, its recommendations do not sit easily with those who would auction our natural resources to the highest bidder or the bidder with the most helpful political connections. Chief ministers of states have condemned the report without reading it. The Union minister of the environment has refused to meet the distinguished authors of a report her own ministry commissioned. Meanwhile, Gadgil and his equally esteemed colleague, MS Swaminathan, have been dropped from the National Advisory Council. This has further impoverished that body, since Professors Gadgil and Swaminathan are not ‘jholawalas’ but top-class scientists, advocating policies based not on ideology but on logical reasoning and empirical evidence. Singh’s prediction of 1992 — that the environmental situation would improve after liberalisation — has unfortunately not come to pass. Natural systems have continued to decline, while social conflicts have increased, as developers unchecked by the State or the law aggressively displace local farmers, herders, and fisherfolk. Let me end with a prediction of my own. If the Gadgil report is junked, the Western Ghats will, in the years to come, witness its own Singurs, Nandigrams, Niyamgiris, and Dantewadas.
Ramachandra Guha is the current holder of the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, London School of Economics. The views expressed by the author are personal.