India must realise the human costs of environmental abuse | columns | Hindustan Times
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India must realise the human costs of environmental abuse

The recent protests in Thoothukudi were by working-class victims of environmental abuse. That they ended in such tragedy should have led to a belated dawning of environmental wisdom.

columns Updated: Jun 05, 2018 12:19 IST
Police personnel baton charge a protestor demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper plant unit in Tuticorin, May 23, 2018.
Police personnel baton charge a protestor demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper plant unit in Tuticorin, May 23, 2018.(PTI Photo)

Back in 1928, Mahatma Gandhi had warned about the unsustainability, on the global scale, of Western patterns of production and consumption. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West,” he remarked, adding: “The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [England] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts”.

The key phrase in this statement is ‘after the manner of the West’. Gandhi knew that when India became free, it had to develop economically, to eliminate mass poverty and assure a dignified life for its citizens. But because it had far higher population densities than the West, and because it did not have colonies to command and exploit, India had to be more responsible in its use of natural resources, lest it destroy the environment on which all life, and especially human life, depended.

Gandhi’s environmental ideas were taken forward in his time by such visionary thinkers as the sociologist Radhakamal Mukherjee and the economist JC Kumarappa. However, they were comprehensively disregarded by the governments of post-independent India, which, in their blind arrogance, chose to adopt resource-intensive, energy-intensive policies regardless of Indian realities. This led to massive human suffering, to the dispossession of village and tribal communities by corporate takeover of their resources or by degradation caused by polluting projects. It was this destruction, of nature and of human livelihoods, that was opposed by popular movements such as the Chipko and Narmada Andolans, and the fisherfolk struggle. This ‘environmentalism of the poor‘ led to the belated creation of a ministry of environment in 1980, and to a slew of laws designed to prevent ecological abuse by vested interests.

However, in recent decades the environmental gains of the 1980s have been whittled away by successive central governments, both UPA and NDA, as well by regional parties in the states. This is in part because of the mistaken belief that India must first grow rich before it can afford to clean up, and in part by the capitulation of political parties to private corporations who are concerned with their own short-term profit rather than the larger good of society as a whole. This fresh Age of Ecological Arrogance has caused even further damage, as manifest in our polluted cities, our dead or dying rivers, our depleting aquifers, our contaminated soils, and more.

John Maynard Keynes famously wrote that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” This is absolutely true of all politicians in India today. They are slaves of the economists of the 1950s, who believed that poor countries had to be less concerned with environmental degradation than rich countries. On the other hand, the best economists of the 21st century have conclusively demonstrated that a country like India must be even more environmentally responsible than (say) the United States. This is for three reasons: because our population densities are far higher, because tropical ecosystems are less resilient than temperate ones, and because it is the poor who disproportionately bear the costs of pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, etc. In India, the ignorance of our rulers is compounded by their malevolence, their readiness to sacrifice the interests of the aam aadmi to the greed of their favourite crony capitalist.

Misguided by out-of-date economists and by corporate apologists in the Press, the Indian middle class was lulled into believing that environmental sustainability was a luxury we could ill afford. But in recent years that complacency has been called into question, because the evidence of environmental abuse is now so starkly in our face — and in our chests — and because those who are the victims of such abuse have once more begun to protest. Thus scholarly studies have demonstrated that Indian cities have the highest rates of pollution in the world. Meanwhile, there been a resurgence of the environmentalism of the poor, featuring (among other such groups) tribals dispossessed by open-cast minining, and peasants whose livelihood is threatened by industrial pollution.

The recent protests in Thoothukudi were by working-class victims of environmental abuse. That they ended in such tragedy should have led to a belated dawning of environmental wisdom. But it appears that our decision-makers and those who drive them are determined not to learn. While there has indeed been some fine field reporting on the issue, this has been quickly followed by articles by editorial writers unaware of ground realities, seeking to whitewash Sterlite and its crimes. These apologists have variously claimed (with scant evidence) that the protests were violent and foreign-inspired, while implying (with even less evidence) that imposing environmental responsibility on large corporations will lead to economic disaster.

India today has the intellectual capacity to frame policies which can combine economic growth with environmental sustainability. In our research institutes we have outstanding scientists who can help our governments (at the Centre and in the States) pursue industrial, agricultural, forest, water, energy, housing and transport policies which will enhance growth without imperiling our long-term future. Tragically, however, we do not have politicians willing to listen to these experts. The State’s murder of innocent citizens in Thoothukudi would, in a more transparent and accountable democracy, have been a wake-up call in this regard. But I fear that in our own deeply flawed political order it will soon be forgotten, particularly with a general election approaching and the coffers of political parties waiting to be filled up.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Environmentalism: A Global History

The views expressed are personal