Politics and Play
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.