In a recent interaction with newspaper editors, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that he might soon reshuffle his cabinet. If this happens, it's highly likely that the junior minister in independent charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Jairam Ramesh will be replaced by someone more pliable and pro-industry.
A turning point in the Singh-Ramesh relationship was the MoEF's banning of genetically modified brinjal. Ramesh set a precedent by holding public hearings in seven cities, in which an overwhelming majority of the 8,000 participants opposed field trials of the vegetable. Next came the MoEF's refusal of a mining licence to the Vedanta group in Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills following the NC Saxena report, which highlighted the vulnerability of the Dongria Kondh tribals and the project's violations of the Forest Rights and Forest Conservation Acts. Ramesh, an engineer-turned-manager-administrator with a World Bank background, is no green zealot. He has consciously distanced himself from jholawalas, as social activists are derogatorily called in India. Ramesh's latest "offence" was his reluctance to clear the Navi Mumbai airport project, which Singh is pressing for. This project will make billions for contractors and politicians, but destroy 400 acres of mangroves, sturdy saltwater trees which protect the coastline against sea-storms and tidal waves.
Singh has a conservative view on environmental concerns. He believes they "perpetuate poverty" and will bring back "the licence-permit raj". He's also pushing large mining and industrial projects promoted by South Korea-based multinational POSCO, and the Tatas, Mittals and Jindals. The POSCO project was found to have violated important clauses of the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, under which any land transfer requires the consent of the entire community of a tribal village. But under pressure from global multinationals, Indian business and South Korea, the government has appointed yet another committee, with a pro-business bias, to countermand the earlier report. Singh is wrong to trivialise environmental concerns on the premise that India's environmental regulations are excessively tight and discourage badly needed industrialisation. In reality, India is one of the world's least-regulated countries, with a deeply flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, few enforceable standards (on safety, or permissible pollution levels), and no worthwhile penalties.
India has a low rank in the Environmental Performance Index created by Columbia and Yale universities-123 of 163 countries. Pakistan's rank is even lower, at 125. India's EIA process clears 92 per cent of all project applications virtually without scrutiny. A cottage industry has sprung of consultants who write made-to-order reports for promoters, merely changing the project name. As a former member of an MoEF Expert Committee on River Valley Projects, I can vouch that most EIA reports are doctored or fraudulent. Yet, the MoEF accepts incomplete applications, without clearances from wildlife wardens, hydrologists and other authorities. Until recently, it was approving 4 to 5 applications a day! Two major laws enacted to protect fragile ecosystems, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991 have been cynically manipulated for their exemption and exception clauses to transfer forest land to industry, and permit construction dangerously close to the high-tide line.
India is losing a prime rainforest every year. True, trees are planted over 1-1.5 million hectares a year. But plantations aren't natural forests. An alarming 27,000 ha of forest land is being transferred to non-forest uses annually. The CRZ notification has been reduced to a farce. The past two decades have accelerated degradation of land, pollution of major rivers, and declining of air and water quality, undermining the quality of life. According to the MoEF's State of Environment Report-2009, 45 per cent of India's land area is degraded due to deforestation, poor agricultural practices, mining, water and wind erosion, waterlogging and salinity.
All of India's fourteen major river-systems are heavily polluted. Dumping of industrial and municipal waste has turned half of them into sewers. The total coliform bacteria count in the Ganga rises vertiginously-from 1,600 per 100 ml in Haridwar, to 17,000 in Allahabad, to 240,000 in Kanpur, to 500,000 in West Bengal. The drinking water standard is less than a 50 per 100 ml. Safe potable water is becoming a rarity. There's widespread contamination of water with fertilisers and pesticides, industrial effluents, and animal and human excreta. Heavy metal and arsenic pollution is increasing alarmingly. People spend 5 to 10 per cent of their household budgets on filtering and boiling water, or buying treated water. Plastic is playing havoc in India. Discarded wrappings, carry-bags, soft-drink bottles, and "disposable" plates are choking rivers, springs and stormwater drains. It is impossible to walk 50 yards in any Indian city without noticing plastic litterings.
In most Indian states, concentrations of respirable suspended particulate matter are two or four times higher than the official ambient air-quality standard. A grey haze of suspended particulates, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and soot from the incomplete burning of coal and biomass constantly hangs over most Indian cities. India's vehicle population is rising at 25 per cent-plus annually, choking roads, poisoning people, squeezing out pedestrians and bicyclists, and killing 120,000 people a year.
Another worry is indoor air pollution. The use of wood, animal dung, crop residue/grasses, coal etc for cooking releases high levels of toxic air pollutants, with serious health consequences. Seventy-four per cent of India's urban households and ninety-one per cent of rural households use such fuels. Prevalence of tuberculosis among them is as high as 924 per 100,000. Indoor pollution also causes acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. Related to all this, and to global climate change, is an acceleration in the Himalayan glacier melting. These glaciers feed seven of Asia's greatest river systems (the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and the Huang He) and constitute a vital resource for 1.3 billion people. The Greater Himalayas are warming two to four times faster than the globe.
India is following China's trajectory of ecological destruction. In 2006, an official at China's State Council estimated that "environmental damage (everything from crop loss to the price of healthcare) cost 10 per cent of its GDP-all of the economy's celebrated growth". The Energy and Resources Institute-no radical think-tank that-estimated in 2007 that the total environmental damage to India amounts to 7 to 10 per cent of the GDP-a little higher than the growth rate. These estimates, if even halfway right, cast doubts over the sustainability of India's growth path. Clearly, India's top priority is to tighten regulations to protect its land, water, air, forests and the coast to ensure people's survival and well-being. Yet, Singh sends out the message that the environment is dispensable, but growth isn't.
He wrongly counterposes poverty to environmental protection. Healthy, sustainable industrialisation demands protection of natural resources which support people's livelihoods. Reckless industrialisation and predatory mining cut off people from their resource base, uproot them, and turn them into paupers. The term "licence-permit raj" is a pejorative, which detracts from a primary responsibility of governance. Surely, Singh doesn't want profiteering corporations exploiting and defiling precious resources. Or has he learnt no lessons from Bhopal? Singh must give up his obsession with environmental deregulation. Or India's citizens will have to pay dearly for his myopic GDP-ism and pampering of Big Business.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: [email protected]