‘Progress Now, Environment Later’ Won’t Do

With its disproportionate economic gains, the US model is not for India. Industrialization at the cost of environment is not sustainable. Inclusive social growth will be elusive if natural resources are viewed from the prism of short-term gain, opines the author.
What must be done
● Enforce environmental laws to control pollution.
● Facilitate freedom of expression and assembly of people drawing attention to issues of environmental degradation.
● Empower local bodies to take decisions on environmental issues.
● Put in place biodiversity management committees (BMCs) in all local bodies, fully empowered under the Biological Diversity Act, to regulate the use of local biodiversity resources; to charge collection fee and receive appropriate incentives.
● Register crop cultivars as called for by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, and give grants to panchayats to build capacity for conservation of crop genetic resources.
● Implement the Forest Rights Act; encourage empowered communities to adopt practices of sustainable resource use and to set apart areas dedicated to biodiversity conservation.
● Enhance the scope of regional development plans to include key environmental concerns and make mandatory the involvement of BMCs.
● Promote access to environmental information by making available the currently suppressed Zoning Atlases for Siting of Industries (ZASI), and opening up forest and wildlife areas to scientific data collection.
● Organize a biodiversity information system in line with proposals before the National Biodiversity Authority since 2004.
● Organize a transparent, participatory database on environment by drawing on student environmental education projects as recommended by the Curriculum Framework Review, 2005, of the NCERT.
● Carry out a radical reform of environmental clearance process by assigning the preparation of environmental impact assessment (EIA) statements to a body that does not depend on payment by project proponents; involving BMCs; and taking on board all information submitted and suggestions made during public hearings.

Today’s environment-development debate is cast in inappropriate terms of just two choices. This is a false contradiction; the real issue is not whether India can afford the socalled luxury of worrying about environment, but whether it can afford to slide into a lawless, tyrannical society that abuses the liberating spirit of science. Economics, properly interpreted, tells us that any country should aim at ensuring a harmonious development of the sum total of a nation’s capital stocks of natural, manmade, human and social capitals.

This calls for focusing on creating a law-abiding, genuinely democratic society that imbibes the scientific spirit. A well-informed citizenry able to exercise its democratic rights will automatically ensure that environment is cared for, as has happened in the highly industrialized Germany and Scandinavian countries. What we must do is concentrate on implementing what by all rights should be implemented: the many well-designed provisions of various Acts and schemes for protecting the environment, and for devolution of democratic powers, provisions that are being systematically sabotaged.

False gods
We live in a world in flux, a world that has been changing rapidly. Prior to the industrial revolution, the Indian society had possibly developed a relatively prosperous agrarian civilization with extensive handicraft-based industrial production and a rather stable social regime, albeit grounded in a highly inequitable caste society. But with the emergence of modern science and sciencebased technologies, Europeans came to dominate the world.

The British systematically dismantled traditional Indian systems of resource management and destroyed the handicraft-based industrial production, draining away India’s resources and impoverishing it. Naturally Indians came to regard assimilation of European science and technology as critical to India’s progress. Mahatma Gandhi disagreed and advocated rejection of European science and technology, and revival of fully self-sufficient Indian villages as the basis of progress.

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While he successfully led the struggle for Independence, his many actions, such as his support of the Tatas in the context of peasant agitation against unjust takeover of their lands for setting up a hydel project, were quite inconsistent with this philosophy. So after Independence, his model was set aside, and India launched itself on a pursuit of industrialization on the western model. Meanwhile, the Marxist philosophy had emerged as a significant rival to the capitalist model.India adopted a curious mixture of the two, accepting Soviet ‘statism’ without the accompanying pursuit of economic equality through measures like land reform.

Not ideal
India soon came under a very strong influence of the US, and began to dream the American Dream with a large number of influential middle class families having many of their members settled in that country, and others educated in American universities. This has had serious negative implications that are perhaps best illustrated by Larry Summers’ notorious toxic memorandum.

Summers is an influential economist, onetime Secretary for Treasury in the Clinton Administration and president of Harvard University. Perhaps ruminating on India’s weak-kneed response to the Bhopal gas disaster, Summers, then Chief Economist at the World Bank, wrote in 1991 a memorandum stating: “The measurement of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. A given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” India was the foremost among the low-wage countries he had in mind, and today, India is a favored destination of many of the world’s worst polluting enterprises that are no longer allowed to function in their own country. By 1990, the Marxist models were losing their sheen.

The prescription of social ownership of production has not proven to be successful; the resulting dictatorships have concentrated power in the hands of a few and abused it roundly. These abuses have not only included abuses of rights, but those of environment as well, as happened in East Germany. Indians have come to view the US as the only model, even after the current economic difficulties. However, what drives the US economy today is “rent seeking”, such that economic gains of many agents are often excessive.

Because of these disproportionately large economic gains, a small proportion of the US society has cornered the bulk of the wealth and political power. Its democracy has been perverted from a one person-one vote to a $1- one vote system, in which the powerful are engaged in distorting the economy to enhance unjustifiable gains. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist who has pursued issues of inequality, says the resultant consequences include exhaustive use of natural resources, unacceptable pollution loads, failure to build human capital because of declining investments in education, science and technology, poor healthcare and high levels of unemployment, and erosion of social capital with increasing levels of social strife.

Yet influential and learned Indians continue to argue that the US model should be our ideal, and we should ignore the endemic problems of social injustice, environmental degradation and large-scale corruption. The argument goes: The US once had high levels of pollution and got over those problems, what does it matter if we have high levels of pollution now? The wheels of history will turn, and we too will come to live in the paradise that the more fortunate US citizens inhabit today. There are several problems with this contention.

We do not have the freedom and luxury of exploiting the resources of much of the rest of the world that the US has had for centuries and continues to enjoy today. Its bankers have robbed people in many ways and swallowed public funds to keep banks from sinking. A large proportion of US citizens are today wondering if they are indeed living in a paradise, and have been coming out on streets against the government of 1 per cent, by 1 per cent and for 1 per cent.

Alternative models
But there is another western model that accepts industrialization and is far more democratically oriented and caring of environment than the US.Germany has a strong environmental movement, with the Green Party constituting a significant political force. It is a state with major commitments to environmental protection, and its entrepreneurs are notable for restrained behavior and willingness to accept relatively low levels of returns, in stark contrast to the US bankers. Germany is also economically better than the US. Democracy, with all its shortcomings, is the best political system, as is capitalism the best economic system.

But the market forces must be socially moderated to ensure environmental costs are borne by entrepreneurs, that common property is protected and concentration of wealth not allowed to pervert the democratic principle. This calls for citizen participation.

Nurturing social capital
Democratic values are at the heart of our Constitution, and we have progressively enacted a series of well-thought out laws for empowering people.We have also passed a series of well-thought out laws for protecting the environment. We have embraced the spirit of science, and continue to invest substantial resources in nurturing science and technology. The real issue is not inadequate laws, but deficit in governance.

The laws protecting the environment are not implemented. The constitutional provisions for empowering the people are kept in suspension. Scientific activity that would contribute to protecting the environment and could engage the barefoot ecologists as partners in the scientific enterprise is discouraged, even suppressed.

Since the political establishment and the bureaucracy malfunction, people see no recourse other than protests and court cases. This is an erosion of our social capital and goes against our social nature, for societies have evolved treasuring fair exchanges. Yet,we have done well to keep our democracy alive, and strengthen it through measures like the Right to Information Act. The currently prevalent rule has deteriorated into a government of contractors, by contractors and for contractors.

We must focus on building our democracy bottom-up from the grass-roots level, an Endeavour in tune with the spirit of the Constitution. Hence, the ongoing protests and court cases must be complemented by organizing people down to the grass-roots level to exercise their democratic rights. This is the only way in which we can fashion a lawabiding, genuinely democratic society that imbibes the scientific spirit.

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