The assertion that the environment is coming in the way of development is not just utterly wrong; it is a fundamental misconception of what development means.
In the midst of the several incisive comments he made during a recent Walk the Talk interview with Shekhar Gupta (the video is available on the NDTV website), HDFC Chairman Deepak Parekh made one profoundly distressing comment. He said, “… environment issues are coming in the way of development. Now, we want the environment to be protected, we want ecological improvements, but somewhere, we have to draw a balance. Do we want growth, and if we want growth, we have to make some sacrifices or take precautions. But you cannot say that you cannot give permissions. There is a disconnect between the industry ministry and the environment ministry. My personal view is, look at the existing industries that are creating all the pollution, emissions. They are going scot-free. Why can’t you try and clean the existing ones? I think you should have a responsibility to improve the existing industries. Don’t block a new entrant.”
This is a popular view: that the environment is a block and its protagonists are block-heads, opposed to every form of development, trying to hold the country back; that environmental protection is some passing fad antithetical to growth; and therefore we should focus on “cleaning up” old polluting industries and let new ones come in freely.
The last statement is factually incorrect. The last 15 years have seen significant pollution control systems being put in place: the moving of polluting units out of Agra and off the Ridge outside Delhi, the translocation of tanneries along the Ganga, new norms for air and water emission and more. It’s not complete, but it is being done. Closer home, the Patalganga river at Khopoli was once the recipient of enormous amounts of industrial effluent. Some industries shut down. Those that continued put in effluent treatment plants and filtration systems (today only the municipality continues to pump untreated sewage into the river). To suggest, therefore, that nothing is being done about existing polluting industries is plainly wrong.
More troubling is the view that the environment is the enemy of development, a polarized force. It is not. You simply cannot have the latter without a proper consideration of the former. The law has a favoured phraseology for this—sustainable development, intergenerational equity, the precautionary principle—and it also explicitly recognizes that without environmental protection there can be no long-term meaningful development. Every intervention entails some amount of environmental degradation. You minimize the damage when you can, and it is nobody’s suggestion that there be a zero-tolerance policy towards environmental damage. Project proponents routinely portray every environmental concern as a wholesale objection. There can simply be no single homogenized rule that applies to all projects; some may be permissible, others not. You cannot always ‘strike a balance’. In that situation, the Supreme Court says1:
“… the option to be adopted is not very easy or in a straitjacket. If an activity is allowed to go ahead, there may be irreparable damage to the environment and if it is stopped, there may be irreparable damage to economic interest. In case of doubt, however, protection of environment would have precedence over the economic interest.”
In the 1970’s a hydel project proposed across the Kunthipuzha river in the Silent Valley region of Kerala threatened a vital rainforest, home to several endangered species including the lion-tailed macaque. The environmental movement (triggered by the work of Romulus Whitaker) saved the Silent Valley, and it was later notified as a National Park. It is now the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. What would have been gained by the project? What would have been lost? What was the correct “balance”? Similar are the horrific proposals to ram eight-lane expressways through the Kanha National Park. Nobody denies we need good roads. Sometimes, though, the cost is just too high. A road can go around. A tiger cannot.
It is not a question of to have or to have not. The question is whether these projects need to be sited here. This was true of Silent Valley, and it was true of the Thal-Vaishet plant whose siting the late Shyam Chainani successfully opposed (and which did not result in an abandonment of the plant itself, merely its relocation), the BSES (now Reliance) thermal power plant in Dahanu, the Mundhra and Dhamra ports, and it is equally true today of more recent proposals like the Navi Mumbai International Airport or the Jaitapur Nuclear Power plant.
In one chapter of his riveting 2005 analysis, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jared Diamond examines the contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two countries that share a single landmass but widely divergent histories. One protected its forests, the other did not. One was careful with its environment, the other was not. And one developed and became rich, the other did not. It is a simple mantra, too often forgotten: pollution impoverishes. Poverty pollutes. ‘Development’ without environmental protection most hurts the poor, and that is no development at all. Iconic 100-storey towers in crowded localities, sparkling gas-guzzling SUVs without roads to run them on and glitzy malls do not make for a socially and economically just society. These constructions are superficial and shallow indicators of a society’s progress. It is naïve to assume that environmental damage is the sole contributor to the decline of societies; to be sure, there are others and Diamond lists another three, including hostile neighbours. But the most determinative, a society’s response to its environmental problems, is always significant. Countries that historically developed successful and effect forest management protocols prospered; those that did not collapsed.
How we respond to environmental challenges is at least in part cultural and historical. Our ancient texts contain proscriptions against environmental destruction, the destroying of forests and the killing of animals. Tree-worship and tree-planting are also part of these scriptures. In Asoka’s reign, the 5th Pillar edict and Kautilya’s Arthashastra both contain strong laws for environmental and ecological protection.2 Yet other texts depict heroic figures engaging in the most massive environmental destruction: the burning of the Khandava forest by Arjun and Krishna before establishing Indraprastha and the stomach-churning description of Dushyant’s hunt, entailing the wholesale slaughter of animals and extensive tree-felling for sport.3
The inconsistency is even more acute today. Our instinctive response to any pristine water body is to fling an 8-micron plastic bag into it; and our first reaction to a wetland is to envision its concretization and the planting of ornamental trees.
The demands of our increasingly unplanned and higgledy-piggledy cities only make this worse. Mumbai’s Tree Authority once planned to cut down the two beautiful rain trees near the Dadar Catering College. They were, it seems, ‘causing accidents’, presumably by jumping out into oncoming traffic (and never mind that the local police station reports no statistical data of crashes into these trees). Nepean Sea Road lost many of its beautiful trees because someone decided it made sense to widen a short stretch of that road even though that very road narrows dramatically at either end where it can’t possibly be widened.
In Pune, challenging the felling of trees for the widening of Ganesh Khind Road, once a gorgeous tree-lined avenue, the court was told something even more remarkable: that trees cause pollution because they force cars to slow down and idle and everyone knows that idling engines emit toxic exhaust fumes (and no, I did not make that up).
Bangalore was once India’s Garden City. Today, less than 8% of its geographical area is under forest cover. In July 2008, it was only an intervention by the High Court that stopped a proposal to fell a staggering 300,000 trees—most of them old, some of them rare—on Bangalore’s arterial roads to make way for road widening; and as recently as November 2010 a local chipko-style tree-hugging movement attempted to protect as many as 856 trees planned to be cut down on Jayamahal Road. You only have to visit our famed hill stations—Simla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Kodaikanal, Ooty, Darjeeling—to see for yourself the ‘benefits’ of ‘development’ and the results of not saying no to environmental destruction. The latest gem comes from Matheran where the local authority has decided that the betterment of that haven is best served by putting in a 90,000 square metre water theme park, for which at least 40 acres of old-growth forest will be hewn down. And this is a place that has chronic water shortages. Mumbai has less than 120 square kilometres of forest cover remaining; and let’s not forget that the bulk of that is in the 107 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Between 2007 and 2009, a staggering 400,000 trees were illegally felled in Maharashtra, half of those in a single year.
This is balance? This is development? By what definition?
So let’s hear it again: how exactly does the environment “come in the way” of development?
In 1990, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund) produced a marvellous book called Wild by Law, (ISBN ) chronicling its work in shaping American environmental law and policy. Here, in chapter after chapter, we see the environment trumping economic interests — a ski resort at Mineral King; timber logging at Admiralty Island; power plants around the Colorado Plateau; timber operations in the Redwood National Park. Each of these projects was driven by compelling economic interests. In the end, those interests were of far less value than what was saved.
We now have ways to measure these losses and gains. For the past two years, my friend Pavan Sukhdev has been on a sabbatical from his job with Deutsche Bank heading an international team called TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. TEEB, which is supported by UNEP, has developed sophisticated tools and methodologies to value biodiversity (in the language of economics boffins, ‘natural capital’). It presented a two-year study report at Nagoya, Japan in October 2010. This report demonstrates the enormous economic value of biodiversity—forests, freshwater, soils, coral reefs—and measures the socio-economic costs of their loss. Mr Jairam Ramesh has already announced our adoption of TEEB’s recommendations. Our financial mandarins might do well to spend a little time with Mr Sukhdev.
Stubborn, vociferous and tenacious—environmentalists are all these things and more. The one thing they are not is stupid.
Dwivedi, O.P.; “Satyagraha for conservation: awakening the spirit of Hinduism”; in This sacred earth: religion, nature, environment, Roger S. Gottlieb, ed; Routledge, 1996, pp.156–157 ↩
Thapar, Romila; Perceiving the Forest: Early India, Studies in History February 2001 vol. 17 no. 1 1-16; cited in Singh, Upinder; “A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century”; Pearson, 2008; p.279 ↩
In the midst of the several incisive comments he made during a recent [*Walk the Talk* interview with Shekhar Gupta][wtt] (the video is available on the [NDTV website][wtttv]), HDFC Chairman Deepak Parekh made one profoundly distressing comment. He said, "... environment issues are coming in the way of development. Now, we want the environment to be protected, we want ecological improvements, but somewhere, we have to draw a balance. Do we want growth, and if we want growth, we have to make some sacrifices or take precautions. But you cannot say that you cannot give permissions. There is a disconnect between the industry ministry and the environment ministry. My personal view is, look at the existing industries that are creating all the pollution, emissions. They are going scot-free. Why can't you try and clean the existing ones? I think you should have a responsibility to improve the existing industries. Don't block a new entrant."
[wtt]: http://www.indianexpress.com/story-print/724352/ "Walk the Talk with Deepak Parekh; Indian Express, 14 December 2010"
[wtttv]: http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/walk-the-talk/walk-the-talk-with-deepak-parekh/181208?hp "Walk the Talk with Deepak Parekh; NDTV video"