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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 45

Tatas‘ and Governments’

Myopia-cum-Sins

Monday 27 October 2008, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh

In the Singur controversy, the “Save the Land” movement, the Trinamul Congress, and the intellectuals opposing the Tata Motors’ Nano-car project highlighted only two aspects. One was that the project, by virtue of its being sited on arable lands, constituted a threat to food security. The other was that it had a potential for too few jobs (around 350)—that, too, mostly of non-locals—against displacement of locals, several times that number, from their only means of livelihood. That the land acquisitioned for the project was on one of the two most fertile blocs in the State compounded the offence.

However, the aspect that the project constituted a threat to the survival of life on this planet was missed by all.

In a period of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, a project for the manu-facture of petroleum or natural gas consuming cars should never have been proposed or per-mitted. The facts that the car manufacture project is being invited by several State governments and that the Union Government has remained nonchalant show how irresponsible our politicians can be. At a time when in some countries, some ten-to-twelve-year-old boys and girls are telling their parents to avoid the purchase of any car which pollutes more than the least, when four-to-five-year-old siblings keep telling their parents “to switch off the lights when they leave the room” and “to avoid wasting the water when brushing their teeth”, our mature political leaders are behaving like “ecology illiterates”.

Traditionally, questions regarding environment have been treated lightly in the belief that the untoward consequences of their violation will be visible only in the distant future. But the days for such thinking are over. The pace of global warming is now very fast. About two years back, the world’s climatologists were saying that in 60 years, the Arctic will lose its ice cover completely. Now, some of them are saying that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in just about five years! The Antarctic ice will not possibly last much longer. Awareness of the implications of ice-melts at these two Poles sends shivers down the spine.

Melting of the ice means a huge swell in the sea level. During the last two years, several populous villages in the Sunderbans, which existed like small islands, have got submerged under sea water. If this trend continues, vast land spaces from Namkhana, Kakdwip, Kulpi to Diamond Harbour are likely to get submerged under water in the foreseeable future. The continuing high rises will not spare cities like Mumbai or Kolkata. Have the Tatas cared to ponder that their misadventure will serve as a contributory factor to their headquarter at Mumbai—namely, the Bombay House—getting a watery grave? Which one should the people choose—a Nano car to ride or their hearth and home? A car as a personal transport or life?

NEO-POLITICIANS and economists do not care to grasp that there is vast difference between the effects of existence of ice in the Poles and mountain peaks and the effects of its transformation into melt-water. Under the former regimen, much of the sunlight, after hitting the ice surface, bounced back in the outer space and prevented the earth’s atmosphere from getting too hot for life’s survival. Under the latter regimen, the solar heat, which will touch the water surface, will get absorbed in water and cause faster cycles of evaporation and precipitation. This means, in the new phase of intense global warming, more heat will be felt all over the world almost all the time; and at the same time there will be frequent rainfalls over the sprawled seas’ water surfaces and on the terrestrial lands near them, blurring the distinction between the rainy and non-rainy seasons. And in the regions of the northern latitudes there will most probably be unrelieved droughts. Life will be hell everywhere.

Disregard of ecological principles means heavy costs in national economics, too. This writer feels impelled to recount an earlier experience. In the 1970s, when he was heading a policy research body spanning the entire spectrum of petroleum exploration, refining, products distribution and petrochemicals, he wrote an article titled “Oil Policy in the Seventies” dated February 1, 1970. In this he advocated a policy of restricting oil demand, which meant “deterring every avoidable demand for oil and finding an alternative production process of feed-mix wherever possible to meet the economy’s needs”. In several other articles, he pleaded for a policy for (i) restricting oil imports; (ii) manufacture of oil-and-chemicals from coal; (iii) the need for a thrust for harnessing renewable forms of energy. Although several other recommendations, which had the backing of a section of the influential bureaucracy, were accepted, the basic policy guidelines for restricting both oil demand and oil import were never accepted. Heedless of this writer’s line of approach, the government encouraged projects for “people’s cars” (“small cars” by several companies) which resulted in large increases in car population with much higher oil demand, much higher foreign exchange outflow, much greater pollution and much larger greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. This expansion of petroleum product-consuming car fleet spells not merely ecological doom. It spells economic doom, too.

Rapid mass transportation systems driven by renewable-sourced electricity for long distances, hydrogen-driven buses for medium distances, and bicycles, both pedalled and motorised, for short distances, can answer the needs of transportation in a period of global warming.

The governments, both at the State and the Union levels, have also failed to grasp that unrestricted expansion of car population will only increase intra-city transport bottlenecks.

The Tatas’ “Nano project” anywhere will not serve any “public purpose” and has no justification in national economics. And most certainly, it is sinful from the viewpoint of life’s survival.

The author, who in the fifties was the Secretary of
the Economic Unit attached to the Central Committee of the undivided Communist Party of India, is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher.

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