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Mainstream, VOL L, No 28, June 30, 2012

Environment: Need for Debate

Wednesday 4 July 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty



The Earth Summit has one solid achievement to its credit. It has put the issue of environment protection at the centre-stage of polities, both at the global and domestic levels.

Prior to the massive gathering of statesmen, scientists and activists at Rio, the problems of environment were treated for all practical purposes as something peripheral, not a basic issue in the development process. The problem of rapid deforestation used to be looked upon in isolation. Sunderlal Bahugana with his Chipko movement certainly attracted a lot of respect but it is doubtful if the issue of preserving our forest wealth was ever made as important in the eyes of the government and our political elite in designing economic and cultural deve-lopment as the question of generating energy or providing water for cultivation. The controversy over the Tehri Dam project in which Sunderlal Bahuguna threw himself heart and soul, centred mainly around the question of the durability of the dam in view of the seismic infirmity of the area. In short, ecological issues have been looked upon in isolation and not as an integral part of the development process.
This is precisely where the Rio Summit has helped to provide a holistic view of development. By emphasising the multi-dimensional threat to our planet from environmental pollution, the Earth Summit has succeeded in considerable measure to make political leaders of different countries aware of the urgency for taking measures that could halt the process of degradation of the environment.
In this respect our Environment Minister seems to have done a good job at Rio, by not only taking an active interest in the issues placed before the Conference but also for actively striving to extract commitments from the governments of the affluent North to contribute substantially towards the urgent job of protecting our planet. In other words, environment can no longer be shoved off as a low-priority issue in the development process. It is bound to get very high priority in our planning activity.

How urgent this has become can be gauged from fact that it is in our country that the most serious outbreak of killing pollution took place. The gas disaster at Bhopal is not just a case of industrial accident. It stands as a tragic symbol of criminal negligence on the part of a corporate entity as also of the government agencies that such a plant should at all have been allowed to be set up in the middle of a bustling city. Secondly, the guilty company withheld from the public that it was storing illegally a lethal gas of deadly potentiality. Along with the explo-sion at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, one has to count the Bhopal case as the two most grue-some examples of human complicity in polluting the environment bringing death and decrepitude to millions of people. How have we looked upon the Bhopal tragedy? It has been treated by and large as a case of industrial accident and the concentration has been largely on the question of compensation for the victims alongwith their medical treatment—nothing more.

The message of the Rio Conference has been that Bhopal and Chernobyl can never the tackled in isolation as cases of terrible accidents in the modern industrial systems. The fact has been driven home at Rio that such cases are not just isolated aberrations, but are bound to recur in one form or another unless and until the entire question of threat to environment is treated in its totality. Unless checked in time, Bhopal and Chernobyl would become the order of the day in the hi-fi modernised society we are setting up now.

While environment has got its due recognition as an essential element in the development process, the question that comes to the forefront is: how does one define such a problem, what are the identifiable landmarks in dealing with the question of environment?

A very pertinent case in this context is the raging controversy over the Narmada Dam question. The controversy over the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada rose to such a pitch, particularly in Gujarat, that anybody asking for a review of the project blueprint itself was denounced and had to face angry demons-trations whipped up by the protagonists of the project, so much so that persons of eminence in public life like Mrinalini Sarabhai and Purusho-ttam Mavalankar were at one time denounced as being anti-Gujarati.

In this background of such insensate denunciation, any movement for environment protection was bound to invoke angry condemnation. However, this did not deter fearless campaigners for the protection of environment from persisting in their campaign with regard to the Narmada project. The issue on which converged the concern of almost all the environment activists was the question of rehabilitation of the oustees from the area to be submerged by the proposed dam.

This campaign of the environmentalists on the Narmada project assumed international dimension with the activists lobbying abroad against the World Bank aiding the project. The result was that the World Bank appointed an independent committee of experts and concerned personalities under the chairmanship of Brad-ford Morse whose report, just released, has created a fresh round of stir over the controver-sial project. There are critical references in the Morse Report on the Narmada project which has put the government into embarrassment. Apart from adverse observations on other issues, the most serious criticism in the Morse Report has been with regard to the rehabilitation of the oustees, who are almost entirely from the tribal population of the region. Incidentally, the criticism on this score has been more severe on the shabby treatment of oustees in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra than in Gujarat. No doubt the Morse Report would have its impact on the current controversy, though it may be noted that the World Bank aid for the project would not exceed 15 per cent of the total cost. What one has to keep in mind is that the Narmada project has moved far enough by now and there is no likelihood of it being abandoned as a result of the campaign against it, reinforced now by the Morse Report.

What one expects is that the governments of all the three concerned States—Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat—would have to be more attentive to the question of proper rehabilitation of the oustees. As one perceptive commentator has correctly put, “the oustees surely have a right to be the very first beneficiaries” of the project itself, and in that context, the suggestion has been made with good reason for setting up a National Rehabilitation Authority which can ensure a fair deal for oustees from all such projects.

While this aspect of the question of environ-ment is likely to get high priority in future, the point that arises is the exact dimension of the problem of environment. More precisely what is urgently needed is a coherent, unified understanding among the environment activists as to their precise objective. This question has cropped up very sharply in the Narmada project controversy. One group of dedicated environ-mentalists is totally opposed to the idea of high dams as such. They have their own arguments which can hardly be brushed aside. On the other hand, there are others, equally dedicated, who regard high dams as necessary but they are confident that adequate measures can be taken to protect the environment even with the building of high dams.

As the problem of environment is concerned with both human beings and the preservation of nature in all its richness, it is but natural that such divergence of views on the subject should arise. There is no question of pooh-poohing one school and backing another. What is needed is a serious national debate about the dimension of the issue of environment and its protection. Let all points of view jostle with one another, and out of such endeavour must arise a common denominator as to what has to be done to save the environment. This is a task which our environment activists themselves should take up, and the government would be wise in promoting such a debate for a common national consensus on a burning issue of global concern.

(First published in The Economic Times;
reproduced in Mainstream, July 11, 1992)

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