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Sunita Narain: Reinvent growth without pollution


Business standard, New Delhi, November 24, 2013

In the past 10 years, India's environmental movement has undergone a rebirth. It was first born in the 1970s, when the industrialised world was seeing the impact of growth on its environment. In that decade, the air and rivers of London, Tokyo and New York were full of toxins. The world was learning the pain of pollution. The world's first major conference on environment - the Stockholm meeting - was held to find ways of dealing with this growing scourge. India's key environmental pieces of legislation were enacted during this period - the water pollution Act of 1974 and the air pollution Act of 1980. But we were innocents in the world of pollution. We had not yet witnessed the intensification of growth that would, in turn, destroy our environment.


It was also in the 1970s that the second challenge of environment - the issue of access and sustainable management of natural resources - took root. High in the remote Himalayas, the women pushed out timber merchants who wanted to cut forests. But their fight was not aimed at protecting the forest. Their fight was meant to assert their right to forest resources. It was a battle over the right to resources. It was an environmental movement because the women of the village in Chamoli district knew that they had to conserve the forest to protect their livelihood. It was a call to redefine development and growth.


But it is only now that these two sides of the environmental challenge have truly come home to India. Importantly, this is a time when environmental issues have taken centre stage in the country. But matters are still going from bad to worse. The pollution in our rivers is worse today than it was three decades ago. The garbage in cities is growing day by day, even as governments scramble to find ways of reducing plastic and hiding the rest in landfills in far-off places. Air pollution in cities is worse and toxins hurt our bodies and damage our lungs.


This is in spite of efforts to contain the problem: we have invested in building sewage treatment plants to deal with water pollution. We have improved the quality of fuel that runs our vehicles, changed emission standards, and set up institutions to regulate industrial emissions. But we find that we cannot catch up in this game of growth and its toxic fallout.


In this decade as well, the struggle for control over resources has intensified. In every nook and corner of the country where land is acquired or water sourced for industry, people are fighting, even to death. There are a million pollution mutinies. The fact is in India vast numbers - and it is vast numbers - depend for their livelihood on the land, the forests and the water they have in their vicinity. They know that once these resources are gone or are degraded, there is no way ahead.


We must recognise that across the world, the environmental movement is based on the idea that people do not want something bad in their vicinity: not in my backyard (NIMBY). Ordinary people, but those with power because they are part of the voting middle class, take up these issues because they affect their lives. The fight is personal. It is another matter that their fight leads to national policy ramifications - most often for the better. But there is also a downside to NIMBY - if it is not in my backyard, then in whose backyard should it be allowed? This is not an issue that is asked or answered. But it must.


When urban and middle-class India (as across the world) faces environmental threats, it does not stop to ask: in whose backyard, then? The fact is garbage is produced because of our consumption. The fact is that the richer we get, the more we need to throw and waste, and the more we pollute. This consumption is necessary since it is linked to the economic growth models that we have decided to adopt as our own. But we forget that the more we consume, the higher is the cost of collection and disposal, which we cannot afford. So we look for band-aid solutions. In middle-class environmentalism, there is no appetite for changing lifestyles to minimise waste and pollution. 


The Western environmental movement began after these societies had acquired wealth. So the movement was a response to the garbage, the toxic air or the polluted water resulting from the growth of their economies. They had the money to invest in cleaning, and they did invest. But because they never looked for big solutions, they always stayed behind the problem - local air pollution is still a problem in most Western cities, even if the air is not as black as ours. It is just that the toxin is smaller and more difficult to find or to smell.


In India we want to emulate the rich and their disastrous ways, with less resources and much more inequity and poverty. The fact is we cannot find answers in the same half-solutions. This is the challenge of India's environmental movement. We can do things differently to reinvent growth without pollution, but only if we have the courage to think differently. I hope we will.