Posted by: Vikram | March 5, 2009

We are committing environmental suicide in the name of development.

For the context of this post, please see these presentations by my friends Shisha and Shrawan first, Environmental Impact Assessment, and GM food regulation.

Regulation and bureaucracy are marked words for many educated Indians. The incomplete analysis that is presented by our media for the most part1, seems to have convinced many Indians that the government has to be forced out of virtually every aspect of people’s lives. As I have mentioned before, the masses do not share this view, although they do bear the brunt of an onerous bureaucracy. Since the 90s the Indian state has embarked on an economic liberalization problem, that has indeed brought some much needed de-regulation and made some PSUs perform better. But the Indian state is now abandoning its most basic responsibilities in the name of de-regulation. Two recent instances are the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) ‘notification’ and revamping of GM food regulation in the country.

A democratic state must use its authority in accordance with the wishes of its people. The resources of the country are the responsibility, not the property of the state. But with the recent EIA notification2, promulgated and made into law by using a loophole in our legislative mechanism, the state is using force and trickery to effectively give ‘developers’ a free hand in exploiting the country’s resources. The people of a particular area must have first claim over the resources there. Under the previous environmental protection regime, the ‘developer’ needed to secure the approval of the local population and propose adequate safeguards to protect the ecosystem. However the new EIA notification completely does away with the safeguards, giving the project proponent a free hand with project guidelines and environmental safeguards. It reduces the involvement of the local people to almost nil, allowing the proponent to bypass the people’s approval.

Equally more disturbing, it further weakens an already weak compliance and monitoring setup. 4 regional teams of a handful people are supposed to monitor compliance for the hundreds of projects being approved every month all over the country. The officers are overworked and underpaid, perhaps deliberately !

A similar situation is developing for the regulation of GM food in the country. In India, where the cultivation density is very high, and a large percentage of the population depends directly on the land, ad-hoc and uncontrolled introduction of GM seeds can be catastrophic. No doubt, GM seeds may bring benefits, but they must be studied well before they are introduced on a large scale, and most importantly the farmers must give their consent before they are brought in.

We need to stop assuming that we ‘know whats best’ for the masses. Solutions are going to mostly from the masses themselves, they just have to be given the right opportunities and protection. We have to get rid of the infrastructure envy we seem to have developed3, and let people improve their own lives, instead of shoving development down their throats.

1: This is not to say that the Indian media is completely un-activist, but that it is much less so than it can be. In 2007, only 0.8 percent of the news stories were environment related, as opposed to 17 % for sports.

2: A notification is simply an addendum that can be added to existing legislation. It has to be debated in Parliament eventually, but becomes part of law as soon as it is added (without the debate).

3: I mean, yes, our infrastructure does need improvement, but come on do our airports have to be the best looking in the world ?


  1. @ Vikram : Even Airports in Pakistan seem to look better than ours. In fact we may have some of the worst airports ever. Anyway the environment for me is not that important because we are all gonna end up dying one day anyway. The whole of humanity is going to be wiped out because it is all impermanent. Those people who think they can save the environment are just deluded because there is nothing to save. Its just an ever evolving state and you can not cling on to something that is dynamic in nature.

  2. @vikram,The de regulation of private sector has lead this type of conditions. Few private companies over utilize the natural resources of a place without being responsible to local welfare. They invest only few buckets in the name of local area developement and think, there job is over.Natural resources such as water is over used by Coke or Pepsi by giving bribes to govermental authority at many places. Responsibility of thegovenment is not to produce commodities but to regulate the market and companies.
    This article was informative to me and thanks for such informed article.

  3. thank you for saying this.
    i once attended a talk by standard and poor’s sister concern from india in NY in 2005
    and when this question was asked about green issues they simply said ” let india come to par with development ” and then we shall talk about issues.
    another one said ” we don’t have any plans looking at green issues -“.
    she also added – we will see!!!
    i only wish i could have names – but if you can tell me who the sister concern is i could very well give the names from their website if they have not moved.

    i agree that lifestyle of a greater percentage of indians follow the 3 R’s But when it comes to infrastructure, GMO issues, fertilizers there seems to be hardly a serious thought process on these issues or if it is present it is less evident.

    that reminds me a long pending post on water

  4. Vikram, I too think we are going overboard in the name of development. I have a lot of reservations about GM food too as well as all the environmental pollution. I think basically there are too few people working for the environment and too many in the development field. I guess that is why environmentalists at times get very intense. They have to make up for their lack of numbers.

  5. @ Odzer, nobody is denying that nature is in constant flux. However using that as a reason to let the government let ‘industrialists’ run amok on the environment seems irresponsible and extremely damaging in the long run.

    @ Himanshu, you are absolutely spot on. The short minded attitude of local officials and the central government is putting people’e lives and livelihood’s at great risk.

    @ Anrosh, yes the corporate world sees India as an environmental soft state, where the authorities and people are pliable on the issue of the environment.

    @ Nita, yes that seriously worries me. Environment is not a big issue for most urban Indians right now. The West already went through this painful, costly process where they finally realized the cost of unsustained industrialization.

    We cannot afford to pay the price, we might be heading for a very costly environmental catastrophe.

  6. The attitude here seems to be lets play catch up. We cannot be bothered by all environmental issues.

    Scarce capital is allotted to industrial development and then nobody wants to be bothered about the after effects. Industrial pollution is one big challenge.

    The second is the challenge of human habitation and expansion of urban areas and use of farmland / forest land. This has led to multiple problems and developed regions are now feeling the burden now in India.

    The only way some of the aspects like deforestation, soil conservation…can be tackled with active and mass participation. But urban and industrial need large capital and government / municipal authorities.

    Re: Agriculture – Large scale Bt seeds have been okayed for cotton cultivation in India. There is a lot of controversy on the introduction of Bt brinjal seeds now. It is said and believed to be unhealthy and a harbinger for almost a dozen known diseases. I quote hearsay as there is much mis-information flying around.

    A small movement has begun to initiate organic farming. There are many sceptics to this but at the ground level I understand it is slowly becoming popular. It is touted as the zero budget farming and has been introduced in some parts of Vidharbha (which incidentally witnessed many farmer suicides). The Art of Living organisation has done much to take this to the villages.

    Some responses to a couple of points raised:

    – Under EIA, even the earlier guidelines were flouted with impunity and the local populace got the rough end of the stick. But to say they have first right over the resource negates the very idea of national resource. Yes they deserve a royalty or compensation not necessarily monetary. e.g., Oil struck in Rajasthan is of no use to the local populace. However, the royalty if used to provide on a sustainable basis safe drinking water makes much sense.

    – Infrastructure envy and letting people improving their lives. The urban and semi-urban area have dramatically increased over the last fifteen – twenty years and there are atleast a thousand small cities and towns if you were to keep the large cities aside for a moment. All these need a certain basic minimum standard of infrastructure This basic minimum is a “must-have” and not “nice-to-have”.

  7. Environment is a very complex system, and it has to be studied in the proper scientific manner. There are several scientific disciplines who study fresh water cycles, meteorological cycles, geological disturbances, eco-system disturbances : all in an objective manner and report these results in scientific articles.

    On the other hand, we have the environmentalist movement which is a very political movement where the loyalty of its activists is almost religious to their cause. Such movements (without the proper understanding of science) have done more harm to the environment than good, especially in the USA and Europe.

    One good example is the campaign against nuclear power stations. Blind prejudice, ignorance and a strong anti-nuker religion with excellent political organization capabilities : they have all caused a lot more coal plants to be built, and the resultant empoisoning of atmosphere with lead & mercury, acceleration of global warming, destruction of habitats etc. A lot of the misinformation on GM-foods is similar in origin (though there are several rightful concerns on GM-foods).

    What we need is a proper dissemination of science to the uneducated and unaware masses. The best environmentalists are scientists who are actually working on these fields. Indian media should make an effort on highlighting their concerns and vulgarizing them in an accessible language, instead of providing the mouth-piece to idiotic religious activists.

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