Growth or Environment: A False Choice

In this excerpt from his new book, T.N. Ninan looks at how the tension between these two goals is playing out in Indian today

Bhilai Steel Plant. Credit: Meghdut Gorai/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bhilai Steel Plant. Credit: Meghdut Gorai/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It was a winter morning in January 2011, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was upset. He had been asking his environment minister to meet a number of businessmen whose projects had been held up on environmental grounds—Ajit Gulabchand whose Lavasa project had been stopped mid-track on belated environmental objections; Naveen Jindal who wanted a coal mine project cleared in what had been declared a no-go area for mining; and others like them. Jairam Ramesh, the minister concerned, had duly met all of them, but found he could not bring himself to clear things like mining in the middle of a tiger reserve. Why does the PM send only businessmen to me, and never anyone who speaks for the environment, Ramesh had wondered to himself.

Singh called Ramesh aside after a cabinet meeting, to give him a talking to. An economy could move forward only on the basis of the animal spirits of its businessmen, he said. Productive forces had to be allowed freedom, or economic growth would suffer. Ramesh defended his record: he was clearing more than 95 per cent of the industrial projects that came to his ministry, and clearing them within the stipulated time. He was stopping only those that involved serious environmental issues or violations. But the prime minister had his own problems: the press and the Opposition had been criticizing his government for what they called policy paralysis. One way to deal with the criticism was to approve projects that were stuck for want of clearances, and he wanted to get things moving.

Some months later, when the environment ministry continued to stand in the way of projects involving influential businessmen, Singh called Ramesh and gave him a full-scale dressing-down. He couldn’t get ‘men from Mars’ to run things the way Ramesh wanted them, he said. The country was ‘in a stage of primitive capital accumulation’, and compromises had to be made. He went on to say that he was at the fag end of his life and did not want to see economic growth suffer or the India story come to an end. ‘We can’t have European standards,’ he declared as he asked Ramesh to be realistic. Finally, he warned that if there were very tight environmental rules, the environment ministry would end up creating a ‘new kind of licence–permit raj’.

T.N. NinanThe Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India's FutureNew Delhi: Penguin, 2015.

T.N. Ninan
The Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future
New Delhi: Penguin, 2015.

The perception of conflict between protecting the environment and pursuing development and economic growth is an old one. Indira Gandhi spelt out the dilemmas at the first UN conference on the environment at Stockholm in 1972. ‘We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of a large number of people,’ she said. ‘Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty.’ She then went on to add, ‘The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development but between environment and the reckless exploitation of man and earth in the name of efficiency.

This nuanced and in some ways confusing (perhaps even confused) speech has been much quoted since then. At one level, it reflected the tension between multiple objectives. But Mrs Gandhi was also playing on the word ‘polluter’, in that poverty is ‘pollution’ of a kind, though it is the rich who pollute the environment far more than the poor. But then, how was one to square that with an annual country ranking done by wings of Yale and Columbia universities, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, which showed quite clearly that the countries that did best on an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) were the rich ones, while the poor countries did poorly?

The index looks at two broad concepts. ‘Environmental health’ measures the protection of human health from environment-caused harm; and ‘ecosystem vitality’ measures ecosystem protection and resource management. Since rich countries have better air quality, better and cleaner water supply, and superior resource management, they automatically score better on the EPI. India in 2014 ranked 155th out of 177 countries. China was 118th, while Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden were in the top ten. So, could it be, as Mrs Gandhi had put it, that ‘the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty’?

If so, Manmohan Singh had a point. He, for one, was willing to ‘exploit man and earth’ in the interest of capital accumulation through the use of non-‘European’ environmental standards. Ramesh was assigned to another ministry after a cabinet reshuffle, and the extent of the forest areas that had been declared ‘no go’ for mining was sharply reduced. The Modi government reduced the area even further, to thirty-five coal blocks out of 793, with what was now called the ‘inviolate’ area less than 8 per cent of the original 12,006 sq km assessed in 2010. Standing in opposition to this approach, environmentalists have stressed that it is industrial development that pollutes air and water, motor transport that emits carbon gases, causing global warming, and excessive application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that ruin the soil and also cause health problems. Far from the poor being ‘polluters’, they are the ones doing the least environmental damage; it is those who ‘exploit man and earth’ who have laid much greater claims on the earth’s resources.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Ramesh took his work seriously, but critics said he had been targeting projects by businessmen who had links to the Opposition: the pro-BJP Ajit Gulabchand, Gautam Adani who is widely seen as someone close to Narendra Modi, and Vedanta promoted by Anil Agarwal, who had invested in Odisha that was run by Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. The problem with this line of argument was that it didn’t explain why the projects of Congress MP Naveen Jindal were being rejected too. Later, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi referred to a ‘Jayanthi tax’ for getting environmental clearances. This was taken to be a reference to Jayanthi Natarajan, who had replaced Ramesh as the minister for environment and forests. After Natarajan resigned, the Indian Express reported that no fewer than seventy files, relating to projects already cleared by her ministry, had been retained by Natarajan at her home, and returned to the ministry only after she demitted office. Natarajan eventually quit the Congress in 2015 because she said the party did not give her a fair hearing. But it seemed clear that the ‘licence–permit raj’ that Manmohan Singh had warned of could take more than one form.

When the Modi government swept to power in the summer of 2014, its priorities were clear: get stalled projects moving so that investment could be revived and the economy nudged to pick up speed. The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, showed very quickly that he was no Jairam Ramesh clone. The rules were modified to reduce the scope for public hearings (required before projects got cleared); more powers were given to states to clear projects; and a committee of former bureaucrats, armed with loose terms of reference, recommended rewriting the country’s environment protection laws. The signs were that environmental clearance requirements for projects would be diluted, decentralized and rendered less effective. Javadekar quoted Indira Gandhi and declared that poverty was the ‘biggest polluter’. A coal mining project in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur area, which Ramesh had rejected because it was located in a tiger reserve, now got the green signal after it went through some modification. At the same time, though, cleaning the Ganga (the recipient of vast quantities of industrial pollution as well as urban sewage) was one of the new government’s signature objectives. Defending himself against criticism, Javadekar asserted that he was enforcing many environmental laws and rules far more effectively than in the past…

Dilemmas and conflict

[The] harsh truth … is that India is caught in an ecological crisis that is rolling out in many directions. It has about the worst index for air quality, and is said to account for thirteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities. The situation of its water— once abundant—is moving steadily from ‘stress’ to ‘scarcity’ (more on these terms later in the chapter). Its tree cover, vital as a carbon sink and for preserving the natural habitat, is not growing, and some of it is now being sacrificed in order to access mineral and other resources. Soil quality is affected by the unbalanced use of chemical fertilizer and poor-quality pesticides. The country’s carbon emissions per head could more than double in the next fifteen to twenty years. Even as global warming begins to look inevitable, the majority of the country’s glaciers are melting faster than before, while a rise in the sea level could affect 150 million people living along the 7000-km coast. There is an equity issue as well. It is the poor who pay the biggest price for environmental degradation; they are the ones most affected by water scarcity, their resilience is the weakest when faced with the health effects of air pollution, and they are almost always the ones most affected by projects that disturb local ecologies and cause the involuntary displacement of people.

A growing economy has the ability to cope with many of these issues—by improving general nutrition levels, increasing the supply of safe water and sanitation facilities, better monitoring industrial pollution, upgrading the reach, scope and quality of healthcare facilities, switching to cleaner forms of energy, reducing carbon intensity per unit of GDP, and progressing overall to better standards however patchily—as reflected in the progress on (though not complete achievement of ) the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015.In that sense, Indira Gandhi is being proved right—dealing with poverty is also helping to improve the quality of life, and thereby either reducing ‘pollution’ or improving the ability to cope with it.

The problem with an approach that says every country can get rich and then clean up is the one that Gandhi had outlined: that ‘the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed’. By putting greater strain on its ecology, India is increasing environmental stress in multiple ways. A basic cause is population density, which at nearly 400/sq km is about eight times the world average of less than 50/sq km. Such an adverse land–human ratio cannot but have an effect on various indicators, especially when combined with poor policies. The story with regard to air pollution, for instance, tells of a disaster in the making—with private motorized transport growing faster than public and mass transport systems; truck movement growing faster than railway freight; the bulk of electricity being generated by using coal as fuel; and industries like steel and cement producing high rates of emissions. Delhi has been rated as one of the most polluted cities in the world because it has a score of 110–120 pm2.5 (concentration per cubic metre of tiny air particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter). That compares with 16 for London. Other Indian cities fare worse: Gwalior, Patna and Raipur have pm2.5 scores of over 130. The EPI score has put India at the bottom of a list of 132 countries when it comes to air pollution.

As for industry, in 2009 the Central Pollution Control Board carried out an environmental assessment of eighty-eight important industrial clusters. Of these, forty-three were identified as ‘critically polluted’ since their score was seventy or more (on a scale of 0 to 100). A moratorium on further industry was ordered in these forty three clusters. At about the same time, the environment ministry (with Ramesh at the helm) responded to the fact that much of the country’s mineral wealth lay under forested land, and declared that half the area in coal blocks, which covered 6000 sq km of land, would be no-go areas so far as mining was concerned. This led to an immediate riposte from the prime minister’s office. Eventually, overriding Ramesh’s protests, the no-go areas were reduced to 29 per cent of the coal blocks. The Modi government brought that down further.

Would that cause conflict? The fact is that 90 per cent of the country’s coal and 80 per cent of other mineral reserves are in (mostly forested) areas inhabited by tribals, who account for every thirteenth Indian and who constitute the country’s most vulnerable sections. Large numbers have been evicted over the years to make way for both mining projects as well as hydroelectric dams, with the displacement numbers hotly contested. Estimates of those displaced vary from 21 million over four decades (1950–90) to 50 million, while a government statement in 1994 said that 10 million displaced people were awaiting resettlement. Arundhati Roy, a campaigner on the issue, has quoted Nehru as telling villagers being displaced by the Hirakud dam, ‘If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.’

What if those asked to suffer choose to resist? It is neither accident nor coincidence that the areas most subject to the sustained Maoist challenge to the system are in the tribal, forested districts in the country’s hilly heartland, spread over half a dozen states. New laws to protect tribal land rights (2006) and to make it far more costly as well as procedurally more difficult to forcibly acquire land for industrial and mining projects (2013) were pushed through Parliament by the Manmohan Singh government, though the moving spirit was Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The Opposition (especially the BJP) went along. But once the BJP came to power in 2014, it responded to criticism that the new law would hinder industrial and infrastructure projects, and moved to change the law, only to get embroiled in a political firefight.

  • Pablo Escobar

    a must read article for UPSC aspirants