So You Want to Know About the Environment?

A compelling account of the environmental concerns that India faces and practical solutions that could resolve the deadlocks

Written by Shyam Saran | New Delhi | Published: January 6, 2018 12:05 pm
Delhi’s landmark India Gate, a war memorial, is seen engulfed in morning smog a day after Diwali festiva. (Source: AP)

Sunita Narain has acquired a formidable reputation as an environmentalist. She is a professional who bases her assessments on careful and rigorous analysis. But she also has the passion of an environmental crusader, deeply concerned with the relentless erosion of the earth’s natural capital and the bleak future which stares us in the face if present disturbing trends continue. In Conflicts of Interest, Narain traces her remarkable journey as a committed environmentalist, for whom solutions to the challenges of climate change and ecological degradation must be inclusive and equitable. She recounts how it is the poor and underprivileged who get shortchanged in the name of environment, and yet, it would really be possible to create sustainable solutions only if they are made equal stakeholders.

Narain covers several key issues in separate chapters. There is an informed analysis of the problem of air pollution not only in Delhi but in other urban conglomerations in India. There is a most absorbing chapter on the cola wars, recounting Narain’s battles with the powerful multinational corporations, Coca-Cola and Pepsico, on the presence of significant quantities of toxic residues and contaminants in their popular soft drinks. We read about her ugly brush with pesticide companies who denied that Endosulfan, a dangerous chemical banned in other countries, was in any way harmful to human health despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She relates her experience as chairperson of the Tiger Task Force and her contention with conservationists who were ever ready to sacrifice the interests of poor villagers in creating wildlife sanctuaries rather than co-opting them in protecting the tiger population. The conflicts of interest between powerful commercial entities and the public good come out loud and clear. Those interested in water security and waste management, both urgent and critical issues for India, will find her observations and the solutions she recommends both practical and timely.

Despite poor editing in places and instances of repetitions, Narain’s book is a compelling read because the issues she has raised are so integral to India’s future but also because she has practical and sensible solutions to offer. There needs to be greater public awareness of the impact of environmental degradation on livelihoods, on public health and safety, and, eventually, on human survival. Her own Centre for Science and Environment has rendered yeoman service in educating public opinion and in promoting effective state regulation. A running theme in her book is her contention that environmental protection must safeguard the interests of the poor and, wherever possible, make them active stakeholders. This comes out most clearly in the chapter on ‘Tigers and/or People’. Creating no-go sanctuaries where all human activity is banned and displaced populations are neither properly compensated nor resettled on productive land is not the answer, and have not been successful in protecting the dwindling tiger population, as the case of Sariska brings out so clearly. The task of protecting the tiger should lead to employment opportunities for the nearby villages and some access to forest products could be allowed without endangering wildlife. It is often the case that once the sanctuary is created and the local population banished from it, tourism development takes over and so-called eco-lodges are permitted even near the core zone, but local people rarely benefit in terms of employment opportunities. The human-wildlife conflict is real and needs a balanced and sensitive handling. Banishing people to protect wildlife will simply not work.

There is a similar contradiction apparent in handling urban pollution. Diesel cars and two-wheelers are a major source of air pollution, particularly of particulate matter which is most harmful to human health. And yet, government policies give precedence to private transport while neglecting public transport. In Delhi, more than 80 per cent of citizens use public transport; only 13 per cent of road users are car owners. The creation of dedicated bus corridors to enable rapid transit of public transport buses invited such a chorus of shrill protests from private car owners that the scheme was given up. A self-entitled elite will not give up its privileges easily. The long-term answer to air pollution is precisely what Narain has argued in her book. There has to be massive investment in public transport and a dis-incentivising of private vehicular traffic; there should be dedicated and safe bicycle lanes and clean and safe sidewalks for pedestrians. Only then will our congested urban spaces become habitable.

Having served as India’s chief negotiator on climate change in 2007-10, I had regular interactions with Narain and her colleagues at the CSE. I agree with most of the points she has made in her chapter on climate change. The most important issue in the multilateral negotiations on climate change has been the principle of equity, the notion that every inhabitant of planet earth has an equal entitlement to the planet’s atmospheric space. It is this principle which became a casualty at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, and India and other developing countries acquiesced in this rather than making a stand. She is justifiably critical of the manner in which India allowed its initially robust stand to be whittled down by attrition.

As Narain points out in the last chapter — ‘Blueprint for the Future’ — climate change is a big challenge. The current pattern of resource-intensive and fossil fuel-based growth will lead to a dead end. The future will be based on its deconstruction. The key takeaway is that India, indeed the world, needs a different strategy of development, a different lifestyle and indeed a different value system to avoid a planetary collapse. The contradiction between development and environment is a false one. We are now at a stage when safeguarding the environment has become the prerequisite for sustainable development. Ecological sustainability will have to be an integral component of future development strategies. Furthermore, we are living in an age of rapid technological change which may help in meeting some challenges, but may also result in new and even more acute challenges. What, for example, will be the impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on employment prospects in the future? In tackling these elemental questions, we should accept Narain’s invitation to read her book “not only to agree, not only to dissent. But because it tells stories of our present and points to the common future we must make.”

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

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