You may not like what I am about to say but it’s true. India is probably the dirtiest country in the world. Our metropolises have failed to manage waste, so on their edges stand dumping grounds the size of small cities. Our towns and villages reek of rotting garbage and are so unhygienic that most children die from diseases caused by filth. Our rivers are shamefully polluted and there are industrial enclaves in which breathing is dangerous. These horrible conditions did not develop in the past six months, but you would not know this from reading The New York Times.
Before sitting down to write this week’s column, if I had not read a story titled ‘Narendra Modi, Favoring Growth in India, Sweeps Away Environmental Rules’, I may have written about the Sadhvi. For the record, I believe she should be sacked but I also believe this is the prerogative of the Prime Minister and not the Rajya Sabha. To return to the environment and the charge that environmental rules are being swept away, may I say that more damage was possibly done to the cause of environmental preservation in the last three years of the Sonia-Manmohan government than ever before.
Instead of making a sincere effort to rectify damage done by successive (mostly Congress) governments, this column’s bête noire, Jairam Ramesh, was encouraged to use the Ministry of Environment as licence raj.
Cheered on by fraudulent environmental groups, Shri Ramesh shut down major projects, denied valid licences and virtually brought the economy to a halt on ‘environmental’ grounds. Did these tactics serve in any way to improve the environment in our wretched land? No. So if Modi’s government is attempting some course correction, it is because it has become absolutely necessary. India needs to create at least 12 million new jobs a year and this cannot happen by closing down factories. There can be no ‘make in India’ at all if we do this.
Factories and forests, cities and clean rivers can coexist, as they do all over the world, as long as rules are genuine and not designed to help corrupt inspectors make money. In India, it is the absence of measureable standards that is the real problem. Some environmental laws are so absurd that Mumbai, built mostly on land reclaimed from the sea, has coastal zone regulations and restrictions on construction that cause more than half its population to live in shanties. Have the rules improved living conditions? No. On the edge of Mumbai are suburbs that are visions of hell. Those children who manage to survive play, eat, study and defecate on dumping grounds that emit poisonous fumes into the atmosphere 24 hours a day.
What the Prime Minister needs to tell us is what he plans to do about rectifying the damage done by decades of Soviet-style industrialisation. He will need the help of the finest experts in the world to clean up our cities and rivers, but his idea to involve everyone in the Swachh Bharat campaign is good. When you live in filthy surroundings, you learn to live in filth and this has sadly happened to most Indians. The poor have no choice but to get used to the permanent stench of human waste and industrial pollution and the rich have learned to keep it out with air-conditioning. If Swachh Bharat can make us just acknowledge that we live in the filthiest country in the world, it will have achieved a great deal.
Meanwhile, may I remind you, since Parliament is in raucous session currently, that these things have never been discussed in either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. This could be because in our obsession with ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’, we have been too preoccupied to notice that the children of the poor die mostly from filthy living conditions. But it is time that things changed. May I humbly suggest a special session on India’s environmental problems? Our elected representatives need to tell us what they believe can be done in their constituencies to improve standards. Those who come from constituencies along our rivers should be given charge of adopting stretches of river as they have been encouraged by the Prime Minister to adopt villages and make them into development models.
Developed western countries are excellent examples of how it is possible to give people jobs as well as unpolluted living conditions. We must learn from them how they achieved this. It is most important that we learn what mistakes they made so that we can avoid making them. But we have to create jobs for the young people who constitute most of our population. India’s environmental problems are terrifying but anyone who believes that they will now worsen because some bad, ineffectual rules are being thrown out has not understood India’s problems at all.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh