Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The environment is becoming a technocratic issue: Sunita Narain

The prevalent view is that one may keep polluting and then use technology to clean up, says Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment

Since 1982 when she started working with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Sunita Narain has fought for protecting India’s fragile ecosystem. Currently, the director general of the CSE and editor of the fortnightly Down To Earth, Narain spoke about the environmental consequences of unbridled growth. Edited excerpts:

India completes 25 years of liberalisation this year. Do you think the environment has been a loser amid all the talk of growth?

I don’t think it is as black and white as that. I think the environment is definitely a big loser when it comes to growth. If you liberalize in a way that you do not have any regulation and that you don’t have any constraint on growth, then definitely it is a loser. I believe it is not the fact that we liberalised that made environment a loser but the fact that we discounted the role of smart regulatory institutions.

Do you think that policymakers have realised that the environment needs to be an integral part of the development process?

Environment is a crucial part of policymaking and I can say that with some confidence. I have seen that evolution in the last 30 years where you had to fight to get your foot in the door. I don’t think that’s the challenge today. But the challenge is even bigger because people don’t know how to integrate. Environment is at most becoming today a technocratic issue where you are thinking that you can keep polluting and then you can use technology to clean it up. It’s a tailpipe emission approach. The other approach is touch-me-not. On the one hand, you don’t do anything, don’t cut forests and the other approach is the end of the pipe solution. What India needs is ‘touch-me-but-touch-me-well’ approach, which is, cut the forest but replant it.

Was it possible to have reformed India’s economy without degrading the environment?

Liberalisation happened in the 1990s and it is also when we brought our first environmental laws—Environmental Impact Assessment, coastal zone management, Forest Conservation Act got tightened. At the first stage of liberalisation, those laws were very good but they needed to evolve so that they could be upgraded, get smarter, look at a big picture and not get lost in procedures. But then what happened is that those laws become profitable for all the ministers who came to power in governments successively. Because either they made money out of it or they got power out of it. We have gone to minister after minister for the last 10 years and I have found that in the first month when we go to them they are completely open to understanding that these laws don’t work for the environment today. But from second month, I find that they are no longer interested in doing anything because they realise they can either make money out of it or have immense power. Because every industrialist comes to them and they do special favours to them.

Is corporate India responsible enough to safeguard the environment without strict regulation?

No way. I don’t think any industry in the world is, why only Indian industry. Indian industry is not necessarily an evil industry. Nowhere in the world does self regulation or self certification work. Nowhere in the world is industry allowed to self certificate without a robust verification system which has high penalty and high deterrence if you are caught. But it seems we are doing exactly that.

Without the deterrence ... That is what our concern is. We are saying self certification doesn’t work and please tell me any country in the world where self certification works without deterrence. Deterrence is a very simple thing that we are not going to check everyone but when we check and if we find you violating, then you are over ... you are finished. That what’s effective governance means. Technically I am not against self certification but only with regulation and effective deterrence. You need boots on the ground. You need a system, a continuous mission monitoring system. All those things need to come in and all that is job of government. But government wants to outsource its job and that is the problem we have.

How do you look at Indian courts taking the lead in cleaning up the mess of pollution and protecting the environment?

The role of courts has been very important and it is also evolving. The role of the courts has been to fill a vacuum. I think courts are also realising that they are becoming ineffective in the face of a weak executive. Courts, in my view, have not given enough deterrence. Because the courts have also been weak in saying that we are the ones who will impose fines … even today no executive is allowed to impose fine. The power is in the hands of the judiciary and if the judiciary is not able to provide speedy deterrence, it basically means the situation that we are in today. I think that’s the big challenge that we have today that we need speedy deterrence.

It’s seen that industry in India has usually cried foul when an environment friendly measure is announced. For instance, the auto industry spoke against advancing BS VI emission standards? How do you look at industry’s role in such a scenario when India is facing major environmental problems?

This is where I find Indian industry is still in the non-liberalised mind frame. It believes that they have the power to influence anything and none can touch them. In 1995, we had filed the first affidavit saying there is possible carcinogens in diesel emissions. But the Tatas, Mahindras and Leylands all fought us bitterly. We lost. No doubt about that. Over the 2000s, the price difference between petrol and diesel kept increasing. They made more cars, diesel boomed and they made huge money. They knew we were too small to bother. The Supreme Court is now going to hear only on the issue of environment compensation charge on diesel because the court in its last hearing told all the companies that we have already accepted the fact that diesel is a polluting fuel and not today but till Euro VI when diesel emission equalises with that of petrol. Therefore, we are no longer open to any discussions on whether diesel is polluting or not. (Note: The court has since started hearing the case.) We only want you to tell us what is the quantum, the polluter-pays-compensation charge, that should be imposed on diesel which would equalize price of diesel with petrol. If they had listened to us 15 years ago this situation would not have come.

People at large are actually the one who drive the change. Do you think people in India are warming up to that idea?

It’s difficult to say. The fact is that today the air pollution debate is definitely being driven by public opinion but here, media has also played a role. Media to me is part of public opinion. Media has created huge support in taking the message out and stood behind even tough decision that government has made. I think media understands that these are imperatives and you will have to do it. Industry doesn’t. Everyone accepts that we breathe same air and we all suffer. Every family talks about cancer so I think that issue today is bothering all of us.

Is it possible with the current development path, India would be able to achieve green development?

It does bother me. At times I think we are not winning, we have got a lot of support but we are not winning. What we are doing is wrong. A lot of my friends tell me we are doing wrong because we are not mobilising large numbers of people and not creating a revolution. I believe we are also going wrong because we don’t know methods of moving ahead. We don’t know what to do ... how to do it. I know today that if you want to have cleaner air in Delhi, you need to reinvent mobility but we don’t know how to do it. My view is that environment is good for poor. Point is that for a cleaner environment, what I am not able to understand is how we take it forward.

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