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Post-liberalization, tweaks to policy were made to ease trade, and the environment ministry has facilitated clearance for industry and found ways to extract resources within its purview. The Free Stamp, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, is the world’s largest rubber stamp  (Photo: Alamy)
Post-liberalization, tweaks to policy were made to ease trade, and the environment ministry has facilitated clearance for industry and found ways to extract resources within its purview. The Free Stamp, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, is the world’s largest rubber stamp (Photo: Alamy)

Ignoring the environment is bad economics

While liberalization brought new ideas of global finance and free markets, it nudged India to the brink of an ecological crisis

In hindsight, India’s tryst with liberalization came only a few years after a pivotal but increasingly forgotten moment in the world’s environmental history, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984. Globally, every country introspected and examined, and reformed its policies and policing to avert such a tragedy. India, while burying its dead, did the opposite. It developed a feeble framework to protect ecology and people; environment remained a mutable variable of India’s economic policy, appended to its corporate growth.

New environmental rules that came into effect in 1987, and amendments to the Factories Act have remained unchanged for over 30 years. In May 2020 in Vizag, a chemical tank in a South Korean-owned plant exploded, claiming 11 victims. The blame shifted between the Centre and state governments and eventually the state government paid meagre compensation to the families of the deceased. Needless to say, no one was arrested, and no senior official took responsibility or resigned. Just like Bhopal.

May 2020 also witnessed the largest oil and gas flare up in the Baghjan oilfield, which is surrounded by a sanctuary in Assam. The ravaging fire was doused only in November. The National Green Tribunal found Oil India Ltd in violation of several legislations. Imagine a government enterprise not complying with the government’s own legislations. We also witnessed accidents in Dahej in June and Ahmedabad in November, where more people died.

There are thousands of Bhopals waiting to happen. The Indian government continues to play both ways—it invests in and profits from dirty companies, just as it had done in Bhopal where the government stood before courts both as a victim of the disaster as well as a perpetrator (it had investments and a board seat in Union Carbide, and had relaxed environmental norms) for the deaths which took place under its watch.

Such conflicts have multiplied since liberalization and aggravated damage to the environment. So, while the rest of the world reimagined and renegotiated how they lived with their environment, India, at best, produced a maze of policies that are conveniently sidestepped and people are an afterthought. Even though liberalization brought new ideas of global finance, free trade and for the first time we began to compare ourselves with the West’s standard of living, ecology, equity and social justice continued to be accounted for outside the realm of economics.

Before liberalization, a goon squad with clout to procure licences could circumvent any law and trample over people’s rights to their natural resources. Post-liberalization, tweaks to policy and regulations were made to facilitate trade and, unfortunately, the social sector, and especially the environment, yet again remained an afterthought.

Successive environment ministers and the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) have failed as custodians of nature. The business of the ministry has not been to protect the environment but to facilitate clearance for industry and to find ways to extract resources within its purview.

Politicians openly advocate for corporations and willingly allow transgressions into what is under the ministry’s watch. Case in point: the transport ministry’s quick defence of Volkswagen in December 2015 when the latter was caught cheating on its emissions data in California. It was a concern in the US, not in India, it said, even though a government investigation found that the company had flouted emission norms in India too.

Our deteriorating environment—abysmal air quality, toxin-laden water, vanishing forests and rivers, persistent cycles of epidemics and reducing productivity of farm soils—is quickly accepted as a ‘new normal’.

Protests by farmers from Punjab against the farm bills is as much ecological as it is economic. Most often, the MoEF acts only if the more powerful Prime Minister’s Office or the courts direct them to act. In most matters, it has no opinion, technical know-how or, more importantly, the intent to address problems.

Post-2014, communities and their traditional rights over natural resources have been threatened further by arbitrary allocation. A gradual but swift corporate takeover of civil society space has weakened the cause of keeping earth and equity in balance. Civil society, communities or individuals can no longer imagine going to court or filing RTIs without facing the threat of backlash or retribution. India’s government and corporates are shredding nature’s fabric, which held communities and cultures together.

Governments, whether Union or state, have enough resources (funds, money, people, land) but are bankrupt when it comes to intent, vision or leadership. Funds tied to ‘reverse’ environmental damage like District Mineral Fund, CAMPA and the Auto Cess Fund, among others, are flush with money, but the government clearly lacks imagination and the competence to use it for good.

Sadly, public funds or incentives are now extended to for-profit players over communities and civil society. Why are there so few corporate-backed re-wilding initiatives, community-based carbon capture projects, or clean-up of rivers? Better taxation and investment policies are required along with government recognition that local communities are best suited to protect local ecosystems.

Not all hope is lost, though. The last decade has seen interesting experiments in re-wilding efforts and conservation by communities and individuals, a small but important effort to bring nature back. People are more aware of their surroundings and about issues. Many more turn up for meetings, for tree planting and saving a pond or sanctuary than before, and many react to issues on social media. The campaigns to protect Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai, Mollem in Goa, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram and to stop the building of flyovers in Bengaluru show citizens are rising, at least to protect their neighbourhood.

What is missing are large national movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan and Chipko to protest against the government’s poorly conceived policies and terribly executed projects like broadening highways, proposed interlinking of rivers, mega-energy plants or compensating the destruction of virgin evergreen forests in the Andaman Islands with afforestation in Madhya Pradesh. Virtually every good environmental initiative has taken place outside of the government, without the government’s resources or participation.

As we commemorate 30 years of liberalization, we also observe the centenary of the non-cooperation struggle and the Malabar rebellion, two movements contrasting in style, but both demanding an end to the loot by colonialists. The covid-19 pandemic should be that moment when India needs to reimagine how it would like to bring fundamental changes to environmental and health security. While we wait for the vaccination to stem the disease, we also need to find an antidote for arrogance, evidence-blindness and plain stupidity, whether institutional, collective or individual.

Before we begin efforts to protect our landscapes, forests and rivers, and water, air and soil, we must change the current discourse. Luck and destiny will not shape what the new normal will look like; it is the choices that we make now and beyond. Will our respect for communities who safeguard our commons be restored? Will commerce tread softly on our finite resources? Will evidence and science find primacy in guiding policy, practice and investments? This is the moment in history when equity is most needed so that we can leverage global interconnectedness, technology and resources to overcome vulnerabilities of people marginalized by climate change, poverty and disease. The Paris agreement can’t wait. Nor can citizens for a lungful of clean air or a mouthful of untainted water.

Pranay Lal is a public health advocate and writes on natural history. He is the author of Indica—A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent (2016) and is currently writing a book on the natural history of viruses, which is due for release in summer 2021.

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