Access to safe water still remote

Much has transformed since June 5 was declared the World Environment Day in 1972. On that sunny morning in the picturesque Swedish capital, Stockholm, the first ever UN Conference on the Human Environment had brought ‘environment’ on the global political agenda.

The only head of state present at the event, other than the host premier Olf Palme, prime minister Indira Gandhi had sought to ask the global audience ‘Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?’

In the preceeding four decades, poverty has grown consistently whereas human need has paradoxically continued to diversify. At a tangent to each other, development as a reflection of gross domestic product has instead sustained poverty at unexpectedly higher levels. Else, developing countries with current annual growth rate of between 5.6 and 5.9 per cent would not have been home to 2.7 billion people surviving on less than $2 a day. Barring exception, the UN Millennium Development Goals, set two decades after the first environment day, have remained moderately off track. Since economic orthodoxy in use to meet the goal of eliminating poverty has fallen flat, the world is back on the drawing board to set fresh ‘development goals’.

Capitalist policies

Despite it being apparent that the pursuit of never-ending economic growth has proved dysfunctional to a large extent, the notion of perpetually chasing production and consumption has continued to guide present-day economists. In a bid to sustain economic growth, resources have been relocated across sectors. Quite often, it is the poor who get robbed of their legitimate share of natural resources at the behest of capitalist policies.

Sample this. Some 130 million people in India lack access to safe water, and those who have access to water suspect its quality. Since annual per capita water availability in the country has shrunk from a high of 1,816 to a low of 1,545 cubic metres during the last decade, drinking water is likely to remain dear to millions. If current trend in water diversion and misuse continues, per capita availability will touch an alarming low of 1,000 cubic metres within the next decade.

If you think this will lead to severe water crises, chances instead are that situation may not be as alarming. Corresponding to per capita shortage in access to water will be a rise in per capita consumption of bottled water in the country. Indian bottled water industry has pegged per capita average consumption of bottled water to grow to a high of 30 litres during the current decade, by the close of which the present Rs 8,000 crore industry would be worth Rs 30,000 crore.

Industry sources contend that though India is way behind countries like Thailand and Italy which consume 115 and 190 litres per capita respectively, it is only beginning to unlock its potential with changing life style and rise in spending capacity of consumers.
Bottled water has interesting parallel with cellphone penetration in the country. While bottled water has converted a bare necessity into a product, cellphone has turned a product into a compelling necessity. Both have been driven by market principles, pitching demand on perpetual scarcity of safe water in one case and absence of reliable teleconnectivity on the other. Much like bottled water sector, the telecom sector with 900 million subscribers has grown dramatically. These changes in last two decades have happened within a broader context of neoliberalism, which has been driven by an accelerating economy and a ballooning consumerism.

That bottled water has a water footprint of at least 3 litres/litre (ie., three litres of water is consumed in the process of producing a litre of bottled water) and produces copious quantities of obnoxious plastic waste is least of concerns for an upward mobile middle-class.

By creating a mass base of unsuspecting and somewhat unconcerned consumers, market has literally insulated itself from onslaught by the environmentalists. On the other hand, people have accepted capitalism’s redefinition of ‘them’ from citizens to consumers. Having accepted this redefinition, consumers have not only reduced their potential forms of resistance but have geared themselves to protect their perceived need for growth and development.

Neither poverty nor need seem to be the greatest polluter; it is the ubiquitous consumer that is fast turning out as a cog in the wheel of environmental destruction. With consumer being the undisputed king of growing capitalism, market will only reorient itself to meet his changing consumptive habits. No wonder, the theme of this year World Environment Day is pitched on the hope that the consumer will: Think-Eat-Save.

 

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