Barking up the wrong tree

The target to fast-track growth cannot be achieved by compro-mising on natural eco-systems and lifestyles.

Politics is considered the art of the possible, but not when it comes to managing the environment or containing the environmental crises. Saddled with the political compulsion of ensuring growth, each successive government has been found wanting in its commitment towards protecting nature. The present political dispensation has gone a step further, equating environment concerns with middle-class ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ worthy of being called a conspiracy. 

The growth bugle, though, is generating multiple signals on environment; some comforting, many disturbing. While Swachh Bharat and Namami Gange campaigns have captured popular imagination, Inland Waterways and Make in India reflect environmental indiscretion. And, by bringing existing environmental legislations back on the drawing board alongside dilution of the mandatory public hearings for project approvals, the government has confirmed its unstinted faith on growth.

Subject to how it is seen, such unprecedented changes do carry a share of optimism. A country whose share of global GDP has increased from 1.8 to 2.7 per cent, and which has been able to pull some 50 million people out of the poverty trap by keeping itself amongst the top 10 fast-growing nations in the past five years, can ill-afford not to pursue its growth agenda even if it may seem environment-unfriendly to some sane voices. 

However, such assertive trends need a reality check. Despite rapid economic growth, India remains home to an estimated 400 million people trapped in abject poverty. Rapid economic growth notwithstanding, on the basis of GDP per capita the country remains at the bottom of the middle-income group countries. No surprise, therefore, that over 350 million people lack access to drinking water and some 550 million are without basic sanitation facilities. 

India’s growth story is a study in contrast – parts of a rapidly urbanising India are shining while larger parts of the abandoned countryside are languishing in darkness. Each stride of the growth juggernaut pushes millions onto the margins as they lose access to their lands, forests and waters; support bases for their traditional livelihoods. A country that lived in its villages, to rephrase Gandhi, is being transformed into one that has been promised ‘smart cities’. 

Partly forced and partly proposed, this transformation is at an enormous cost to the environment. Need it be said that our forests are on a systematic decline, our rivers have been converted into sewers, and our cities (13 at present) are loaded with most polluted air in the world? That poverty is the greatest polluter is passé, it is pollution that has become the cause of greatest misery to the poor. And, it will be a fallacy to assume that the rich will remain unscathed from pollution. 

It will not be erroneous to conclude that the laws on Water and Air Pollution Prevention and Control (1974 and 1981 respectively) and an Environment Protection Act (1986) have been effective in protecting the polluter, earning the country a poor rank of 24 among 70 countries in the recently released Environment Democracy Index which evaluates nations’ progress in enacting laws to promote transparency, accountability and citizen engagement. 

It has been established beyond doubt that our environment decision-making lacks transparency and accountability. However, keeping citizen voices out of the environment decision-making process, at a time when the country is undergoing a massive rural-urban transformation, will bring the country on the brink of an irreversible environment disaster. 

Environment-friendly life-styles and livelihoods of millions in the rural areas have gone unacknowledged, as well. Forest dwellers are being pulled out from the forests; fishermen are becoming victims of water pollution; and the lives of small farmers are being squeezed out of them. 

One is not arguing against the right of people to move in search of better avenues. But the fact that they are being forced out as ‘development refugees’ is a compelling concern. It has been estimated that over the next 20 years, the population living in cities will rise to 50 per cent of the total population with more than a third living in slums. 

Urban living is undoubtedly unsustainable; its water, food, and energy needs are outsourced from resource-rich countryside. It pushes the demand on resources, promoting unsustainable consumptive habits amongst all sections of the society. Millions who once pursued eco-friendly lifestyles are now forced to join the urban race to meet their desires, thereby trapping them in an inevitable ‘whirlpool of desire’.

It offers a confusing but challenging scenario. The target to fast-track growth on a low carbon, clean energy and environmental-friendly pathway can hardly be achieved by compromising natural ecosystems and sustainable lifestyles of its people. That the state is promoting policies that will leave large population vulnerable is the greatest of environmental challenges.  

(The writer is an environmental writer and researcher)

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