A little piece of Greenpeace

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 31 December 1996

The foreigner came to India to teach us a lesson. The lesson - do not follow the West blindly - was delivered in Delhi a few weeks ago by the environment giant, Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has just completed a study of the pollution being caused by the chlorine industry. The study's findings are devastating. Apart from the high levels of several pollutants that they found in the wastewaters coming out from plastic and other factories in places like Delhi and Gujarat, they found some 200 chemicals which could not be identified using the best available technology in the world. Many of the substances that were found in the wastewaters were highly poisonous which would have both short-term and long-term effects on human health including damage to the hormonal and reproductive systems.

But I found the meeting in New Delhi at which the findings were presented extremely depressing. A number of officials from the government and representatives from the plastic industry were present and they made every effort to dominate the meeting and lambast the Greenpeace representatives for their report. At the end of the meeting I did not know whether to be angry or amused. Not only was their behaviour unbecoming, so were their remarks.

Industry representatives tried to say that if the study has been prepared by Greenpeace then it must be suspect - much in the same vein as NGOS often say that if a study is funded by industry, then it must be suspect. They nitpicked over every sentence in the report. One person went on to say that he had worked in the plastics industry for over 30 years and if he was hale and hearty then clearly, Greenpeace did not know what it was talking about. This argument is extremely spurious. Obviously, the man, probably 50 years old, had not yet died of diarrhoea or dysentery. But does this mean that children in India do not die of these diseases?

The officials present in the meeting, most of whom came from the central and Gujarat pollution control boards, picked holes in the report on other counts. They argued that Greenpeace's methodology was wrong, even though the Greenpeace scientists held they had used the best equipment and techniques available. The debate became So technical that it amounted to scientific obfuscation. Instead of presenting their own data, the critics got caught up in extraneous issues. In addition, they argued that India has to set, its own priorities. Economic growth is important.

I found this PCB argument most disturbing. The sole purpose with which the PCBs have been set up is to protect the environment and the health of the people. They cannot suddenly take on the management of the economy ' a conflicting objective - otherwise the governance systems will fail. They should clearly and honestly tell the government and the people what threats are being posed by a particular industry and then let industrial development agencies argue against them. If the pollution control boards themselves try to underplay the importance of protecting the environment then who will generate information about the threats we face? Neither the decision-makers nor the public will ever get a good idea of the negative aspects of development and will not be able to make appropriate choices. It is here that the governance system fails and what we in the Centre for Science and Environment call the Challenge of the Balance never gets faced. If one agency of the government tells the truth then another agency gets upset and ultimately the data gets diluted, doctored or underplayed, and as long as there is a lack of transparency nobody in the public ever gets to know the truth. The bureaucrats, the politicians and the industrialists are all happy but it is the public which has to bear the costs, amounting to state-sponsored murder.

The chairperson of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) was, of course, the worst. Instead of admitting GPCB'S failures, this exalted figure went on to criticise Greenpeace for not working with his agency to assess the pollution situation in Gujarat. He pointed out that Gujarat is extremely conscious of environmental problems and hadn't the Greenpeace scientists heard of the judicial activism on this issue in the state - which I would have thought indicates how bad a job he was doing. But he was pointing it out to defend himself and the state.

Underlying all these remarks was, of course, the feeling, how is a foreigner trying to tell us what we should do. Greenpeace has come to India to undertake these studies because it is involved in a worldwide campaign against the chlorine-based industry and chlorine-based pesticides.

Ideally, I wouldn't like to see Greenpeace operating in India. Indians should'develop their own environmental NOOS. But Greenpeace's coming to India shows up a major failing of the Indian NGO movement. Indian environmentalists are generally quite good on resource management issues because they are not so technically complex. But they are relatively poor on pollution issues. And given the state of our pollution control boards a lot of threats being posed by industrial development are going unnoticed. Not surprisingly, Greenpeace has to come to India to undertake these studies. Ultimately, Indian NGOS should develop their own counter- monitoring systems and not rely exclusively on state agencies to protect the health of the people. Its a major challenge that we face.

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