Conspiracy to kill

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

The total lack of interest and foresight that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government is showing while dealing with the country's growing pollution is downright appalling, to say the least. An excellent indicator of this came recently when the government reconstituted the council on trade and industry to set up eight working groups ranging from good governance to education and health with the full participation of India's industrial leaders. But there was not one group that dealt with industrial growth and environmental pollution, almost as if this issue does not figure on the Vajpayee government's political agenda.

All over the world, experience has shown pollution rises extremely rapidly with industrial growth. A study carried out by the World Bank showed that when the Thai economy doubled during the 1980s, the total quantity of poisonous pollutants released went up ten times. The Centre for Science and Environment found that during the period 1975-1995 during which the Indian economy grew by about 2.5 times, the total quantity of pollutants increased by eight times. Not surprisingly, almost every Indian town and city is choking because of vehicular pollution today.

Most people tend to think that Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The high levels of deadly particles in Delhi's air probably make it the worst in the world. Mexico City looks like a kitten in front of Delhi. All this is relatively well known because the World Health Organization monitors air pollution in some 20 metropolises of the world and Delhi indeed comes out pretty bad in this sample of cities. The Indian media has also publicised this fact.

But what is not well known is that when Delhi's air pollution is compared with the air pollution in other Indian cities, this capitally polluted city appears quite clean. The Central Pollution Control Board has just released data on air pollution levels recorded in 90 cities in 1997. This data shows that Shillong is the only town that has clean air round the year. The Prime Minister's own constituency, Lucknow, suffers from pollution that is worse than Delhi.

Should all this be surprising? Not at all. Within just 15 years of what economists call the post-Second World War economic boom (1945-1960), a period during which the Western world created unprecedented material wealth, literally every Western city from Tokyo to London and Los Angeles began to gasp for clean air and every Western river from the Rhine to the Thames had become a sewer, much like our Yamuna. And Japan was reeling under unknown and crippling neurological disorders like the frightening Minamata disease. The same is happening in India today and, in fact, all across Asia.

The growing pollution in the West led to a powerful environmental movement that then forced Western politicians to take the matter seriously. They did two things. During the 1970s and 1980s, these countries poured in enormous sums of money to control pollution. According to one estimate, nearly 25 per cent of the industrial investment in Japan in the post-70s period went towards pollution control. And the governments strictly enforced their pollution control laws. As a result, the air and water had become a lot cleaner by the late 1980s and early 1990s, that is, in a period of about 20 years or one generation. The battle is, however, still not won. The West still has to find ways to deal with carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere, disposal of hazardous industrial waste (which often gets shipped to developing countries), growing groundwater pollution and disruption of the nitrogen cycle because of largescale use of fertilisers and manure, among a number of other vexing problems.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we will be able to see a turnaround in India in the next 20 years? It is extremely doubtful that this will be the case. India's economy is just beginning to grow. Industrial development, agricultural modernisation and urbanisation - all of which pump poison into the environment - are still at a nascent stage. We still have a long way to go. Therefore, we can see enormous quantities of poisons being produced in the decades to come. And on top of all this, at the turn of the century, India does not have the wherewithal to emulate the West of the 1970s. Firstly, India's current per capita income is still not even a fraction of Western per capita incomes of the 1970s. As a result, India will remain heavily constrained in investing in high quality, environmentally sound technology. India will continue to use low quality, highly-polluting technologies for a long time.

Secondly, India's regulatory system is highly corrupt and incompetent in dealing with the new challenges arising out of pollution. And, finally, there is as yet no powerful popular movement against pollution, which can translate into votes and put the fear of God into our politicians.

What we, therefore, see is absolute mayhem in the years to come. What took the West one generation to control could take our already heavily polluted India as much as two to three generations to control, in other words, some 40-50 years.

What does all this mean for the Indian economy and Indian industrialists? The answer is 'Simply nothing'. Pollution will hardly have any effect on Indian industry and the Indian economy. They will continue to grow. But what will this mean for Indians - the country's common people who can least afford to deal with diseases like cancer, neurological disorders and so on when they still find it difficult to deal with malaria and diarrhoea? For them, it will mean a lot - in terms of an appalling quality of life and premature death. Already some one million people die every year because of polluted water and some hundred thousand due to air pollution.

In other words, more than one million a year die unnecessarily because the government cannot ensure clean air and water. And in the years to come this number will rise further, unless strong steps are taken to start controlling pollution right away. If the turnaround takes two to three generations instead of one, we are talking of more than 50 million fatalities at the least because of the government's incompetence and political apathy.

In a nation where the population has already reached one billion and is still growing, one can even be cynical and say that 50 million deaths is hardly a big price to pay for economic development. The Vajpayee government appears to be giving us precisely this message with its inability to factor in environmental concerns into its industrial development policy.

Yet all this mayhem can be prevented but only if the government develops some foresight on the issue and sets up an effective regulatory framework which gives industry the right incentives and signals to be environment-friendly. The work done by the Centre for Science and Environment, under its Right to Clean Air Campaign, has repeatedly shown that India's industrial leaders do not recognise that pollution is a serious problem. They also definitely do not want to take any proactive steps to control it in the absence of an effective regulatory framework. Industry's argument is that in a competitive environment no company will invest in more expensive environment-friendly technologies and competition will inevitably force it to the lowest common denominator unless government rules and regulations prevent that from happening.

A fine example of this kind of behaviour by industry was brought to the knowledge of the public when industry rushed in head over heels to meet euro i vehicular pollution standards (imposed in Europe in 1992). All this was a result of the April 1999 Supreme Court order that made it mandatory to impose these standards in less than three months and euro ii standards in less than a year. Till then, all companies, Indian and foreign, from Maruti to Mercedes, had been merrily selling outdated technology because government regulations in India imposed euro i standards from 2000 and euro ii standards from 2005. Even a joint sector company like Maruti was found way behind the times although it was exporting euro ii cars to Europe to meet standards imposed there.

Now in 2000, Indian companies like Maruti and foreign companies like Toyota and Ford will be selling euro iii compliant vehicles in Europe. But none of them will care to introduce these in India because they are not expected to do so under government regulations. Thus, Europe will get squeaky clean technology even though its skies are clean and India will continue to get outdated technology even though its skies are a deadly grey.

All this can begin to change rapidly. Just like changes brought about by the Supreme Court order, but only if the government decides that this is a task that it wants to undertake. If not, we should be prepared for a living hell. Our current crop of politicians, given their age, will disappear in the next 10 to 20 years, but they will leave behind an absolutely unliveable legacy for our children. They will find it hard to believe that India had such callous 'leaders'.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.