Environment: A People's Perspective

Justice is a central component of the conceptual transition from human development to sustainable human development and a similar concern for justice must extend within generations as is conceded across generations

By Shahrukh Rafi Khan
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Justice is a central component of the conceptual transition from human development to sustainable human development and  a similar concern for justice must extend within generations as is conceded across generations. The capabilities, needs and well being of the poor, who are the most excluded and also the most vulnerable to environment ravages, becomes central to the concept of sustainable human development

The current economic paradigm has successfully pushed forward the role of the markets as critical to efficiency, there are inherent limitations of markets when considering the environment.

This seems to suggest that the role of the state is critical in attaining sustainable human development. However, recent literature has pointed out that, due to inherent government capacity constraints, and the efficiencies and justice that results from involving other players, the sustainable human development programme should be viewed as a partnership of the state and other actors. In an important contribution from a people’s perspective, Banuri et. al. (1995) suggest that building and relying on “social capital” at the community level should be central to attaining and sustaining human development. We discuss this notion of “partnership,” with a specific focus on the role of communities. Finally, we review some of the important policy lessons, drawing on this notion of partnership, that have come to the fore in the debates on the environment and sustainable human development.

Human development and sustainable human development

Human development has been defined in the Human Development Reports as extending people’s range of choices. This requires at least two kinds of investments in humans. First, livelihoods need to be assured so individuals have the capacity to make choices. Second, investment in human capital (education and health) is necessary so those individuals can exercise sensible choices to improve their quality of life and exercise these choices for a long time due to enhanced life expectancy. The traditional focus of human development was with the lifetime of individuals and health investments were perceived as enhancing access to traditional medicine.

Several conceptual jumps are required in moving from human development to sustainable human development. Health investment must now also represent a cleaner environment, which is critical to good health. Also, in thinking about the environment, we immediately acknowledge a concern with future generations and their range of choices. Thus conservation and protection of the environment and natural resources are necessary so that future generations have access to a similar range of choices to improve their quality of life as present generations have. Thus, poisoning the atmosphere, water and land degrades the natural resource base and constrains the range of choices open to future generations. It also, in principle, denies future generations an aesthetically equivalent pleasure.

Worrying about future generations represents a concern with justice in that we want to assure future generations at least an equivalent range of choices as is open to current generations. However, once the principle of justice is conceded, we need to extend the same concern within generations as we do across generations. Thus, development not only needs to be just across generations but also within generation. This brings into focus a special concern with the poor, since they get systematically excluded from the benefits of social and economic progress i.e. from a key aspect of development. From an environmental perspective, the rich are able to ward off and insulate themselves against the negative impacts of the environment while the poor remain at the mercy of environmental ravages.

The poor and the environment

One does not need to engage in deep research, but merely observation, to know that the poor are the most vulnerable to environmental depredations. Pedestrians and cyclists are the most exposed to auto-emission and other toxic fumes. Rich motorists can leave behind the smog of inner cities as they drive to relatively clean residential areas or they can roll up the windows and turn on the air-conditioners if caught in traffic jams. Again, low income neighborhoods mushroom around industrial areas and they are hence the most exposed to dirty air, bad odors and effluents.

It should thus not be surprising that poor children have a higher incidence of asthma, other respiratory diseases and lead poisoning. The detrimental impact of lead poisoning on children’s learning abilities has been documented. Thus those who are the most disadvantaged are made more so. The probability of escaping poverty, or enhancing their range of choices in their lifetime, is reduced for them and the ability to pass on a better life to their children is also reduced.

The poor, particularly the women, are also more exposed to indoor pollution due to the use of bio-mass for cooking and indoor heating. Again, at work they spend long hours in polluted environments. Due to the lack of access to clean water and sanitation, the poor are the most exposed to diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery. Low nutritional intake also means less resistance to such diseases.

Similarly, poor uneducated farmers are more exposed to the detrimental effects of chemical agricultural inputs. Excess use, drifting sprays, leaky applicators and the lack of knowledge of handling dangerous substances simply enhances the risk of ill health. Similarly, women and children engaged in cotton picking, the cash crop for which pesticide use is the greatest, are exposed to numerous ailments. These include carcinogenic diseases, enzyme imbalances, skin and allergic reactions, lung diseases, sterility, cataracts, memory loss, change in the central nervous system and damage to the immune system.

Given the nature of polluting and pollution control, the state needs to redress this additional suffering of the poor.

The role of the state

It is acknowledged by most that protecting the environment, much more than other activities with economic implications, can not be the exclusive domain of the market. This is because the market provides an inadequate incentive for investing in its protection. While some NGOs engage in environmental awareness raising, the primary responsibility for doing so must rest with the state. As a non-profit activity, this does not fit into the domain of business activity. This is more so the case when an awareness of environmental rights is likely to eventually constrain the ability of business to treat dirtying the environment as a costless activity.

Much has been written about the market failure aspects of externalities and there is thus little reason to dwell on that. Suffice it to say that dirtying the air, water and land represents a cost imposed on the general public by various kinds of economic activities and the market does not impose a cost on the actors for engaging in such pollution. Since no cost is imposed by the market, economic actors continue to have the incentive to continue to pollute at will unless restrained in some fashion. In Pakistan, the transaction costs for individuals to seek compensation for the damage they have suffered are too high and, at this point, the effort is likely to prove to be fruitless anyway. Collective action has more chances of success, but the transaction costs are still high relative to the benefits derived by the individuals involved in the collective action. The social benefits are likely to exceed these transaction costs, but such collection action also requires the establishment of a tradition of altruistic behavior.

Consider the case of auto-emissions. The scope and magnitude of this problem again represents a market failure. Operating within the conventional market paradigm, all are engaged in individual utility maximization. Thus, the car represents the ultimate in convenience for work and pleasure for those who can afford it. Others less fortunate will rely on an aging diesel run public transportation that chugs out masses of noxious fumes. However, if that is the cheapest available alternative, the poor cannot be faulted for using that for daily business. However, our individual utility maximizing behavior is leading to collective suicide. Most cities in Pakistan are already, or rapidly becoming, a health hazard and inertia is letting this slow poisoning continue.

No one individual has the incentive to modify behavior since the private costs are too high relative to the social benefits of individual action.

Another way of looking at this market failure is from the point of view of individual businesses. Suppose they realize that it is in their interest to have a more healthy and productive workforce and therefore they want to stop contributing to environmental pollution. It would be possible to capture some of the benefits from progressive in-house health policies and better health and safety standards, but the behavior modification of one business will not protect it’s employees from the environmental depredations of other economic actors. Again, the private costs from behavior modification will be not be commensurate with the minor social benefits resulting from this individual action. Thus, it is primarily up to the state to ensure behavior modification. However, it has been recognized that the government has various limitations and thus the endeavor to attain sustainable human development needs to be a collective one including the state, civil society and businesses.

Partnership for sustainable human development

The above section suggests that there is much the state needs to do by way of appropriate legislation and, more important, implementation of regulations. However, that in turn requires the implementation of reforms for good public management which is a slow process and implementing the sustainable human development programme cannot wait until that process is completed. Also, on the one hand, there are inherent government capacity limitations due to fiscal stringency, even if the reforms were in place, and, on the other hand, there are inherent advantages other actors possess in implementing sustainable development solutions. Thus, while reforms for good public sector management are in progress, other actors can be relied for attaining a sizable portion of what needs to be done.

In this regard, Banuri et. al. (1995) rightly give a center place to the building of “social capital” in communities and to the subsequent role of communities to voluntarily work in their collective self-interest. Some notes of caution should be sounded. First, community is a catch all phrase and, at least in rural areas, includes a cross section of different classes and clans. Thus, there is no guarantee that there is an entity out there that is willing an able to work in their collective interest. Second, income inequalities based on differences in ownership of assets allows the well off to capture benefits of out side initiatives and thus leave little motivation for the poorer members of the communities to participate. Finally, even if it is possible to work with the poorer members of the communities to avoid such problems, the social mobilization required to build community organizations is a very slow and difficult and often reversible process.

Having made these qualifications, however, the logic of involving communities is very powerful. As Banuri et. al. (1995, pp. 15 - 16) point out, only people can protect their own local environment from their own actions and those of others. Khan and Naqvi (1998) examines the role of communities in bio-diversity conservation in Ayubia National Park, and point out that doing this is not straight-forward. Given the way incentive systems are currently structured, communities are pitted against government functionaries to steal what is rightfully belongs to them to sustain themselves. Their conclusion is straightforward. Communities need to be empowered by legislation and given a stake in protecting resources they depend on, or else they will contribute to raiding those resources. The argument here is that just laws must precede the building of social capital. Once the just legislation is in place, social mobilization can assist collective action. However, it is equally likely that the collective action may spontaneously emerge to protect individual and collective interests if the right laws are in place.

As one can posit a role for the participation of communities, one can similarly posit a role for the participation by the private sector. The IUCN and the SDPI have systematically involved businesses in participatory policy making exercises. The National Conservation Strategy in fact created a precedence by involving businesses and civil society in framing a strategy in a way that raised awareness of the need for conservation. The IUCN has continued this process in developing provincial and more localized strategies and SDPI engaged with businesses in a round-table process to raise awareness of the need for pollution control and the joint formulation with government and business of the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS). However, once again, legislative cover in the form of The 1997 Environmental Protection Act gives businesses a reason to listen. While the enforcement capacity of the government is limited, the incentive to self-monitor and report on the part of businesses is likely to be imposed by their need to break into export markets where environmental standards are more rigorous.

The next section reviews in more detail the policy lessons recent experience has brought to light that includes this notion of partnership for achieving sustainable human development.

Policy lessons

An important lesson that policy makers in Pakistan need to keep in mind is that protecting and improving the environment is an investment. For too long, policy makers have viewed the environment as representing a cost for business economy and they feel that the first priority is to get the economy in shape. Here, it is important to point out that investing in the environment is, in a macro sense, a “win-win” situation just as many micro-investments in business represent a win-win situation. As earlier indicated, ignoring the negative environmental impact on humans, particularly the poor, represent an enormous cost. Even if we were to ignore the human dimension, there is a tremendous economic cost involved. Bad health, due to unrestrained environmental damage, results in a much less productive work force, working days lost, health care costs and worst of all, impaired future generations. Da Silva and Qizilbash’s conservative estimate of the annual cost of environmental degradation in 1996 prices is 4.3 percent of GDP ($4.3 billion). Thus, it would be short sighted to view environmental investment as a trade-off rather than an investment that is both just and economical.

In this regard, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, policy makers cannot afford to react to the environment as part of a “foreign” agenda. This is so because first, the welfare of our own people is involved. Second, insofar as the demand for clean products is coming from abroad, it often does not represent a conventional non-tariff barrier but part of a market driven process. Thus much of the demand for change is from individual consumers and stockholders. In any case, states have also been empowered by WTO rules, to which Pakistan is a signatory, to protect the health of their citizens. Adapting to such a changing world would be good business and would also be humane.

The second lesson is that concentrating on good policies has a high pay-off relative to specific projects. The reason for this is that the costs are often low or negligible and the benefit very high since they apply across the board unlike in the case of a project. A case in point is the introduction of a “pollution charge” in the 1997 Environmental Protection Act. The policy requires all firms to do a self-audit and if they exceed specified standards, to pay a charge. Random audits, as in the case of tax audits, can ensure that the process is being reasonably well enforced since the government certainly does not have the capacity for across the board enforcement. An important investment for the government is ensuring that they register reputable private sector firms to do such audits. The government also needs to negotiate with international bodies to allow these firms to certify businesses for conformity with the 1997 Environment Protection Act. Such firms would then automatically certify for the ISO 14,001 standard that could help in breaking into or retaining export markets. An additional advantage is that this certification also embodies many micro level “win-win” policies that improve the environment while reducing business cost of production via better resource use, waste management and recycling.

Another good policy is one that generates appropriate across the board behavior modification and ensures that the subsidy reaches those for whom it is intended. Charging more for dirty fuel and less for clean fuel is necessary to ensure appropriate behavior modification. Businesses are currently seeking government subsidies to convert to clean fuel. Policy makers need to note that they are currently poisoning the public and refuse to stop until they get a hand out. This certainly should not be considered acceptable since countries and, certainly large cities like Bangkok and Delhi, have ordered the transition to clean fuel. Keeping the price of diesel low to subsidize transportation for the poor is bad economic and environmental policy, particularly since the rich also benefit from this subsidy. Subsidies for those providing clean public transportation would be a preferred option. Again, blanket water subsidies have merely encouraged over use and water logging. The tax system would be a preferred option to assist the poor farmers via exemptions while ensuring rich farmers pay the economic value for the water they use. This policy would protect the poor, encourage conservation and generate revenues.

Incentives have to be right for government officials and poor communities so that they protect the environment rather than injure it. For example, in forestry, the incentive structure encourages forest department officials to collude with the timber merchants. Also, the poor, who are denied a stake in forests that represent part of their livelihoods, have an incentive to raid them. If conserving forests are the objective, forest officials and community members should be rewarded for preventing illegal cutting. The community members should be the guardians of resources their livelihood depends on to work independently and/or with the forest officials. This approach has been used widely and the lesson is that if the communities have a stake in protecting resources, they will do so. However, repressing their ownership or usufruct rights would simply give them an incentive to raid those resources. Again, if the poor own the land they work on, they have a much greater incentive to care for it and protect it from degradation.

Finally, policy makers must remember that prevention is much better than cure. With the right policies and incentives, resources can be conserved, and environmental degradation avoided. Forests or mangroves once destroyed and lands once degraded or desertified take much time and expense to restore. Since resources are scarce, the greater likelihood is that this will not be done and that the gift of nature will be lost for current and future generations.


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