Environment

Pollution’s underbelly

We have to change this cycle of destruction, where we shift our consumption to poorer regions where pollution does not matter

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Tuesday 19 February 2019
Pollution
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Last fortnight I visited Shiv Vihar—the so-called illegal colony in East Delhi with illegal jeans dyeing units that I had written about many months ago. My trip was to check on the status of the “illegal” factories and to see if we should collect further samples of water for testing. You may recall that I had explained that according to the Master Plan, industrial activity is banned in the “unauthorised/regularised or unregularised colonies”. There is a list of household industries, which are allowed to operate. But using chemicals for dyeing clothes is not on that list. The Delhi High Court had already cracked down on these factories. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had been directed to track down officials who allowed these to open.

As expected, this crackdown had worked. I was told and I found factory after factory (or rather house after house), which had been listed as those operating dyeing units were actually closed. There were seals on many doors, indicating an official shutdown. All good, I thought.

But then I looked down into the drain. It was full of blue colour—the pigment of our jeans. Let’s track down the drain, I said. Find where the colour is coming from. So, we walked through the narrow lanes, full of human life. We came upon a closed door; we could hear the machines; could see the blue dye gushing into the drain. But for all purposes it was closed.

Shockingly, I was told that the factory was closed in Delhi. So, where is this coming from? This is Uttar Pradesh (UP). The lanes of the two states merge here. The gate of the factory used to open in Delhi; now the unit uses its backdoor and this opens in UP. Then another factory. Same case.

The story spilled out. When the court cracked down, factories officially closed down and then shifted. Not far. Just a few houses away. But they moved from Delhi to UP. Another state, another court’s jurisdiction. But the fact is that the factories still threw their effluent into the same drain, which is connected to the Yamuna. No change here. The fact is that these effluents would still contaminate groundwater and injure lives and impact overall wellbeing.

Is this not the story of our globalised world? The fact is that as the cost of environmental regulations increased, cost of production went up in the now-rich world. It could afford to care about the quality of its water and its air. Its health concerns were non-negotiable. So, governments cracked down on pollution. It moved. It went to countries like China, Indonesia, Bangladesh or India. Our comparative advantage was that we could keep costs low—labour and environmental concerns were discounted.

Then of course, global consumers rose in anguish against the factories of the third-world. They could not bear to see crass abuse of workers. Simultaneously, in our world, where the factories had moved and started polluting, there was crackdown. This time led by environmental concerns—like the predecessor of Shiv Vihar. In Delhi, for instance, the Supreme Court banned all polluting industries almost 10 years ago. These then went underground—literally moved from the legal areas to illegal areas, like Shiv Vihar. In these areas, the pollution regulator cannot operate. The reasoning is simple. “These factories do not exist, because they are illegal. If we give them notice then we will have to first legalise them, which we cannot do”. Logical. But deadly for pollution.

So, where do we go now? Shiv Vihar has moved further into Shanti Nagar—the unauthorised and unregularised colony in UP, where the court is far away and the gaze of the regulator even further. In the factories I found poor migrants working in deplorable conditions; handling chemicals with bare hands; exposed to the toxins more than anyone else. But they are poor. They do this because they have no option.

The option is with us. We have to change this cycle of destruction, where we shift our consumption to poorer regions where pollution does not matter. Livelihoods do. Clearly, the answer is to improve wellbeing through employment. But this employment doesn’t offer people the choice between livelihoods and death. This cannot be the way ahead. I will keep writing on this as I learn more and find more answers. Bear with me.

(This editorial will be published in Down To Earth's February 16-28, 2019, print edition)

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