The prosperous are the ‘real’ polluters

Economic growth takes a toll on the environment

By Manoj Misra
Published: Monday 22 July 2013

Economic growth takes a toll on the environment

Poverty pollutes and hence it deserves to be banished is a common refrain since the time Indira Gandhi first spoke of it at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment. A lot has changed since then, except the ‘polluter’ tag sticking firm to the ‘poor’. Let us try and dig deep.

The early days of environmentalism in the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties, equated deforestation with environmental degradation and identified threats like shifting cultivation, forest fires, felling of trees and over grazing as the chief drivers of deforestation. In turn poor of the world were dubbed as the ‘ants’ at work to rid the world of its forests (read ‘natural environment and its services’) to meet their daily needs of fuel, fodder, food and shelter. No wonder impoverished poor became the focus of most donor driven poverty removal projects of the eighties and nineties. With mixed results these projects tended to help maintain the poverty focus of pollution and environmental degradation. But it wasn’t for long.

Soon with economic liberalisation as the double digit ‘growth’ (read ‘prosperity’) mantra the much larger, insidious and long term threats to natural environment in form of mega projects in the fields of mining, infrastructure, power, FMCG and manufacturing became more than clear. Indicators like dying rivers and other water bodies, polluted and poisoned air, polluted land and the underground, heaps (even mountains) formed of human waste changing the skyline of cities and towns became the sign of the times and finally the phenomenon of climate change with all its concomitant uncertainties became the final nail in the human led assault on the natural environment. Search for an all round ‘prosperity’ fast overtook the ‘poverty’ driven human footprint on the natural environment.

I often travel to Orissa and get to visit its interiors, the so called ‘ground zero’ of poverty. There I do find little clad kids, malaria and livelihood related hardships. But I still find there verdant forests, fresh air, clear streams and naturally grown food. I can still taste ‘mango’ as it used to be once and discover and admire the indescribable attractions of a water fall. But no sooner I move towards the so called prosperity driven centres of feverish economic activity in the state marked by its under construction ports, legal and illegal mining areas, towns and cities in a mad rush to modernise, I can clearly fathom who is the greater devil in the name and game of pollution.

River Yamuna in Delhi has been the focus of a multi billion ‘cleaning’ drive (some call it a scam) since the nineteen nineties. Public interest litigation (PIL) both at the Supreme and the High Court (more recently at the National Green Tribunal) in Delhi have struggled to rid the holy river of its ‘maili’ (polluted) tag, without much success. T

The High Court of Delhi in an effort to reduce pollution levels in the river set up in 2005 - after a damning indictment of the state in having done little in the matter - a high powered committee to rid the river bed of the ‘polluting’ colonies (primarily JJ colonies) and structures existing in the river bed.

A drive by the said Committee in 2006 managed to remove some 15000 of them until politically sensitive colonies in north and south brought the drive first to stutter and finally to a halt. The underlying motivation of the Court order presumably remained that it was the poor that was behind the river’s polluted state. The fact that the megapolis consisting largely of the ‘prosperous’ brazenly drained 2500 – 3000 MLD of its toxic waste water into the river on a daily basis and huge sized legit structures (some created by the state itself) had invaded the river bed did not seem to have figured or bothered the Court. ‘Poor’ as polluters were damned and displaced but the river only added to its maili status.

The tragedy that has recently been witnessed in the ‘Dev’ bhumi (land of the gods) of Uttarakhand is to a large extent the result of the polluting effects of a newly created state is a rush to change its category from a ‘poor’ to a ‘prosperous’ state, where even its dev (gods) could be merchandised and shifted (a la Dhari devi) with impunity and its hitherto pristine rivers sacrificed at the alter of an urge to gain an ‘Urja’ bhumi (energy state) tag? Now before I get dubbed as a hopeless romantic and an antiquated mind (not that I mind these tags) let me confess that this is not meant to eulogise poverty or to suggest that prosperity should be shunned. It is only to request for a change in our current definition of a polluter that hurts the most. AMEN

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