Way out of a fix

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Just how does one deal with the emerging problem of pollution which is going to affect millions of people in a big way, in which a large number of polluters are involved, and about which, in scientific terms, very little is known? These situations are now commonplace across the world and India is no exception.

A study by Dutch social scientists presents a fascinating strategy on how to resolve these conflicts. The study deals with a port on the river Rhine where over time the waters had accumulated enormous amounts of toxic material. The Dutch adopted an approach consisting of three different components. Firstly, raising public awareness of the threat. Data was collected and disseminated to the public without any attempt to underplay the situation. The media was also involved in a big way. As a result, a strong public opinion was generated.

The second component was good science. For the resolution of any pollution problem, it is important to understand where the toxins are coming from. Therefore all streams were mapped and, as a result, companies responsible for the pollution were identified.

Having achieved these two objectives, the government set into motion the third component, conflict resolution. With the public pitted against the polluters, the government claimed the easy role of a conflict resolver. The polluters finding themselves in the midst of a storm became supportive of the environmental cause. In such situations, polluters usually ask for time to undertake pollution control activities.

But given the public awareness each firm is also under pressure to change and improve fast. A phased set of targets was negotiated with the polluting agencies and appropriate incentives and disincentives provided. Given the heightened awareness, the government agencies were also then duty bound to provide regular updates to the public on the achievements made and information on those who are not complying.

Today, the port, is cleaner and the exercise has become a model of how to deal with environmental problems generated by industrial pollution.

It is indeed sad that such a strategy has never been adopted in developing countries like India. Firstly, government agencies here are extremely defensive, they hardly share information. The Dutch strategy is built on the premise that the government does its level best to take the public along with it.

The second thing missing in India is good science, particularly good environmental science. Even with a large scientific community, there is little importance given to environment science. There is no way the conflict between environmental conservation and industrialisation, urbanisation and agricultural modernisation can be resolved unless there is good scientific data.

In India, for example, promotion of environmental science has been extremely limited. Neither the Ministry of Environment nor the Ministry of Science and Technology have taken this up as important. But mere allocation of money will not work. The resource must lead to a culture of openness and transparency. Scientists must not only publish their findings but also take them to the public. Development of environmental science should be carried out in an open academic environment rather than closed doors of government research institutes, and service and promotion rules should be such that scientists get incentives to take the information to the public. There is no point in doing good science which remains hidden in government closets. Not only does this not lead to any public awareness it also provides a congenial environment for corruption and underhand deals.

The third element of conflict resolution puts the government not merely in the role of a regulator but also of an arbiter. With the public behind it, the government can easily deal with private interests in a friendly and helpful manner and the increased awareness makes it very difficult for private interests to ignore the public interest. It also adds to their own education about the need to resolve the conflict between their operations and the costs they are generating for society.

Indeed such a strategy needs to be applied in our country and should be experimented with different kinds of environmental management challenges.

For example, the strategy that has been used in The Netherlands deals with the problem of pollution which emerges from what are called 'point sources'. These are clearly identified individual sources which generate pollution. Like individual factories or towns and cities but with agricultural modernisation another major threat that is emerging is the growing use of fertilisers and pesticides.

This pollution is generated by a large numbers of farmers and it is difficult to pin point a single agent. But even here the first two elements of the strategy become extremely important. First of all efforts need to be made to create heightened awareness among farming communities who generate this problem.

Mechanisms would have to be developed to enable environmentalists and rural communities to interact. Simultaneously good science would be able to show how these threats are emerging not just for distant communities whose water sources are being polluted or whose food and diary products are getting contaminated but also how the local environment is getting polluted and threatening local drinking water supplies and food systems.

Once this awareness is high the government will find it easy to resolve the conflict by offering alternative solutions to the rural communities.

This strategy is not an easy one. Not because India does not have the resources to implement it. But because it requires a change of mind set not only within the political system and the administrators but also the scientific community. The heart of the matter is that the government must learn to work with the civil society, its media and the public. In the interaction will emerge the most important thing of all, namely, wisdom.

Anil Agarwal

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