By hook, crook or vision

Profits and a cleaner environment can sometimes complement each other. But Indian companies are still mired in poison. They must now look for a cure. They must act now

Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

By hook, crook or vision

-- The 1980s and early 1990s were a time, the world over, of increasingly stereotypical confrontations between industry and environmentalists. Ecological considerations formed no part of industrial productive strategies, argued environmentalists. Industry treated the ecosystem as a vast self-replenishing raw material procurement facility, and as a convenient dumping site. Nonsense, thundered industry captains. They would not be blackmailed by bird-lovers; nothing could compromise profit-margins.

From the early 1990s began a time when this confrontation began to resolve itself. The factors that caused this turn of affairs were wide-ranging -- civil society's increasing experience of the effects of environmental abuse and refusal to countenance corporate denial; new management paradigms and practices that spoke of environmental efficiency as positive; shareholder pressures; and, most crucially, policy directions and regulatory measures by governments that forced industry to look for a clean-up act. In essence, there emerged a realisation that finite resource use had embedded economic benefits.

This confrontation has not ended. But in the West, it has led to strategies -- technological, managerial, process- and product-based -- where economic and environmental considerations are no longer thought to be incompatible. Companies in the West have realised that balance sheets and a cleaner environment do sometimes complement each other.

What about Indian industry? It is mired in poison, and must now look for a cure. By hook, crook or vision.

The simplest way out is the technological fix: import. But sadly, this won't work. Because solutions offered by the developed world apply only to the large-scale sector, while the major challenge in India lies in developing clean technologies or viable pollution control systems that work for the medium and small sectors. Both sectors rely heavily on natural resources, and are heavily entrenched in the rural economy. The small-scale agro-residue based paper and pulp industry, tanneries, or molasses-driven distilleries do not exist in the West. But in India, they are part of a small-scale sector that accounts for 40 per cent of industrial production, 35 per cent of direct exports and -- here is the rub -- 60 per cent of total industrial pollution. Each year, between 100,000 and 150,000 small-scale units open shop, leading to a question: will such entrepreunarial boom lead to ecological bust?

It need not. But where is the awareness that the search for an indigenous cure has to begin at home?

In its 10th five-year plan, the government of India envisages an 8 per cent GDP growth rate, for it wishes to double the country's per capita income in the coming decade. This, says the plan, requires a 10 per cent growth rate in the industrial sector. The plan is a noble one, except that this growth is not going to be a pollution-neutral one. It cannot be so. It cannot be so because government's regulatory mechanisms are either non-existent or completely weak. Industry today guzzles resources and pollutes freely because it can do so; what might happen in the future if such a scenario persists is too frightening to even imagine. On its part, industry's investment in research and development is as miniscule as the government's intent to achieve pollution-neutral growth: on an average, it is a pathetic 0.1 per cent of total turnover. In addition, most Indian industrialists prefer informal solutions to structural problems, solutions such as the readily-corruptible local politician or toxic sludge surreptitiously disgorged into a stream at night.

Perhaps the greatest problem is that environmental managers in Indian companies today are a marginalised lot. They could lead their companies to pollution-neutrality, but currently lack fiat, or clout. This became clear when the Green Rating Project of the Centre for Science and Environment set up an Environment Manager's Award to make visible the efforts made by professionals in imbuing companies with an ecological vision. Such managers exist only in large companies; they are not taken seriously. Environmental commitment, it seems, isn't serious business enough.

The environmental manager will have to be the chief innovator -- by finding solutions to the challenges of this century.

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