Food first

Wealthy and impoverished nations cannot share common environment regulation mechanisms

By Rajindar Sachar
Published: Wednesday 15 May 2002

Food first

Ever since the Supreme Court ordered non-cng (compressed natural gas) public vehicles off the road, Delhi commuters have been in the grip of a crisis. The Bhure Lal Committee's preference for cng won the day over the earlier Mashelkar Committee report, which recommended multiple fuels, including diesel, for Delhi. The latter finding also had support from Tata Energy Research Institute director, Rajendra K Pachauri. That Pachauri's bid for chairpersonship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was backed by the Bush administration, against the incumbent us chairperson, speaks volumes for his credibility.

In the choice between cleaner air and the alleged heavy burden on industry, the us government had no option but to heed to practical problems. The Indian Supreme Court, however, is in a luckier position. It is not answerable to public sentiment, even if both the Central and state governments are tearing their hair out, faced by the wrath of millions of daily commuters.

I do not wish to comment on the comparative merits of cng and low-sulphur content diesel buses. But I do believe that the court, in attempting to lay down Euro environmental standards, is losing sight of ground realities, which is that it is the developed countries that have benefited from environmentally offensive trade in the last hundred years, and are principal offenders to this day. It is also important to note that since 1989, more than 500 attempts have been made to export toxic waste from Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) countries, which generate 98 per cent of all hazardous waste to non- oecd countries.

Even principle 11 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Envir-onment and Development says, "Standards applied by some countries may be of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular, developing countries."

Though recognising the effects of pollution and consequential global warming, we must not forget that it has to be co-related to the development needs of each country. This is emphasised by Jagdish Bhagwati, un economist, who says that the setting of 'international standards' for all ignores the fact that there are legitimate reasons for diversity in environmental regulation across countries.

I am not suggesting that the role of government officials and politicians, who deliberately ignored the directive since 1996, ought to be condoned. They may justifiably be accused of colluding with the industry or acting out of political considerations. But notwithstanding that, the courts have to maintain balance and to keep in view the question of prioritisation between environmental considerations and 'right to livelihood' guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.

Also, considering new reports that the promised supply of cng buses may not be possible to keep up with, a relook at this problem is called for. More so in the light of the fact that the us has categorically refused to be bound by Kyoto Protocol.

In their misplaced though well-meaning enthusiasm, courts, goaded by environmental-cum-business lobbies insist on applying Euro-II standards in an India that has an annual per capita income of us $350. When the same was introduced in Europe hardly a decade back, the per capita annual income stood at roughly us $15,000. These rigid standards have resulted in mass unemployment and also the present crisis of public transport, thus seriously jeopardising the livelihood of hundreds of thousands, and consequently violating their human right of living and working.

I must confess that I am bitter that these so-called clean air enthusiasts invoke the language of the first world, and seek to apply the same, most certainly inapposite, tests in developing countries. I may sound reactionary to environmental faddists, but if ever a choice were to be made between preserving the human right to livelihood and shelter, and the so-called environmental standards laid down by the first world, I would unhesitatingly opt for the former. To me, nothing takes precedence over the right to food.

Justice Rajindar Sachar is retired chief justice of the DelhiHigh Court.

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