Labour vs pollution

Ever since the Supreme Court (sc) ordered closure/relocation of polluting units in Delhi, which subsequently left nearly 50,000 people jobless, it has often been debated whether a conflict exists between environment conservation and labour rights. Trade union leaders argue that the relocation and closure will benefit the industrialists. On the other hand, we have seen that closure of industrial units does not necesssarily benefit the environment. The Centre for Science and Environment (cse) organised a debate to polarise opinion on the subject. Participants at the discussion included Sunita Narain , cse 's Deputy Director, Dunu Roy of The Other Media, cpi (Marxist) leader and academic Biplab Dasgupta , Supreme Court advocate S Muralidhar , Jamia Milia Islamia professor Mohammad Talib and Devaki Panini from Human Rights Law Network. Given below are excerpts of what each speaker had to say:

Published: Friday 15 October 1999

Labour vs pollution

-- Roy: I would say there are three major issues on which people should focus the discussion. Firstly, is that it is easier to take decisions regarding labour than capital. Is it something that can be changed. Secondly, can the environmentalist and the labour movements work together? If they want to work together then the question is how can we move towards that situation. Thirdly, do we want to learn from history? If we do not learn from our own misdoings and from history, then we have a major problem on our hands. The solution, as pointed out earlier, may also lie in our understanding of how the environment and labour movements can work together and how policy decisions can be made in favour of labour, rather than capital.

Dasgupta: I was thinking about how the Indian environmental and labour movement can be linked to what is happening at the global level. At the global level, several agencies have been discussing this. They are the ilo from the labour side and unep from the environment side. What has to be recognised is that capital is mobile while labour is not. We also have treatise like the wto etc, which are being backed by the un agencies. Trade unionists believe that such pacts are anti-labour. From the environment point of view, we should talk about two kinds of limits -- outer limit and inner limit.

What is the outer limit? The outer limit is that if you go beyond the outer limit to push in development then the environment will be effected in such a way that existence will be impossible. I would consider the outer limit as issues such as nuclear blasts and the ozone layer. On the other hand, the inner limit is a point where immediate cause for concern is not a threat to the existence of humankind, but is related to the demands of economic development. When you have people living in the forest and the forest is threatened, the lifesystems of these people are also threatened. Also, if a big project like a dam is built, then the people are displaced and they are forced to migrate.

This in turn adds to the team of the unorganised labour force, in turn making it easier for the industrialist to exploit them. Having recognised this, I think there is no conflict such as the environment versus development. What is important is that the environmentalist should recognise that unless something is done to eradicate poverty, or until the working class is given its due rights, it will be difficult to convince them that environmental degradation will affect their lives.

Muralidhar: I do not see any conflict between environmental concerns and labour rights. I do not think they can be put into separate compartments. As far as I remember I am not sure whether trade unions have actively participated in setting standards regarding hazardous processes in the industries. I have always wondered why trade unions don't actively asked for participation in setting work standards in the industries. They have only agitated on issues such as bonus and wages. On the other hand, whenever the environmentalist have taken issues to the court, they have been done in a unidimensional way. And so at the reaction of the trade unionist has been that their rights have been overlooked.

As far as the courts are concerned, they have also lacked imagination. pil s had their positive and negative aspects. One obsevervation is that most of the environmental issues are dealt with in a statutory revision. And in that statutory regime anything is seen within the context of law. Also all the remedies are sought from the aspect of the law. pil helped in formulating two principles which we needed to developed. One is the polluter pays principles. And the second being the precautionary principles. In the opening remarks, someone mentioned Bichhri. In Bichhri, the court recognised the polluter pays principle. But when it came relocation of industries in Delhi no one argued for this principle.

The whole exercise involved relocating all of Delhi's industries and relocating the labour that involves huge costs. Why should the industry not pay the cost of that relocation? But, on the other hand, we had the industry bargaining and getting for itself the deal it wanted. And I didn't see anyone, including M C Mehta protest, why should a polluting industry be allowed to pollute in the neigbouring state.

In India, the pattern of labour is such that there is an organised sector and unorganised sector. The law and the courts only deal with the organised sector. In case of relocation of industries in Delhi, when we talk of 50,000 workers, not even one fifth of them fall in the organised sector. They don't have their names in the books and therefore they are not eligible for compensation when an industry is relocated or closed. This is a serious question which the trade unions have refused to address.

Similarly, the trade unions do not see the problem of child labour as a labour problem. This brings us back to the question of a decisive approach. In case of the labour movement we see they have adopted the decisive approach within the movement, that is not recognising unorganised labour. I, for instance, being involved in the Bhopal gas litigation, was always surprised how out of that litigation one concern was not highlighted. I mean the voice from the workers themselves. They were dealing with a very hazardous process. But no one in the unorganised labour force protested about working in those conditions.

I think we haven't had that kind of response from within the labour force about environment, about the conditions of work about the health of workers.

Talib: I came here as a distant observer. But I believe that one should go beyond tigers and trees and recognise that the migrant labour, in the urban sector is an ecological migrant. The systems of the worker is partly to do with what the calculus of wage doesn't really have an answer to. I had the opportunity to visit some of the closed factories of Delhi and wondered how these factories were allowed to come up in the first place. That there is something like the right to know right or information is completely lacking from the institution of governance.

Recently in Singrauli there was a demonstration of how useful ash is for vegetation. A play was done with where one individual demonstrated that ash could also be eaten and nothing happens to the body. He was obviously making a dig at the whole argument that fly ash can be used in a useful way.

I agree with Murali, that the trade unions are only concerned with wage and something that happens outside the factory is not their concern. What has to be recognised is that environmental degradation ultimately erodes wage. I look at the relocation of industries in Delhi from this perspective. So I would imagine that some kind of environmental regime, consisting of environmentalists, labour unions of lawyers and human rights lawyers would have to work together. Otherwise it would not be possible to really fight the might of the capital.

Panini: I can't agree more with Murali that labour and environment are closely related and that I would share his concern that there is no dichotomy between the two. In the last couple of months we had several cases being referred to us but one such case which is interesting is the question of developing versus the developed countries. There are ships carrying hazardous waste coming to India, China and Bangladesh. At Alang, we have the biggest ship-breaking industry in India. There is very little that is done to remove them or rid the ships of hazardous waste. That's why Murali's comment about regulating hazardous waste becomes so important.

The workers who are involved in ship breaking are exposed to hazardous waste. Most of them are migrant workers from the unorganised sector. These ships also raise environmental concern, therefore, we have a clear link between the environment and the labour. And as Talib rightly pointed out, I think workers have a right to information, about the kind of hazardous waste they are dealing with.

Narain: I think this is a very interesting debate and it should be taken ahead. I feel the problem largely lies with the agencies that are supposed to implement the law. I get very angry when a lot of people blame environmentalists. They accuse us of wanting the closure of factories. Our argument is that the state agencies are supposed to monitor and enforce the rule of law.

If they are unable to enforce the law then the courts are bound to give orders. I don't think the courts should have ordered the closure in the first instance. They should have tried to regulate the industry or tried to bring in some effluent treatment plant. One needs to constantly strive to find a way where a common treatment plant can be built, taking in mind the economics of it. My associate Anil Agarwal has consistently been trying to get the government and the industrialist to sit together and evolve a strategy where such a plant is built.

I think we really need to identify one thing in terms of the labour and the environmental conflicts. It is the inability of the system to actually enforce the law. And therefore, to me also the issue is how to you enforce laws in a way that you can pre-empt the crises from building up. Environmentalist have been increasingly suggesting that people, local people, need to be involved in this enforcement of law. So that we have public participation because one cannot trust the bureaucracy in these matters.

But will this alone resolve the conflict, if there is one? I also want to say that I think in many cases we don't know what the right answer is. I think that also we don't have the right technical know-how. We don't have the capacity to know what needs to be done. I mean just like shrimp farming. I am very opposed to the closure of shrimp farms as an environmentalist.

If you need development, then you need shrimp farming. What is needed in this case, I feel is that the poor fisherfolk form a co-operative. Shrimp farming is a much like milk production. Question is who will do it and how will it be done.

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