'Workers' safety is connected with the environment'

The increasing risk of industrial closure on environmental grounds seems to be stirring many trade unions in India to sensitise themselves to environmental concerns.The Hind Majdoor Sabha (HMS), among the largest trade unions in India with its membership of about 2.5 million, is one of those labour bodies that are reacting to environmental challenges. Several industrial sectors like coal, steel, plantations, tobacco, textiles, railways and civil aviation, where the HMS has a major presence, have significant environmental implications. The responses of the HMS include initiating an environment education programme, studies on industrial pollution in West Bengal, and reorientation of its research and training programme to include environment. Recently, ARUN KUMAR DAUR, from the HMS Research and Training Programme, spoke to Uday Shankar. Excerpts:

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

What led the HMS to join the environmental battle?
We were aware of the growing environmental awareness in the industrial sector through our occupational health and safety programmes. We realised that workers' safety goes beyond the workplace and is closely connected with the environment.

Workers have fallen ill and died in the plantations of West Bengal, which the authorities blamed on diseases. Our investigations revealed that the real causes were lax environmental standards -- the deaths were caused by pesticides and groundwater pollution.

A positive indicator was the Supreme Court ruling closing down polluting industries. We realised that if everything were to close down due to environmental activism, we may or may not have a cleaner environment but we would certainly have massive joblessness.

Is it the fear of closure that woke up the trade unions?
It is not the fear of closure. But if environmental activism or governmental orders shut down industries, the trade unions have to take note of it.

Labour representatives are always taken into account if an industry is going to be closed. Any workers' claim to running an unit better is also entertained. But the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) does not even consider the trade unions to be a legitimate party that should be involved. So is the case with environmental activists, most of whom have just assumed that workers will be anti-environment.

But isn't it also true that labour and trade unions do not have a good record as far as environmental vigilance is concerned? That on environmental issues workers often side with employers?
This may be true, but then the environmental side of industry has been questioned only lately. So often workers and their leaders are not aware of these issues.

More important, environmental concerns have been articulated in such a manner that to many workers they look like an excuse to shut down their factory and make them jobless. Not much environmental clean-up has taken place, either through governmental or activists' interventions. They have both merely forced industries to close, without bothering about the poor people the industries support.

This, obviously, will lead to resentment and misunderstandings. Industrial pollution must be curbed but not by closing down the industry. This is like cutting one's nose to spite one's face.

But what are the options if a factory continues to pollute?
Why doesn't the pollution control board also serve notice on the recognised trade unions of a plant when it serves a notice on the management for environmental offences? The unions are told by the management that the plant is facing closure and then they have to worry about workers' jobs. Why can't either the government or the non-governmental activists involve the labour from the beginning so that they can prevail on the management to get its act together?

If environmental management is only going to cause misery to many people, they are bound to oppose it. The challenge before activists and the government today is to find ways of curbing pollution without starving people. If the implementation of such measures demands that workers forgo part of their wages, I am sure they will agree.

Are you saying that environmental management in industry has suffered because the workers have not been involved in efforts to clean it up?
Exactly. I think no matter how much the government or the NGOs might try, pollution control in industry is not going to succeed until the workers undertake it as well.

The top-down approach has not worked so far and will not work in future either. Who is talking about environment today? People who earn their livelihood from elsewhere and take up environmental preservation as a social service. These groups, with the best of intentions, cannot bring about the desired changes unless they are also supported and assisted by those who are going to be affected. Often, purely for technical or economic feasibility, some factories may have to be closed or relocated or technological changes may be necessary which may lay off some workers. Do you think Indian workers are prepared for this?
As things stand, there may be some resistance. But this is because the activists and the government agencies have kept everyone else out.

The workers have not been educated about environment. Look at the official response to Bhopal: the government has done a lot since then to prevent such disasters but hardly any of it involves either the workers or the local population. Even now, the state pollution control boards will not give us -- the trade unions -- information about the industries that concern us.

Are you saying that if workers were to be taken into confidence, they would allow relocation or closure of some factories?
I think they will if alternative livelihood is made available to them. Most people taking up environmental issues today are those who are not going to be affected if a factory shuts down.

If anything, the idea behind a healthy environment is to improve the quality of life of the people. But a majority of workers in India today feel that the whole environmental movement in India, except perhaps just for a few exceptions, has been very irresponsible, inasmuch as it has not come up with constructive alternatives.

Why are environmentalists or the government not examining new investments today? The activists as well as the MEF wake up only when a lot of resources are committed. In a decade or so, almost 90 per cent of our manufacturing capacity is going to be in the new industries. But there seems to be no attempt anywhere to integrate environmental aspects when these projects are being conceived and discussed.

Why can't we say what kinds of occupational health and environmental safeguards have to exist as soon as a proposal comes up for clearance? We should discuss environmental feasibility at the stage when we discuss financial feasibility. But environmental fallouts, either within the government or among activists, get taken up only much later -- which is why, after some cosmetic changes, sooner or later the environment departments have to give the clearance.

But it is happening. Look at the uproar against the Cargill salt facility, the Reliance Petrochemicals Project or the Enron project. Even before they took off, environmentalists got together.
Yes, it is happening in some cases. But these are all big projects and they get taken up for various reasons. But what about the small units?

And even in the case of big industries, they are taken up on a case-to-case basis. Why can't we have macro-level monitoring to tackle industrial environmental degradation right in the beginning?

Do you think this is possible?
I think it is possible, provided all those concerned with environment learn to work together and give up their adversarial attitude.

NGOs and workers must start working together so that mutual distrust is removed. Workers and environmental activists are natural allies -- and if you want to save the environment, you have to bring into your fold those who can make the difference. I believe the workers can.

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