Stumbling along on the road to green

A documentary telecast on Rajiv Gandhi's 50th birth anniversary examines the late Prime Minister's environmental initiatives, but finds the country has not moved very far in the direction Rajiv wanted it to go

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Thursday 30 September 1993

DOORDARSHAN carries hagiographies of its political masters with more alacrity and less creativity than most TV networks. But Our Shared Future -- this year's prime time tribute to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on his 50th birth anniversary -- was an intelligently done, half-hour documentary on Gandhi's environmental initiatives.

However, the format was predictable: Footage culled from the Discovery-of-India tours Rajiv undertook in his first year as prime minister, alternated with interviews of people who had interacted closely with him on environmental issues. I didn't know Kapila Vatsyayana was one of the latter, but she does appear in the film.

What is stressed in the film is Rajiv's realisation that poverty eradication, economic development and environmental conservation are interlinked. In response, he set in motion a number of initiatives -- the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) that was passed during his tenure, the Ganga Action Plan and the Wastelands Development Board, for example -- that have today become part and parcel of the government's environmental policy.

The Bhopal gas leak, which took place just a few weeks before he became prime minister, convinced Rajiv that both the public sector and private industry had to be brought within the ambit of compulsory environmental impact assessment, as a result of which India today has some of the most powerful environmental laws in the world. We are told that India's EPA became the model for similar legislation in many development countries.

Economist Yogendra Alagh recalls in the film that Rajiv had reservations about large projects like the Narmada dam project. While under his chairpersonship, the Planning Commission never gave approval to the Tehri dam project.

So, did Rajiv's green initiatives during his single term as prime minister have a lasting impact on India's environment?
No progress It is left to Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment (who, one can see, is choosing his words carefully in a film, which seems to expect only laudatory remarks) to state that none of Rajiv's environmental initiatives have fared as well as they should have. There is no city today whose air is cleaner than it was, no river whose water is cleaner.

Agarwal points out that the country has still not been able to decentralise environmental management, and that is really the single biggest challenge. He adds that Rajiv would probably have been very unhappy at the lack of progress on this and other crucial fronts.

Kamal Nath, however, springs to his ministry's defence, asserting that things would be much worse today if the ministry of environment had not achieved what it has so far. Rajiv would have been happy with the way the ministry has functioned, he says, but not with a great deal of conviction.

The film also discusses the Planet Protection Fund, an idea Rajiv had floated at an international forum, which would ensure conservation technologies were made readily available to developing countries. However, this initiative never reached fruition because Rajiv was voted out of office shortly after.

By Doordarshan standards, the film is pretty good, but one expects something better from a film-maker of the calibre of Rajiv Mehrotra, who heads the team that made this film.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :