Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

DE­BATES ARE es­sen­tially po­larised and noisy. But for res­o­lu­tion and move­ment in life we need to go be­yond the ab­so­lute po­si­tions. In an ideal world there should be enough trust and con­fi­dence that once we begin to move ahead, there can be re­views, as­sess­ments and course cor­rec­tion.But this is dif­fi­cult in the cur­rent sce­nario where the pol­luters, min­ers and dam builders wield more power than the rest. In­sti­tu­tions that would help re­solve con­flicts and take cred­i­ble de­ci­sions have been weak­ened. Trust is lost and the worst de­fence plays out.

How­ever, it is also a fact that play­ing de­fen­sive is not work­ing in the long run. En­vi­ron­men­tal move­ments are able to stall, but not stop en­vi­ron­men­tally dis­as­trous projects. Worse, since no one is ready to go be­yond her or his ab­so­lute po­si­tion and dis­cuss how a project would work if al­lowed, there is no im­prove­ment in the sit­u­a­tion on the ground. All the en­ergy is spent on block­ing projects and once they are cleared the mission is lost. There is no em­pha­sis—or even ca­pac­ity in many cases—to look at the al­ter­na­tives that would mit­i­gate en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

Take the num­ber of clear­ances—for­est, en­vi­ron­ment, coastal, wildlife—that are granted by the Cen­tral and state gov­ern­ments.The fo­cus has been on the process of clear­ance; to give it or not. This is when gov­ern­ment af­ter gov­ern­ment has granted clear­ances as if there is no to­mor­row.The rules are so con­vo­luted that they have be­come mean­ing­less.The process is so com­plex that the same project has to be cleared by five to seven agen­cies, which have no in­ter­est in com­pli­ance of the con­di­tions they would set.The sys­tem is so de­signed that we can­not in­vest in the im­prove­ment of the en­vi­ron­ment.It is a trav­esty of good man­age­ment.

Once the project is in­evitably sanc­tioned ac­tivists and af­fected com­mu­ni­ties take the mat­ter to court.The Na­tional Green Tri­bunal has pro­vided an­other fo­rum for such dis­putes. Peo­ple’s ac­tion is un­der­stand­able be­cause they have lit­tle faith in the cred­i­bil­ity of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing sys­tem—the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment is flawed and public hear­ings are abused.But even go­ing to court ends up stalling the project, not stop­ping or im­prov­ing it.

In this way when a dam, mine, power plant or a shop­ping mall is built, there is lit­tle fo­cus on the con­di­tions that would make it en­vi­ron­men­tally bet­ter, if not the best.At the time of sanc­tion, a list of con­di­tions is laid out for the project pro­po­nent.But the com­mit­tee, which sets the con­di­tions, has no real in­ter­est in their im­ple­men­ta­tion.The project pro­po­nent knows that no­body will come check­ing af­ter the clear­ance is granted. So, the game goes on.

The com­mu­nity in the vicin­ity of the project is left to face the con­se­quences. It can go to the highly un­der­staffed re­gional of­fices of the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry or the state pol­lu­tion con­trol board but usu­ally does not have any real data or ev­i­dence. Even the state agen­cies have no real mon­i­tor­ing data. They have been so dis­mem­bered and weak­ened that they now de­pend on what com­pa­nies tell them. In­dus­try self-re­port­ing is the com­mon prac­tice in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment in In­dia.We just don’t say it.

The last re­sort of the ac­tivist or the af­fected com­mu­nity is to go to court. This process is not easy. Courts re­quire hard ev­i­dence to show that a project is not ad­her­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions.We need in­sti­tu­tions that can col­lect data, an­a­lyse it, put it in public domain and use it to ver­ify and im­prove en­vi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance. With­out this, even the ac­tion by In­dia’s most well mean­ing and em­phatic ju­di­ciary is in dan­ger of fail­ing.

Even when the courts take tough ac­tion—say, in the case of min­ing in Bal­lary or sand min­ing in rivers or restau­rants in up­scale South Delhi—they man­age to put only tem­po­rary stops. The court needs vi­able re­me­di­a­tion plans but no­body is re­ally in­ter­ested in get­ting the man­age­ment right. When a plan is pre­sented and agreed upon, there is no­body to check im­ple­men­ta­tion. So, as I said, the game goes on. It is time we called a spade a spade.We should de­mand in­vest­ment in bet­ter tech­nolo­gies, ap­proaches and con­di­tions to re­duce the en­vi­ron­men­tal risk and then make sure this hap­pens. This will need se­ri­ous ca­pac­ity in the reg­u­la­tory agen­cies and in civil so­ci­ety.

It is not easy. In­dia — and coun­tries like ours—will re­quire new tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions and ap­proaches to solve en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. It is a fact that the al­ready in­dus­tri­alised world had the luxury of money to de­velop tech­nolo­gies and to fund mit­i­ga­tion and gov­er­nance, and they con­tinue to spend heav­ily even to­day. We will never be able to catch up in this game. So, we need to build new prac­tices of en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment, which are af­ford­able and sus­tain­able.

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