Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

IT IS time we recog­nised that the cur­rent ways of fix­ing the en­vi­ron­ment are not work­ing. Rivers are more con­tam­i­nated; air is more pol­luted and cities are fill­ing up with garbage we can­not han­dle.The ques­tion is: where are we go­ing wrong? What do we need to do? For this, we first need to recog­nise that In­dia and coun­tries like ours have to find new tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions and ap­proaches to solve en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.It is a fact that the al­ready in­dus­tri­alised world had the sur­plus money to find tech­nolo­gies and fund mit­i­ga­tion and gov­er­nance, and they con­tinue to spend heav­ily even to­day. We have huge de­mands—ev­ery­thing from ba­sic needs to in­fra­struc­ture—on the same fi­nances and will never be able to catch up in this game. So, we need to build a new prac­tice of en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment, which is af­ford­able and sus­tain­able.

In this way, en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment op­tions will have to be ex­plored care­fully and leaps made.

Take river clean­ing. For long we have in­vested in sewage treat­ment plant tech­nolo­gies that were adopted by the rest of the world.We hoped we would clean our rivers the way other coun­tries did.But we for­got that most of our cities do not have san­i­ta­tion sys­tems or un­der­ground sewage net­works. Even if flush toi­lets of a few ur­ban In­di­ans are con­nected to the un­der­ground drain, and their waste is pumped for some length and trans­ported to sewage plants and treated, it does not clean rivers.The rea­son is that the rest—in fact, the ma­jor­ity— do not have the same con­nec­tion. Their waste goes to open drains and then to the same river or lake.The end re­sult is dirty wa­ter.

Pol­lu­tion con­trol mea­sures must be af­ford­able to meet the needs of all. They must cut the cost of wa­ter sup­ply and the cost of tak­ing back waste­water. This would re­quire re­work­ing sewage man­age­ment so that we can in­ter­cept waste­water in open drains and sep­tic tanks, and treat it as cost ef­fec­tively as pos­si­ble.It would also re­quire strate­gies to make sure that rivers have enough wa­ter to di­lute waste­water.

All this can be done. But it will re­quire back­ing new so­lu­tions, en­sur­ing that they are put to prac­tice and scal­ing them up.

For this, we also re­quire the ul­ti­mate in­vest­ment in our in­sti­tu­tions of gov­er­nance. With­out them we can­not have ar­bi­tra­tion or res­o­lu­tion of dif­fi­cult con­flicts.For too long in our en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­ney we have ne­glected this as­pect.The rot has, in fact, ac­cel­er­ated in the past 10 years, even as en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues have been main­streamed. This is be­cause gov­er­nance has never been on the agenda.

As a re­sult, gov­ern­ments and civil so­ci­ety have in­vested all their po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, bu­reau­cratic time, en­ergy of com­mit­tees and me­dia air­time into air­ing dif­fer­ences on project and pol­icy de­signs, and not on the ca­pac­ity that we need to im­ple­ment th­ese in the real world. We con­tinue to churn out no­ti­fi­ca­tions and poli­cies for reg­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion—ev­ery­thing from bat­tery rules to haz­ardous waste man­age­ment to plas­tic dis­posal and clear­ance for ev­ery build­ing or shop­ping mall or penal­ties against il­le­gal dump­ing of waste—with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion whether we can ac­tu­ally do this on the ground.

It is time we fo­cused firmly and squarely on strength­en­ing the ca­pac­ity of reg­u­la­tory agen­cies. For in­stance, even af­ter years, the pol­lu­tion con­trol boards re­main un­der­staffed and grossly ne­glected. The prob­lem is that this is an agenda no­body wants to touch. Gov­ern­ments want to down­size or out­source gov­er­nance to the pri­vate sec­tor or civil so­ci­ety. They do not be­lieve they can fix what is bro­ken, and high-pro­file en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters do not want to touch this as it brings them lit­tle ku­dos. It is a hard job and it is not im­me­di­ately recog­nised. Civil so­ci­ety does not push for this be­cause it dis­trusts the bu­reau­cracy and be­lieves that strength­en­ing it will fur­ther cor­rode the power of the peo­ple. So, the agenda is unat­tended and in­sti­tu­tions, abused.

This has to be the big­gest les­son of the past four decades. We can­not fix what is bro­ken till we make an at­tempt to fix it. There is no doubt that we can­not have the same “in­spec­tors”, but we can have new-age tools of trans­parency, data anal­y­sis and do ev­ery­thing that builds pub­lic trust and cred­i­bil­ity. Sim­i­larly, we can­not have the same “sticks” but we do need even stronger en­force­ment sys­tems that can make de­ter­rence work.

This is the real en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda, but one that is in­con­ve­nient to han­dle.It is about change that mat­ters.

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