WHY WE CAN­NOT IG­NORE THE POOR

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

SOME FORTNIGHTS ago, I had dis­cussed the is­sue of poverty and en­vi­ron­ment. I had then said that the ques­tion today is not whether the poor are re­spon­si­ble for en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion but whether en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment works if it does not ad­dress in­equal­ity and poverty. Why?

Take air pol­lu­tion in our cities. Today, a mi­nus­cule num­ber of peo­ple in Delhi and other cities of the emerg­ing world drive a car. In Delhi, the es­ti­mate is that only 15 per cent com­mute by car. But air pol­lu­tion is high and con­ges­tion is crip­pling. Can these cities com­bat air pol­lu­tion, given that more and more peo­ple will drive? Is it pos­si­ble to plan for the re­main­ing 80-85 per cent? Is there space on the road, or space in the air?

Clearly, it is not pos­si­ble. Our re­search has pointed out that un­less we rein­vent mo­bil­ity at a scale not seen be­fore, we can­not have clean air. A few years ago, in a land­mark judge­ment the Delhi High Court had ruled that roads need to be planned tak­ing into ac­count “eq­uity of use”—those who use more, should get more space. Today, the bulk of our cities’ pop­u­la­tion walks, cy­cles or takes a bus. It does so be­cause it is poor. But we need to take the bus, cy­cle and walk when we are rich, and not wait till cars have oc­cu­pied all the roads. There­fore, un­less the strat­egy to com­bat air pol­lu­tion moves from fix­ing the tail-pipe emis­sions of each car to plan­ning for af­ford­able and in­clu­sive mo­bil­ity, we will not get clean air. This will not be easy. But one thing is clear that the so­lu­tions must work for the poor, for them to work for the rich.

Take wa­ter pol­lu­tion. In­dian rivers are in­creas­ingly pol­luted, but again the ques­tion is whether we can clean them when a large num­ber of peo­ple do not have ac­cess to san­i­ta­tion and clean wa­ter. Our re­port, Exc­reta Mat­ters, showed why pol­icy had to change. The cur­rent sys­tem of wa­ter and waste man­age­ment is cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive and it cre­ates divi­sion be­tween the rich and the poor.

The state has lim­ited re­sources and can only in­vest in pro­vid­ing for some—in­vari­ably the rich and not the poor. But if only a part of the city has ac­cess to clean wa­ter and un­der­ground sew­er­age, pol­lu­tion con­trol will not work. The rea­son is sim­ple: the treated waste of a few will be mixed with the un­treated waste of many. The end re­sult will be pol­lu­tion.

It is also clear that the greater the pol­lu­tion, the higher the cost of clean­ing wa­ter. Even the rich in our cities can­not af­ford the cur­rent costs of de­liv­er­ing wa­ter, then tak­ing back waste and treat­ing it be­fore dis­posal into rivers. So, ei­ther wa­ter is not sup­plied to all or sewage is not treated. The so­lu­tion has to be to in­vest in af­ford­able so­lu­tions for wa­ter and waste that meet the needs of all. Only then can we have clean rivers.

Then take cli­mate change, which is today hurtling the world to­wards un­cer­tain weather and crip­pling dev­as­ta­tion. In 1990, my col­league Anil Agar­wal and I ar­gued in our pub­li­ca­tion Global

Warm­ing in an Un­equal World that the world can­not com­bat cli­mate change un­less the agree­ment is fair and eq­ui­table. Today, the same is­sue is on the ta­ble. If the so­lu­tions can­not meet the needs of all—is eq­ui­table—it will not work. The global car­bon bud­get—the amount of car­bon diox­ide that can be emit­ted with­out cross­ing the thresh­old of tem­per­a­ture rise—has been dis­pro­por­tion­ately ap­pro­pri­ated by the al­ready rich. Their cur­rent low level of am­bi­tion means they con­tinue to emit more, thus, take up more space. But one should un­der­stand that eco­nomic growth is linked to emis­sions, so to­mor­row the poor, who are get­ting richer, will also pol­lute. In this way, all will be at risk.

The so­lu­tion is not to ask the poor not to get rich. This is what the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change, signed last De­cem­ber, is hop­ing to get away with. It is built on the premise that last part of the still de­vel­op­ing world can build its fu­ture on a lim­ited and much too lit­tle share of the global car­bon bud­get. It as­sumes that this world will not need to emit to grow, or not need to grow at all. This is not pos­si­ble. So, what will hap­pen is that In­dia and many in Africa will add to the car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere. This will mean that the world will not be able to keep the tem­per­a­ture rise be­low the safe thresh­old. Cli­mate jus­tice is not a lux­ury, but a pre-req­ui­site for an ef­fec­tive deal.

It is then clear that the dis­course on en­vi­ron­ment and devel­op­ment must be re­framed so that it is built on the premise that sus­tain­able devel­op­ment is not pos­si­ble if it is not eq­ui­table. In other words, growth has to be af­ford­able and in­clu­sive.

But most im­por­tant is that we re-ar­tic­u­late that the en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenge is not tech­no­cratic but po­lit­i­cal. We can­not neuter pol­i­tics of ac­cess, jus­tice and rights, and still hope to fix en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.

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