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Ensuring environment protection with development

We must evolve a system of project-specific legislation at sub-national levels so that eco-activists and people getting affected by development works have their concerns addressed and their interests taken care of.

By Prof. P.S. Bisen
Febuary 15, 2010

There is a growing concern in India about the continuous environmental deterioration. Unplanned development, rapid industrialisation and unprecedented growth in population are recognised as being the main causes of environmental degradation. The governments, both at the center and in the states, are seized of the problem and have passed legislations aimed at preserving ecology and pollution control. However, bureaucratic indifference and apathy of the citizens have not helped the cause. There are expectations from the educational institutions as transferor of knowledge to make a much larger and more meaningful contribution in this regard.

Before saying anything about environment, one should understand what the ‘environment’ is? McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Environment Science (1975) has defined environment as "sum total of all conditions and influences that affect the development and life organisms" whereas sustainable development in the Indian context has to be interpreted in the light of our age old environmental ethic which is intermixed with our history, culture, religion and philosophy.

Further, a real understanding about environmental deterioration should be based on scientific reasoning. We feel more concerned and perturbed only when some major environmental event occurs, having a direct bearing on human life. The global concern regarding the steadily deteriorating state of the environment first manifested seriously in the form of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972, which focused on the dangers posed to the quality of human life, and to its survival itself, by continuous degradation of ecological assets, and by the pollution due to industrial effluents.

It was a dialogue of the deaf between the rich and the poor. For the rich developed nations, the main concern was the cleaning up of the ‘effluence of affluence'. They advocated that the cleaning up be taken up by all nations simultaneously so that the additional cost of cleaning operations should not place any country at a disadvantage in a competitive international market. For the developing world, seeking the fruits of industrialisation, pollution was relatively unimportant; the first priority being the alleviation of poverty.

As our Late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi tersely pointed out "of all the pollution we face the worst is poverty". The Stockholm Conference opened the eyes of the north to the problems of the south. It also saw the adoption of rules and regulations to cover environmental ills - at least in the developed countries. More importantly it led to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The world commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) was established in December 1983, and it presented, in 1987, a remarkable report "Our Common Future" which "tried to balance the arguments concerning north/south responsibility and suggest ways forward". It concluded that "if we continue to use up natural resources as we do at present, if we ignore the plight of the poor, then we can (only) expect a decline in the quality of life".

The Braundtland Report (1987) suggested that the concept of sustainable development should become an acceptable principle of both national and international development and policies; and that national governments should begin a systematic integration of economic and environmental considerations. Sustainable development was described as development that seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present generation without compromising the ability to meet those of future generations.

The very significant conclusions of the Brundtland Report were extensively debated in the United Nations, in 1989 which led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development, better known as Earth Summit 92, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992. In a post-Rio, post-Vienna world, one thing is now clear - Government may not remain proudly insensitive, in their pursuit of 'development', to the mounting environmental destruction and degradation and show a callous disregard of well being of the people affected by development projects.

Even if for the next few decades environmental activists and human right activists have to bear a disproportionate historic burden. It is significant that there is a modest increase in sensitivity, certainly among some Indian politicians and bureaucrats, towards the rights the people affected by purely economic and technocratic conceptions of ‘development’.

A wider diffusion of this sensitivity among ecocrats (policy-makers who makes decisions affecting environment and rights) is the prime challenge before those who would innovate state policies in the direction of public accountability. Such a task requires partnership among people in struggle and ideologues and policy makers who are aware of, and committed to, environment protection and human rights. 

What do eco-activists, after all, insist upon? They insist that development projects should be preceded by an environment which is mindful and respectful of the right of the affected citizens (unfortunately these people are still called ‘oustees’, PAPs - project affected people or displaced people) and that these projects should involve participation of the affected people. However, the tendency to denounce ecoactivists is still very strong in India. One still hears of "environmental extremism" in response to even such minimalist democratic demands. Ecoactivists are often depicted as eco-friends by leading ecocrats, at national and state levels.

Everyone is a free and equal citizen in the Republic of India. And those citizens who govern through democracy must respect rights, status and well being of non-elected citizens. The struggle to remind those in power of the values and virtues of justice, rights and democracy is not 'extremism'. Rather, extremism emanates from the managers of the state. Citizens have, under Article 51-A of the Constitution, clear and compelling fundamental duty to combat extremist democracy denying arbitrary, coercive and corrupt-practices of political power. In the final analysis, the struggle to provide a clean environment is a struggle to enhance democracy and the rule of law.

It is said that eco-activists still may not effectively represent "public interest” as comprehensively as the state since their knowledge base may not be as extensive as that of state institutions. Technocratic institutions of knowing and knowledge in India are posited against the systems of organic / experimental knowledge of victims and those who sympathise with them.

The claim to asymmetry of knowledge is no longer as strongly based now as it was before since eco-movements in India have slowly and steadily marshaled scientific knowledge through experts ready to serve them including superannuated bureaucrats/ecocrats who in their reincarnation as citizens are able to make available even the knowledge of how policy making actually operates. 

Dialogical culture requires not just access to information, but an analysis of available information and of alternatives to in situ development projects, as well as those (fortunately in India) in the period of elephantine gestation. I regret to have to say that barring a few individuals in the legal fraternity the contribution of lawpersons (teachers, researchers, lawyers and judges) has not been as noteworthy as of their colleagues in various fields of science and technology. It would not be too much to say that environmental law and jurisprudence have yet to emerge in India. 

In many situations, we are afflicted by an absence of law; in other situations we are overwhelmed by an overabundance of law. In between lies timeless legislations, reviewed not too long ago by the Tewari Committee, without any corresponding amelioration. Where legislation exists (barring a few recent innovative measures like the Environmental Protection Act 1986) it is remorselessly colonial.

Typically, bureaus are established with wide powers, but with little or no accountability; the mix of sanction is unimaginative (fine or imprisonment or both); no attempt is made to bring responsible administration of law (for example, by providing for right to information, public participation, NGO involvement); no attempt is made to combat micro-level corruption in legal administration, little change in the structure of law so that it becomes equitable in terms of access for the worst affected, impoverished people.

All this is well known except, perhaps, to the law makers and official law reformers. There is need to evolve completely new models for environmental legislation based on the notion of law as a programme of social action, rather than that of law as an eternal verity, entailing people's participation and cooperation. There is no reason why specific irrigation, power and mining projects should not be legislatively regulated. Project-specific legislations, at sub-national levels, would enhance participation equity as well as development.

Displacement of executive tyranny is, perhaps, one answer to the displacement of people. And when project specific legislation incorporate in its design some determined reversal of colonial/imperial model, the current scenario will be transformed towards a genuine culture for dialogue. The recent tendency to co-opt some NGOs to struggle against other NGOs - the strategy of divide and rule - is counter productive as events have shown. Such tendencies too, can be effectively arrested by well conceived project-specific legislations.

Project-specific legislations should be self contained, ensuring the affected people of their due entitlements. There is no reason why rehabilitation should be governed by arbitrary executive fiats malleable only by popular struggle or why project affected people should be under the normative sway of the immortal, imperishable, soul of the Indian Law - the Land Acquisition Act. The project affected legislation should also provide for public hearings on location, environmental impact, cost effectiveness and benefits of public projects. Where inter-state collaboration is essential, parliament has the power under Article 252 to provide for a consensual law.

Finally, without being exhaustive, we need to lay the foundations for environmental jurisprudence in India, building on the nascent activist trends - whether in the realm of legislation, adjudication, administration or struggle. One of the major issues here is whether environmental entities have rights. Does the Ganges have a right against pollution? Or do the Himalayan ranges against the Tehri Dam? Or do the rare archaeological sites have rights against the an Australian mining company in the upper Damodar region? Does the Taj Mahal have right against oil refineries? Does flora and fauna have rights against activities that lead to species-extinction?

What I intend to emphasize is not that one should totally ignore economic growth of the state, but wish to suggest that proper control measures should be made to prevent the exposure of living world to the undesired toxicants. The tragic incidence of MIC leakage has increased the environmental awareness worldwide. People have realised the growing importance of quality environment. Gas tragedy at Bhopal in December 1984 and recent incidents of fire and blasts at Sitapur, Jaipur on October 30, 2009 at Indian Oil Corporation Depot also serves as a constant reminder to everyone about how fragile our industrial safety is?

Therefore, priorities and policies of the government regarding environmental problems and safety should be based in accordance with the overall needs of the country. Attempts should be made to involve all agencies actively to bring in environmental concerns in all subject areas so that a bias towards safe environment permeates into all facets of life. 

The author is a recipient of First Indira Gandhi Fellowship in 1986 on Environment Conservation and Management awarded by the Department of Environment, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh and a former member of University Grants Commission and Former Vice Chancellor, Jiwaji University, Gwalior. At present is an Honorary Professor of Biotechnology, Jiwaji University, Gwalior and Chairman, Vikrant Group of Institutions and Chairman, Bisen Biotech and Biopharma Pvt. Ltd., Gwalior