Gopal Krishna, the author of this article, is an activist. He runs ToxicsWatch Alliance, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), IMOWatch, MediaVigil & WaterWatch Alliance. He is actively involved with the Kosi issue. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His other articles and interventions can be read here on this blog.
Prime Minister Keeps Environment Ministry and the Minister Structurally Weak
Jayanthi Natarajan Appointed a Junior Minister, like her Predecessor
The fact that Jayanthi Natarajan has been appointed a junior minister like her predecessor underlines that Prime Minister does not accord the priority, environmental issues deserve. Once again the minister has been kept structurally weak so that whenever there is conflict between blind economic growth and ecology, the former is given precedence at the cost of the latter. The Ministry has been designed to be structurally weaker than all the other ministries, which adversely impact the environment and poison our food chain. It is that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (from which the Environment Ministry draws its mandate) and the Prime Minister are not yet alive to the collapsing ecosystem.
On World Environment Day (June 5th) Jayanthi Natarajan knew that she was going to be the Union Environment Minister. She recollected on that day that in the 1970s the environment activists were looked at patronisingly. Now she wonders about “pesticides are ruining our agriculture”. She remembers “environmental safety” in the aftermath of “Chernobyl, Bhopal, now Fukushima” that “induce terror in the world of environment and citizen safety”. She wonders about “How do we prevent another Bhopal tragedy and still keep our economy growing?” and “How many use car pools or bicycles?”. She calls for everyone to be “environment warriors” but begin from our own homes. While all this reveals that our new Environment Minister is ecologically sensitive but the regressive influence of Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs will not provide her adequate space to act as it did so in the case of Jairam Ramesh. Natarajan is not unfamiliar with environmental governace issues. She was a member of Committee of both the Houses of Parliament on Environment and Forest during 1992-97.
What is sad is that the Prime Minister has failed to realize that the threat to the integrity of the natural systems is a threat to human heath, and such threats have become routine because of myopic industrial agriculture, blind urban development, regressive transport systems and criminal neglect of non-human species.
While legislative safeguards for environmental protection do seem to exist on paper, the role of the political class which is funded by corporations (under Companies Act, 1956 companies can pay up to 5 % of their annual profits to political parties) illustrates that homicidal ecological lawlessness that has led to rampant industrial pollution, soil erosion, agricultural pollution, and genetic erosion of plant resources are quite crucial and merit more acknowledgment. There is a proposal from Shri Yashwant Sinha headed Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance to enhance corporate contribution to political parties from 5 % to 7.5 % of the annual profits of the companies in the Companies Bill, 2009. This is an anti-environment proposition because the donors are bound to seek lax environmental laws in return of their contribution to political parties. Unless there is state funding for political parties to fight elections, it is unlikely that the structural weakness in the environmental governance can be rectified.
In such a context, a structurally weak ministry and minister can do little to prevent ongoing of our contamination of blood, congenital disorders, preventable but incurable cancer or extinction of known and unknown living species on our planet. The Prime Minister and the Chairperson of Indian National Congress led United Progressive Alliance has failed to recognize the compelling logic to re-examine the premises of Industrial Growth and design a new one. In the developed world the model of development is under interrogation because of environmental problems.
Indian National Congress led United Progressive Alliance must brainstorm on how between 1975 and 1995 the Indian economy grew 2.5 times but the industrial pollution went up four-fold, and vehicular pollution went up eight-fold. Such growth trends have ended up internalising the pollution and externalising the human cost of pollution.
It was expected that the UPA government would take cognizance of the health indicators of the deteriorating environment in terms of a double burden of disease but it seems to have been rendered spineless by the corporate contribution to its constituent parties.
The appointment Jairam Ramesh had raised hopes but manifest Prime Ministerial interference does not leave much space for even somewhat sincere ministers to respond to the environmental crisis in our country. It is hoped that as a Union Cabinet Minister for Rural Development, he will address rural India’s concerns with environmental sensitivity, which he could not display as Environment Minister because of structural constraints. Ramesh stopped the end-of-life toxic US ship from being beached but due to non-cooperation from Shipping Ministry, he could not get the ship sent back. Although he knows about ongoing contamination of Alang beach by multinational shipping companies, acknowledged it but could not do anything for its remediation. He stopped Bt brinjal but did not disapprove Bt cotton unmindful of the fact that the same soil would be used for both and cause same ecological crisis. He visited the Delhi’s Okhla Waste to energy incinerator of O P Jindal Group, acknowledged that rampant violation of environmental laws but did not cancel its environmental clearance.
The appointment of Jayanthi Natarajan as Environment Minister is welcome but the Ministry and Indian ecosystem merits more than cosmetic interventions.
As an Environment Minister, Natarajan must act to disassociate India from the carbon trade path because benefits from it are starkly suspect. She would ensure that land-water binary that has been created to deal with land resources and water resources separately as part of colonial legacy must be done away with and a genuine river basin approach is adopted which would also require rewriting of the industrial policy. Although she is from Tamil Nadu, she must adopt Ramesh’s sensitivity in disassociating herself from Tamil Nadu’s irrational demand for interlinking of rivers to undo the unhealthy legacy of bulldozing rivers, flood plains, forests, biodiversity, natural drainage etc in manner as if citizens, forests and wildlife are irrelevant.
She has rightly referred to melting of Himalayan glaciers as a concern because ‘Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world”. She must make it quite transparent when ecologically disastrous industrial projects are cleared by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), what role can an effete body of the environment ministry play to undo the wrongs committed by the CCEA.
Her predecessor failed to publish a database of environmental criminals and fugitives with their photographs and profiles with the name of the companies which fall under the 64 heavily polluting industries under the Red category (highly polluting industries), 34 moderately polluting industries (‘Orange’ category) and 54 ‘marginally’ polluting units (‘Green’ category) and to publish a list of India’s Most Wanted Environmental Criminals with wanted posters. It is hoped that she would be able to do so.
Natrajan can act to stop transboundary movement of polluting technologies, hazardous wastes, creating an inventory of hazardous chemicals and wastes besides conducting an environmental health audit along with the ministry of health to ascertain the body burden through investigation of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. In one such study in the US, of the 287 chemicals detected in umbilical cord blood, 180 were known to cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. Absence of such studies in India does not mean that a similar situation does not exist in India. Until and unless we diagnose the current unacknowledged crisis, how will he regulatory bodies predict, prevent and provide remedy. Jairam Ramesh failed to do anything in this regard. She should revisit Indian position on the UN’s Basel Convention, Kyoto Protocol, and the recently adopted UN’s IMO Convention the same way as Government of India did in the UN’s Rotterdam Convention meeting on hazardous chemicals with regard to chrysotile asbestos.
It merits reiteration that the 141-page report of the steering committee on the environment and forests sector for the eleventh five-year plan prepared by Planning Commission deals with environment and development. It refers to ‘the regulatory challenge’ and states: ”The number of polluting activities — and the quantum of pollution generated — has increased in the last several years. Furthermore, newer and newer environmental challenges are thrown up — from solid waste disposal, to disposal and recycling of hazardous waste, to toxins like mercury, dioxins and activities like ship-breaking to management of vehicular pollution.’
It is high time environmental regulation keeps pace with environmental crimes. Even Interpol has an INTERPOL Environmental Crime Committee which along with its Working Groups on Wildlife Crime and Pollution Crime; India too needs one, only dealing with civil cases through National Green Tribunal is hardly sufficient. In 1995, in one of its landmark judgments the Supreme Court in the matter of Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India observed, “Environmental Courts having civil and criminal jurisdiction must be established to deal with the environmental issues in a speedy manner. Further, it must be manned by legally-trained persons/judicial officers.” The Tribunal violates the court order by excluding criminal jurisdiction.
Will she act to regulate Pollution & Environment Crime? This will be the litmus test for her competence as an Environment Minister.