The enemy within

  • 14/09/1995

Liberalisation is the biggest of buzzwords today; and it has both its supporters and detractors. Among environmentalists, ironically, there are more detractors than supporters. They fear that the unregulated expansion of industry will destroy the Indian environment.

There are, of course, other concerns intermingled in this worry about liberalisation. One is the concern for culture: liberalisation and its immediate consequence -- rapid industrialisation -- will bring in rampant Westernisation and unbridled materialism. The second is the concern for Swadeshi : what will liberalisation do to Indian industry or to Indian agriculture? The third is the concern about Western domination, fuelled by the activities of multinational corporations.

So a wide range of ideological groupings -- from Gandhians and environmentalists to neo-Swadeshites (like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena) and traditional Leftists -- have come to share a common concern. This resistance to liberalisation is, of course, liberally fuelled by several vested interests who have benefited from the past 40 years of developmental processes in India -- from bureaucrats and threatened industrialists to those who want to earn votes by fuelling all the above concerns.

All these concerns are undoubtedly important. But let us look at the specificities of the environmental issue. Industrial investment is not new to India. Promoting industrial investment has been a key policy of successive governments. The environment has already paid a heavy price in the process. After Independence, the state, with great care and caution, kept to itself all the common property expropriated by the former colonial rulers, and steadily deepened bureaucratic interests in its management.

As a result, the state devolved upon itself the role of the environmental regulator. But the Indian state has miserably failed to maintain any balance between its role of promoter and regulator. The result is that industrial installations of the state and of private investors are all environmental disasters, each one. And in the rural sector, the state has even failed to comprehend what it is doing to rural livelihoods by allowing industry to exploit natural resources unchecked -- from the construction of dams, which have uprooted millions of people, to the vast forest tracts that were given away to the forest industry on a platter, with total disregard for local people's needs.

Environmental management demands a "check and balance system". The industrial investor, whether it be the state itself or a private agent, has money power. The environment, and the poor people dependent on it, have no countervailing power. Leaving it to the state to defend the latter has resulted only in corruption and devastation.

India's biggest failing has been its inability to develop an honest and effective check and balance system. If it fails to do so even in future, India's environment will be ravaged not just by the likes of Enron, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Hitachi or BMW but, equally and more so, by Rahul Bajaj, Ratan Tata, K K Birla and the petroleum minister who runs all those refineries. It is less likely that a white or yellow investor will confuse us -- and continue to confuse us for long -- as much as a brown investor can. Social control of capital always was and still remains a major issue in Indian society.

If environmentalists can clearly focus on the issue of how the environment should be governed, they will do the country a great service. The result of their efforts may, in fact, be a demand for greater liberalisation. The liberalisation of the industrial investor was the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) agenda, which the Indian government accepted in 1991. But the liberalisation of the Indian environment -- its forests, for example, and bringing them under the control of rural communities, a demand voiced from the beginning of the Chipko Movement -- was never on the IMF or the World Bank's agenda, and it is, understandably, still not being accepted by the government, except for small and halting steps like joint forest management.

The biggest lesson that we should learn from abroad is how to govern ourselves. Let's take Western Europe. It's a region with a population density about the same as India and, in some parts, even higher than that of India. It has a level of industrialisation which is far greater than that of India. Yet it has been steadily learning how to manage its environment better. People there have far cleaner air to breathe and far cleaner water to drink than we do.

Of course, the environmental situation in Western Europe is not all hunky dory. Western environmentalists still have many, many battles to fight. But it is a fact that the same multinationals we fear so much here in India behave themselves better in Western Europe. The key question is: why?

There is no way that we can fight the enemy without unless we can learn to control the enemy within. That has been the cardinal lesson for every warrior in history.

-- Anil Agarwal

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