Choking the middle

It says something about our attention span that the important news seldom becomes news. The two most significant, and in some ways related, stories last week were these: on Sunday, this paper chronicled an extraordinary new survey of the prevalence of cancer in parts of Punjab; the Global Burden of Disease Report, released at a workshop organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), estimated that outdoor air pollution has become the fifth largest killer in India, accounting for approximately 6,20,000 deaths. The CSE itself has chronicled the alarmingly deteriorating air quality in Indian cities.

But the discourse on the environment goes on its counter-narrative. Last month, the prime minister was quoted as saying that environmental clearances have become the new licence permit raj. Prominent businessman have been tweeting about green becoming the new red tape. There is some truth to this anxiety. There is arbitrariness, delay and uncertainty in our environmental regime, though statistically, the regime is too lax. But this is true of every aspect where the state impinges on us, from taxation to justice.

There is also some truth in the anxiety that there is an assortment of groups who exhibit a debilitating distrust of technology, and would cumulatively grind everything, from power plants to ports to mining, to a halt. But it will be catastrophic for the nation if here, as elsewhere, the fringes are allowed to legitimise a counter narrative that constructs the environment as a kind of nuisance in the path of growth. The fact is that India's environment, from rivers to air, from groundwater to forests, presents a spectacle of extraordinary desolation and risk. The point about the CSE story, or the story on Punjab, is that the environment is not just about local communities: it has become a big, almost murderous, public goods problem.

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