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.

Apart from the understandable impatience about the way government functions, the counter-narrative on the environment has some elements that need to be questioned. This column has argued for the importance and revolutionary potential of growth. But the rank instrumentalism that says the quality of growth does not matter is self-defeating for a number of reasons. The large assumptions behind this counter-narrative need to be questioned.

First, the counter-narrative, that growth and poverty alleviation will automatically take care of the environment is simply wrong for two different reasons. Climate change is a fact and we need to think upfront about patterns of growth that are compatible with sustaining the planet. But even if you are uncertain about climate change, consider this: water and air quality, for the most part, have become something close to irretrievable goods. As China is finding out, cleaning your air or reclaiming dying rivers is a near impossibility or prohibitively expensive. Their near irretrievable character means that, if not taken care of, you are condemning citizens to live with a permanent poison, with no living rivers or cities with breathable air. There is little evidence that in the developing world, growth alone will take care of this problem. On a lighter note, in a recent seminar in Delhi, a good friend of India, on seeing everyone coughing, joked that it would be a tragedy if Delhi replaced the Argumentative Indian with the Coughing Indian.

The second element of the counter-narrative is costs. Protecting the environment imposes costs. But the cost argument is rhetorically effective only because the costs of a damaged environment are almost nowhere in public consciousness. As the incidence of disease is showing, these costs are not about preserving arcadia or protected enclaves. These costs are now being inflicted on all citizens on an almost daily basis: the health cost, the productivity losses produced by morbidity, not to mention the deep loss of a sense of well-being. And the poor are exposed to even more toxic hazards on a daily basis. The environment has become a net drain on growth.

The third element of the counter narrative is that we can afford to pay the costs of environmental regulation as we grow rich. This is also self-defeating. India is now on the verge of not just designing large systems of all kinds, from cities to transport systems, and the transition to a formal economy. It is also going to put in a huge amount of capital stock in the next few years, which is near impossible to alter for decades. Now is, in fact, the time to get the environmental architecture right.

The fourth element that makes the counter-narrative problematic is that it underestimates the potential of environment as an economic opportunity rather than as an economic constraint. It can drive technological innovation; give India a latecomer advantage. The co-benefits story, as Navroz Dubash has argued, is quite persuasive. To be fair, this is an area where there is more action than we acknowledge. On climate change and low carbon growth, our domestic record is far more defensible than that of advanced economies. But we are reluctant to put this into a coherent narrative and tie them to mainstream environmental concerns.

It would be a grave mistake if the environment versus development debate remained as adversarial as it is. The framing of the environmental regime as an obstacle gets us off to a wrong start, where the fringes will feed on each other: the rank instrumentalism of certain business versus the luddite views of certain environmentalists, while the sensible middle chokes.

The concerns of business about red tape would be far more sincere if they also became, at the same time, a pressure group for more sensible standards, environmental regulation and capacity building. We all agree that there are huge issues with how the state exercises its power. But in collective goods like this, there is no bypass. If the state fails, you will get an even more coarse and blunt reaction from the courts and civil society. In fact, it speaks measures of our debate that the environment has, for the most, become a civil society issue rather than part of mainstream politics.

But the public has also bought this self-fulfilling construct that the environment is some kind of specialised niche rather than a public goods problem in which we are all implicated. Gulzar once penned these characteristically enigmatic lines about Indian cities: aansoo ki jagah, aata hai dhuan; jeene ki wajah toh koi nahin, marne ka bahana dhoondta hain. If the CSE is right, we are, literally, breathing smoke and don't even need a reason to die.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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