Hindustan Times, October 08, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

The disclosure by the Centre for Science and Environment that 11 of the 12 leading brands of honey sold in India contain high levels of harmful antibiotics should make us acknowledge our failure to evolve and enforce environmental and health standards. Similar disclosures were made about pesticides in soft drinks and coliform bacteria in 'safe' bottled water. More distressing is the documentation since the 1980s of high content of pesticides and other toxins, including lead, in a majority of samples of foodgrain, vegetables, meat, eggs and milk tested by public laboratories.

These revelations triggered some corrective action in soft drinks, a product the middle class guzzles. But, strangely, none in grain, vegetables and milk-consumed universally and hence far more important for public health. This shameful elitism extends to the absence of minimal standards of air or water quality, essential for people's well-being.

Three types of failure are involved here.

First, there are no domestic standards. (Only exported honey conforms to antibiotic content norms.) The public has no right to demand clean, safe water, ambient air or a low-noise environment. India produces/uses thousands of chemicals. But the Ministry of Environment and Forests lists less than 700 hazardous chemicals.

The second failure is enforcement of standards, a stunning example being vehicular pollution. Delhi has five million vehicles but fewer than 200 inspectors to check them for pollution.

The third failure lies in monitoring and verification of compliance of the conditions of clearances/licences. As Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh candidly admits: "In the last 10 years, we must have approved about 7,000 projects… (each with) conditions and safeguards… But unfortunately, we don't have a system of monitoring compliance with these standards."

So, one is dismayed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's September 6 statement urging that India must go easy on environmental regulations lest investors be put off. Singh said environmental concerns must not lead to "perpetuation of poverty" or a return to the "licence-permit raj". This derives from Singh's new thesis that "the only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture".

The proposition reneges on the task of fighting poverty in the prevailing context as an imperative in itself and a precondition for any government's legitimacy. It also assumes that environment is dispensable, but industrialisation is not. Good climate science tells us the opposite: ecological damage is irreversible and India must embrace low-emissions growth before it's too late.

There is no causal link between environmental protection and poverty. In fact, unregulated industrialisation severs vulnerable people from natural resources and pauperises them. Singh should know better than to use loaded pejoratives like licence-permit raj to describe environmental protection.

India is one of the world's least environmentally regulated countries, undergoing rapid environmental deterioration. India ranks low in the Columbia-Yale University Environmental Performance Index — 123 among 163 countries. So eager is the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) not to appear obstructionist that it clears 92 per cent of all applications.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) process has been badly whittled down in favour of nonsensical self-certification. So-called consultants routinely cook up EIA reports. Yet, the MoEF accepts incomplete applications, without wildlife or hydrological clearance, often approving four to five applications a day! The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991, have been cynically sabotaged to transfer forest land and permit construction close to the high-tide line.

The Energy and Resources Institute estimated in 2007 that environmental damage in India amounts to seven to ten per cent of GDP. Even if half is true, this should jolt the government out of denial into corrective action. India needs more, not less, and stricter, environmental regulation if it's not to destroy its natural resource base.

Praful Bidwai is a columnist, and author of a recent book on climate change and India. The views expressed by the author are personal.