Posted on Thursday, July 21st, 2011
Dr Vandana Shiva
20th July 2011
On June 29, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with the editors of a few newspapers.
When asked about whether he had been putting pressure on the environment ministry (then headed by Jairam Ramesh) to overlook environmental violations of several projects, Dr Singh said yes, and justified his action thus: “As Gandhiji said, ‘Poverty is the biggest polluter’. We need to have a balance.” The Prime Minister was probably referring to what Indira Gandhi had said at the first UN Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” In that same speech, she had also quoted from the Atharva Veda:
“What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,
Let me not hit thy vitals, or thy heart.”
Dr Singh conveniently ignored the more significant quote. The Prime Minister’s duty is to uphold the Constitution and nation’s laws, including environmental laws, not subvert them. By admitting that he has been putting pressure on the environment ministry, Dr Singh admitted that he was, indeed, subverting the law. Most commentators view the removal of Mr Ramesh from the environment ministry during the July 12 Cabinet reshuffle as a further step in environmental deregulation.
While quoting Indira Gandhi to justify his subversion of environmental law, the Prime Minister forgot that it was Indira Gandhi who created the country’s environmental governance structure; he forgot that it was Indira Gandhi’s intervention that strengthened the call of movements and scientists not to build a hydro-electric project in Silent Valley in Kerala, thereby saving a biodiversity rich ecosystem. And it was Indira Gandhi’s concern that Mussorie, the Queen of Hills, was being stripped naked by limestone mining that led to the Supreme Court order that shut down the mines in 1983.
In pre-liberalisation days, it was accepted that if commerce undermines ecosystems which support life, then commercial activity must stop, because life must carry on. Article 21 of the Constitution makes it the duty of the state to protect life. Since ecological processes support life, the state has a duty to protect ecology. Under Dr Singh’s leadership since the 1990s, based as it is on “growth fetishism”, all ecological devastation has been justified in the name of growth. But who is driving this ecological devastation and pollution? The rich and powerful corporations or the poor and powerless farmers, tribals and displaced rural communities who become urban slum dwellers?
The poor do not cause the pollution, but live in polluted places because they are displaced from their homes in rural areas where they lived sustainably for millennia. This is environmental injustice and it is an inevitable consequence of outsourcing of pollution from rich countries in the garb of FDI.
Coastal Orissa is a case in point. In the Jagatsingpur district, where Posco’s giant steel plant is planned with a massive FDI ($12 billion), farmers grow betel and paddy, coconut and cashew, fruits and fish. There is no pollution and no waste. There is a prosperity that the GDP does not count. This economy of sustenance is being uprooted violently to enable Posco to export our iron-ore and steel. Every law of the land, including the Forest Rights Act and the Coastal Zone Regulation Act, is being violated. But when the committees of the ministry of environment confirm the violations, the Prime Minister puts pressure on the environment minister to give approval to Posco. The women and children of Govindpur, Dhinkia and Nuagaon lay down under a scorching sun to stop the land grab in June. They know what the Posco project will bring: ecological destruction, pollution, displaced people and the destruction of our democracy.
In India, the major polluters are the giant coal-based power plants and industries, like the automobile. Emissions from the use of fossil fuel are driven by the economically powerful, not the poor. But it is the poor who are most vulnerable to the floods, droughts and cyclones that climate change intensifies.
The same applies to toxic pollution. A case in point is the pesticide, Endosulfan. The UN has banned it. Most countries in the world have banned it. The Supreme Court has ordered an interim ban after it was reported that over a thousand people have died and more than 9,000 crippled in Kasargod where Endosulfan was sprayed on cashew plantations for 20 years. The innocent victims did not cause the toxic pollution. It was caused by powerful corporations who influence decisions, who have blocked a ban on Endosulfan even as people die and children are born disabled.
Toxic agrichemicals harm all life. Synthetic fertilisers run into rivers and oceans, creating “dead zones”. Nitrogen oxide released from nitrogen fertilisers accumulates in the atmosphere as a green house gas that is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. These synthetic fertilisers also make bombs, as the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the Oklahoma bombings have shown.
We now have a new form of pollution in agriculture — genetic pollution from genetically engineered crops. Genetic pollution is destroying biodiversity and devastating farmers’ livelihoods. The chemical corporations are the gene giants who now control seed. Here too, instead of being the voice of poor and vulnerable farmers, the Prime Minister is the voice of powerful global corporations through his repeated reference to genetic engineering as the second Green Revolution.
Whether it is atmospheric pollution, toxic pollution, genetic pollution or urban waste pollution, all environmental pollution is an externality of a greed-based economy which privatises natural resources and socialises pollution. The rich accumulate the land, the biodiversity, the water, the air and the profits; the poor bear the burden of dispossession and accumulated pollution.
We expect the Prime Minister to uphold the Constitution and environmental laws. We do not expect him to support and promote the polluters. We expect the Prime Minister to remember that he holds our precious natural heritage and natural capital in trust for future generations, not to be given away to greedy corporations and destroyed for short-term profits.