Who Pollutes: The Rich and Powerful or Poor and Powerless?

On the 29th of June, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with editors of a few newspapers. When asked about whether he had been putting pressure on the Environment Ministry to approve environmentally destructive projects, he said “yes”, and justified by quoting Indira Gandhi “poverty is the biggest polluter, we need to have a balance”. Indira Gandhi had said this in Stockholm in 1972 at the first Environmental Conference. She had also quoted from the Atharvaveda –

“Whatever, I dig of you, O Earth,

May that grow quickly upon you,

O Pure One, may my thrust never pierce thy

Vital points, thy heart”.

The Prime Minister has conveniently ignored the more significant quote.

The Prime Minister’s duty is to uphold the nation’s constitution and nations laws, including environmental laws, not subvert them. By admitting that he has been putting pressure on the environment ministry, he has admitted that he is subverting the law. Most commentators view the removal of Jairam Ramesh from the Environment Ministry during the July 12th, 2011 cabinet reshuffle as a further step in environmental deregulation.

While quoting Indira Gandhi to justify his subversion of environmental law, the Prime Minister seems to have forgotten that Indira Gandhi created the country’s environmental governance structure during her tenure as Prime Minister. It was Indira Gandhi’s intervention that supported the call of movements and scientists to not build a hydro-electric project in Silent Valley in Kerala saving a biodiversity rich ecosystem. It was Indira Gandhi’s concern that Mussorie, the queen of the hills, was being stripped naked by limestone mining that led to the Environment Ministry to take action. We were invited to do the study of the environmental impact of limestone mining in Doon Valley in 1981. Our study became the basis of the Supreme Court case. In 1983, the Supreme Court shut down the mines.

In the pre-trade liberalization days, it was accepted that if commerce undermines ecosystems which support life, then commercial activity must stop, because life must carry on. Art. 21 of the Constitution make it the duty of the state to protect life. Since ecological processes support life, the state has a duty to protect ecology.

Under Prof. Manmohan Singh’s leadership since the 1990’s based on “growth fetishism”, all ecological devastation is justified in the name of growth. Who is driving this ecological devastation and the pollution? The rich and powerful corporations or the poor and powerless women, farmers, tribals and the displaced rural communities who become urban slum dwellers?

The poor live in the places polluted by the rich. They do not cause the pollution. And they live in polluted places because they are displaced from their homes in rural areas where they have lived sustainably for millennia.

They are victims of pollution because they are victims of dispossession. 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 as the highest FDI of $ 12 billion farmers, grow biodiversity – betel vines and paddy, coconut and cashew, fruits and fish. There is no pollution and no waste.  There is a prosperity that GDP does not count. This economy of sustenance is being uprooted with violence 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 are being violated as committee after committee has recognized. And when the Ministry of Environment Committees affirms the violation of laws, it is the Prime Minister who puts pressure on the Environment Minister to give an approval to POSCO. It was the women and children of Govindpur, Dinkia and Nuagaon who lay down in front of the police in the scorching sun to stop the land grab in June. They were still forming a human barricade when I visited on 23rd June.

The Prime Minister is intervening to promote this land grab and resource grab. POSCO gets our land and our resources. What we will inherit from the POSCO project is ecological destruction, pollution, displaced people and the destruction of our democracy.

In India, it is the corporations that are building giant coal based power plants who are major climate polluters. It is the automobile industry that pushes more cars on our roads that are leading to higher carbon dioxide emissions. 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 for toxic pollution. In 1996, we filed a case in the Supreme Court to stop the import of toxic waste from the U.S. This waste was generated by rich consumers in the U.S, not by the poor in India who put their lives at risk sorting out the toxic garbage. The Bhopal disaster and it its still continuing toxic pollution was not caused by the poor who died in thousands. It was caused by Union Carbide, now owned by Dow.

A major issue related to toxics is the pesticide, endosulfan. The U.N has banned it. Most countries of the world have banned it. The Supreme Court has ordered an interim ban. 1000 people have died in Kasargod where endosulfan was sprayed on Cashew plantations for 20 years. More than 9000 are crippled. The innocent victims did not cause the toxic pollution. It was caused by powerful corporations who influence decisions and have blocked a ban on endosulfan, even as people die and children are born disabled.

Toxic agrichemicals harm all life. Synthetic fertilizers run into rivers and oceans, creating “dead zones”. Nitrogen oxide released from nitrogen fertilizers accumulates in the atmosphere as a green house gas that is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. These synthetic fertilizers also make bombs as the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the Oklahoma bombings in the U.S 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 poor do not cause chemical and genetic pollution – giant chemical / biotechnology corporations do. And the chemical corporations are also 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, environmental pollution is an externality of a greed based economy which privatizes profit and natural resources and socializes 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 India’s Constitution and environmental laws not subvert them. We do not expect him to support and promote the polluters. We expect our Prime Minister to recognize that the poor are victims of pollution and environmental degradation, not its cause. 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.

We expect our Prime Minister to grow beyond his “growth fetishism” and recognize that we are all part of Mother Earth, and pollution is violence against the Earth and people.