Jairam Ramesh at JNCASR

The 11th Annual ISRO-JNCASR Satish Dhawan Lecture, titled ‘The Two Cultures Revisited – Some Reflections on the Environment-Development Debate in India’ was delivered by Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister (of State) for Environment and Forests, on 28th September, 2010. The title is reminiscent of CP Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture (and not ‘Reith lecture over the BBC’ as the minister seems to think), also called ‘The Two Cultures’, which talked about a wall of no-communication between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Jairam Ramesh says that the situation today of no communication between proponents of development and environmentalists is one where CP Snow’s analysis is applicable. He says a majority of the situations that come up for his ministry’s decision are situations where a compromise – yes, you can do this, but only if you also take care of this – is possible. He pointed out that his experience as Environment minister is evidence of this. He also pointed out that there have been situations where a clear ‘no’ was called for.

I must say that despite the ‘Reith lecture over the BBC’ gaffe, and language (only at some points in the lecture, to be fair) that would make George Orwell sit in a corner and cry, Jairam Ramesh comes off as honest and sensible. He is, of course, remarkably intelligent, and this is quite evident as well in how clear and thorough his analysis of the situation is. The rest of this post, I realised after I’d written it, is a summary of his analysis of the situation and his proposals for solutions, most of which I’ve paraphrased from his lecture, and agree with almost entirely.

The basic problem, of course, is that development and environmental conservatism seem to be at loggerheads. Do you build factories and manufacturing plants regardless of the cost to the environment? Do you look after the environment but leave your population in poverty, and lose out on the World-stage? The dichotomy seems irreconcilable, doesn’t it?

Jairam Ramesh proposed several types of solutions to this apparent dead-end. The first was to maximise the compromises – keep everybody as happy as you can. This also includes a proper redefinition of development, he said: development at the cost of the environment is only sustainable for so long, and must therefore be valued less than its current monetary value. The net present value (NPV) of benefits lost because of deforestation, for example, must be taken into account when deciding what the cost of a project is. (CAMPA is the authority in charge of this.) More ‘Green Accounting’ is needed, he said, and mentioned several promising candidate-solutions and efforts in this regard, which I’ll not recount here.

The second type of solution is to rebrand the environmental conservation position as an issue of public health, which it is. The debate over development v. environment cannot take precedence over the health of the population of the nation, and if some project is shown to be damaging to the health of the public in that region, it will have to be shelved. He cited the Tiger Reserves of India – apparently huge tracts of land where coal could be mined, but isn’t – as prime examples. The reserves aren’t just there for the tigers. They are also regions that safeguard biodiversity, and thereby ensure the ecological balance necessary for our environment, and our health.

The third type of solution is to recognise that the development-environment debate isn’t that at all; what it is, is one of whether rules and laws will be followed by industries, businesses, and people. To quote the Minister,

‘When an alumina refinery decides to expand its capacity from one to six million tonnes per year without seeking environmental clearance, it isn’t a question of environment v. development. It is one of whether laws made by Parliament will be respected. When closure notices are issued to mills illegally discharging waste into India’s rivers, it isn’t a question of environment v. development, but one of whether laws should be enforced effectively or not. When a power plant wants to draw water from a protected area, or a coal mine wants to mine some area in a tiger sanctuary, it is a question of whether existing laws will be adhered to, or not’.

The problem is that these laws are bent, broken, mutilated and left to rot by everybody who can get away with doing these things. One solution is to empower government agents to enforce these laws. We all know what that means, don’t we? The laws will continue to be bent, broken and mutilated, but some people in the government will get a little richer. One other would be to hope, a la Gopalkrishna Gandhi, that the thrill of circumvention is replaced in all of us by the joy of compliance. A third is to create market-friendly instruments to enforce these regulations. The emissions trading system that was put in place to deal with the acid-rain problem in the US is an archetype of this method of solution. Jairam Ramesh mentioned that a pilot programme along these lines is in place in TN and Gujarat.

Perhaps the most important thing to realise, in this debate, is that these are issues that affect the common man more than anybody else. The simplest way for a fair debate is for us to empower the common man. This can only be done if people of science learn to communicate in ‘the language and the idiom’ of the larger public. The minister ended by quoting from Indira Gandhi’s 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment speech, saying that ‘the inherent conflict isn’t between conservation and development, but between environment and the reckless exploitation of man and earth in the name of efficiency’.

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