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Who pollutes: The rich or the poor?
India’s prime minister is allowing India’s environment to be destroyed in order to cater to powerful foreign investors.
Vandana Shiva Last Modified: 26 Jul 2011 06:41
Indian farmers are being forcibly moved from their land to make way for rich foreign investors and their environmentally destructive plans [EPA]
On June 29, 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 that by quoting Indira Gandhi: “Poverty is the biggest polluter, we need to have a balance”.
Indira Gandhi said this in Stockholm, 1972 at the first Environmental Conference. She also read a quote 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 nation’s laws – including environmental laws – not to 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 12, 2011 cabinet-reshuffle as a further step towards 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 stop a hydro-electric project in Silent Valley, Kerala – saving an ecosystem rich in biodiversity.
It was Indira Gandhi’s concern that Mussorie, the queen of the hills, was being stripped naked by limestone mining that led 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 which eventually became the basis of a Supreme Court case.
In 1983, the Supreme Court shut down the mines.
In the pre-trade liberalisation days, it was accepted that if commerce undermines ecosystems which support life, then that commercial activity must stop because life must carry on. Article 21 of the Constitution makes it the duty of the state to protect life – and since ecological processes support life, the state has a duty to protect ecology.
‘The poor live in the places polluted by the rich’
Under Prof. Manmohan Singh’s leadership since the 1990’s the idea of “growth fetishism” has been exposed; which is the idea that 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 displaced rural communities who are forced to 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 had 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 the outsourcing of pollution from rich countries in the disguise of foreign direct investment (FDI).
Coastal Orissa is a case in point.
In the Jagatsingpur district, where POSCO’s giant US $12 billion steel plant is planned as the highest FDI, farmers grow biodiversity – betel vines and paddy, coconut and cashew, fruits and fish. There is no pollution and no waste; that is a prosperity that GDP does not count.
This economy of sustenance is being uprooted by means of violence in order 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 as committee after committee has recognised. 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.
In June, it was the women and children of Govindpur, Dinkia and Nuagaon who laid down in front of the police in the scorching sun in an effort to stop the land grab. They were still forming a human barricade when I visited on June 23.
The prime minister is intervening against the country’s laws to promote this land and resource grab. POSCO gets our land and our resources – while all that we will inherit from the POSCO project is ecological destruction, pollution, displaced people and the destruction of our democracy.
Environmental destruction affects the poor first
In India, it is the corporations that are building giant coal-based power plants – which are major climate polluters. The automobile industry pushes more cars onto our roads which is 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.
More than 25 years since the Bhopal disaster, children are still born sick and disabled [GALLO/GETTY]
In 1996, a case was filed in the Supreme Court to stop the import of toxic waste from the US. This waste was generated by rich consumers in the US, not by the poor in India who put their lives at risk sorting out the toxic garbage. The Bhopal disaster and its continuing toxic pollution was not caused by the poor who died there by the thousands. It was caused by Union Carbide, now owned by Dow.
A major issue related to toxic waste is the pesticide ‘endosulfan’ which has been banned by the UN and most countries in the world. The Supreme Court in India has ordered an interim ban, following the disaster which killed 1000 people and crippled more than 9000 in Kasargod – where endosulfan was sprayed on cashew plantations for 20 years. These innocent victims did not cause the toxic pollution – it was caused by powerful corporations who have used their influence to block a ban on endosulfan, even as more people die and children are born disabled.
Toxic agrichemicals harm all life.
Synthetic fertilisers eventually 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 are also used to make bombs as the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the Oklahoma city bombings in the US have shown.
We now have a new form of pollution in agriculture – genetic pollution from genetically engineered crops, which 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 seeds. Here too, instead of being the voice of poor and vulnerable farmers, the prime minister has become the voice of powerful global corporations by repeatedly referring to genetic engineering as the ‘second Green Revolution’.
Privatising profit and natural resources, socialising pollution
Whether it is atmospheric pollution, toxic pollution, genetic pollution or urban waste pollution, environmental pollution is an externality of a greed based economy which privatises profit and 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 India’s Constitution and environmental laws – not subvert them while he supports and promotes the polluters.
We expect our prime minister to recognise 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 recognise that we are all part of Mother Earth, and that pollution is violence against the Earth and people.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecofeminist, philosopher, activist, and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights – winning the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Novel Prize) in 1993.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.