Ensuring democracy
H.K. DUA, Editor-in-Chief
Reform of Parliament
Subhash C. Kashyap
Parties in disarray
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Judicial independence
Fali S. Nariman
Responsive governance
N. N. Vohra

Fighting corruption
N. Vittal

Criminalisation of politics
B.G. Verghese
Strategic vision
K. Subrahmanyam
India’s global role
M.K. Rasgotra
Neighbours and friends
S.D. Muni
Economic roadmap
Pranjoy Guha Thakurta
Energy for progress
S. K. Sharma
New agriculture
S. S. Johl
Save the cities
Water use and waste
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Science in the 21st century
R. A. Mashelkar
Lessons in education
K. N. Pathak
Empowering women
Mrinal Pande
Problem of numbers
Ashish Bose
How to protect environment
Darryl D’Monte
Health of the nation
Usha Rai

Stop overloading atmosphere

Darryl D’MonteDarryl D’Monte

There is no question that environmental issues are taking a back seat in the country these days — a far cry from the build-up to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and for a few years later, when "green was beautiful". Today, most environmentalists will find it difficult to recollect who the Union Environment Minister is, in sharp contrast to spirited advocates like Kamal Nath and Maneka Gandhi in those good old days, along with secretaries like the formidable T.N. Seshan.

The liberalisation of the economy from 1991 is partly responsible for this situation since everyone has now come round to the view that globalisation is inevitable and environmental protection is an obstacle that must somehow be overcome in this giddy path to prosperity. It is by no means accidental that the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, has been likening itself to Shanghai – at least till the torrential rains of July 26 put paid to that delusion. Nowadays, no ones breathes a syllable about Shanghai, although the Prime Minister himself had made a reference to it only a few months earlier.

One reason why China and India were invited to the G-8 summit in Scotland recently was not the recognition that they (especially India) had become major economic players on the world market but that President Bush was roping them into a "regional pact" on climate change. Bush, whom environmentalists are fond of dubbing "the world’s dirtiest man" for his obdurate stand against the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes modest restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases which warm the earth’s atmosphere, has made no secret of his mission to include the world’s two most populous countries in such a treaty outside the UN multilateral system.

Reduce emissions

CLEAN-UP ACT: We need stringent measures to check emission of greenhouse gases
CLEAN-UP ACT: We need stringent measures to check emission of greenhouse gases

The US is making heavy weather of the fact that the six countries combined "represent more than half of the world’s economy, population and energy use, and also produce half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions". It will be called the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, and apart from the two Asian giants, the US and Australia, Japan and South Korea will come on board. South Korea is another major coal producer and exporter and thus, like Australia, has a major stake in the way the world moves ahead on reducing fossil fuel consumption, or at least restricting its emissions. According to Australian officials, the objective is to "expand the energy the world consumes and reduce the emissions".

This sounds suspiciously like a (global) Faustian bargain. If the rest of the industrialised world believes that it can continue to consume energy at current rates – the US alone accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gases – even if emissions per head are reduced globally, the load on the atmosphere will put intolerable limits on climate as populations increase, with consequences that are already alarmingly apparent. How much more evidence does President Bush, and others of his ilk, need to remind them of the havoc that the cost — in economic, social and environmental terms — of changes in weather patterns is playing? Even if the recent hurricane in Louisiana was primarily nature’s fury, there is no doubt that the overheating of the ocean in the Bay of Mexico accentuated the storm, otherwise thought of as "acts of God".

The new pact will require the "development of new technologies and deployment of them within developing countries". The US has listed these as energy efficiency, treatment of methane, rural energy, clean coal, civilian nuclear power, advanced transportation, liquefied natural gas, geothermal building and home construction/operation, bio-energy, agriculture/forestry, and hydropower/wind power/solar power. Here lies the rub. Instead of falling in line with the Kyoto Protocol and reducing emissions, this of Six" wants to take a "business-as-usual" approach and solve the global warming crisis through technology, rather than a global law.

DAMAGE CONTROL: Practical measures need to be taken to tackle natural disasters
DAMAGE CONTROL: Practical measures need to be taken to tackle natural disasters

The prospect of having China and India as virtually unlimited markets to sell environmental goods and services, albeit at very attractive terms initially, is tempting for the US and its partners. The US administration has admitted that the new pact focused on "practical efforts to create new investment opportunities and remove barriers to help each country meet nationally designed strategies and address the long-term challenge of climate change".

In all likelihood, there may even be a system of credits, such as has already been ushered in with the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol and propagated by the World Bank and others. Under these "carbon credits" and "emissions trading" arrangements, the US, for instance, can pay India and China to install electrostatic precipitators and other devices in their thermal power stations but get the credit for the reduction in global emissions that this would yield.

China has already fallen for such sops; Indian officials and business interests are anxious to follow suit. However, the earth’s environment does not observe such free market principles. The load on the atmosphere is already too heavy to bear and nothing less than a reduction in this burden will suffice. If India and China, with the active connivance of the US and a few other industrial nations, believe that they can take advantage of the global crisis by getting other countries to pay for their clean-up, they are making a grave mistake. There is no quick fix in cleaning up our own act and taking stringent measures to curb emissions of greenhouse gases on the one hand, and promoting the use of renewables on the other.

River waters

Yet another major task ahead is to combat the proposal to interlink rivers. This was first proposed in the 1970s by Dr K.L. Rao, given further refinement by Mumbai-based Captain Dastur, and had all but been laid to rest till the NDA government exhumed it and President Abdul Kalam endorsed the project. Suresh Prabhu, the former Shiv Sena Environment Minister in the previous coalition, had later headed a task force to see the scheme through. While it was earlier believed that the current coalition had jettisoned the concept, once again irrigation engineers and other technocrats are anxious to set the ball rolling.

During the previous regime, it was only on persistent prodding from NGOs and the media – after several public hearings called by environmental groups – that the Water Resources Ministry agreed to put on its website at least the summaries of reports which have a bearing on the gargantuan scheme. But this is by far the least of the hurdles that any government can expect to counter in proceeding with this ill-conceived project.

Bangladesh had objected to not being consulted about the scheme, although it will be affected. The eminent economist, Dr Nilakantha Rath, addressing the Institution of Engineers in Pune, had raised several fundamental issues regarding the massive project, estimated to cost Rs 5,60,000 crore. It is divided into three parts: the peninsular component to cost Rs 1,06,000 crore, the Himalayan counterpart Rs 1,85,000 crore and the hydroelectric component Rs 2,69,000 crore.

Dr Rath questions whether the hydraulic engineers behind the scheme have estimated the cost of acquiring land – let alone the legal complications and resistance, a la the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada. Nor for that matter has been the cost of rehabilitating those thousands of people who will be displaced. As is now evident after the report of the World Commission on Dams, which was initiated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland and the World Bank, no such scheme can possibly be launched without factoring in all these costs before giving it the go-ahead. (In a recent book, Shripad Dharmadhikary has even questioned the benefits of the Bhakra dam on the ground that its contribution to raising food output in Punjab-Haryana is not as much as was believed.)

Dr Rath also asked for information on how long the project will take to complete, and assumes that each component will (simultaneously) take 20 years. There is no information on what these stages will be. He has worked out costs, assuming interest at 7 per cent on capital employed, and finds several obstacles at every step. He calculates the total cost of the Himalayan component compounded with interest over 20 years at Rs 3,79,208 crore – or twice as much as currently estimated. What is more, the cost of water per acre per year for Rajasthan and north Gujarat will be phenomenal, which raises the issue of why alternatives at a much more regional or local level are not being considered. The cost of power is similarly prohibitive. He calculates the total cost of the entire project, at this interest rate, at Rs 11,47,873 crore, which is itself double of what is suggested.

This does not take into account the rate of inflation. If one assumes a very reasonable five per cent a year, the total cost of all three components at the end of 20 years works out to Rs 20,17,468 crore – or roughly Rs 1 lakh crore rupees per year, which is absolutely prohibitive. Where are the resources to come from? If one is borrowing, either from multilateral institutions abroad or domestic sources, the repayment will place the country in bondage for decades, very much like what the Sardar Sarovar scheme is doing to Gujarat. Even at the current estimate of Rs 5,60,000 crore (which appears "low" by contrast), it amounts to a quarter of the country’s GDP. By any reckoning, therefore, the misconceived and grandiose river link scheme will divert scarce resources from other pressing needs.

What is it about the scheme that has attracted the attention of so many people, not least the President himself? The first is undoubtedly its very simplicity. If northern parts of the country reel under floods during the monsoon, and regions in the Deccan peninsula suffer from almost perennial drought, linking these rivers by canals would appear the obvious solution, solving excess and deficit at one stroke.

But a more likely reason is a technocratic one. The problem with India, the highest dignitaries in the country imagine, is that it has vast resources which lie untapped due to poor infrastructure. Indeed, this is the refrain which the World Bank and countless other advisers drum into their heads and ours, day in and day out. If drought and flood, or, for that matter, hunger and malnutrition are seen as exclusively technical problems, rather than social or economic ones, the solutions are bound to be exclusively technocratic.

In former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s mind, linking rivers was but part of his broader vision to link the entire country. He had already put the Golden Quadrilateral in place, to connect the four major metropolitan cities by superhighways at an astronomical cost as well. There is yet another scheme to link the major ports so that imports and exports are better serviced. Of the three, the last is the most environmentally sound, because marine transport consumes the least fuel and is most cost-effective too.

Nowadays, a major chunk of the goods are transported by road – which uses the most expensive and environmentally harmful fuel, imported to boot. To add insult to injury, such are the bottlenecks within cities, and between them as well, that an alarmingly high proportion is actually transported by air, which is the most environmentally destructive of all.

There is a single mindset which pervades all these three schemes: that the overwhelming priority of the country as a whole, considering the huge chunk of resources that is being poured into them, is to create a modern transport system. This is highly debatable, given the persisting poverty, which still keeps a third of the over one billion population eking out a living on less than a dollar a day. How the linking of rivers, or the roads or ports, will come to their rescue, only those in charge of these grandiose schemes – which does not appear to include the Planning Commission, for the most part – can tell.

It is hardly necessary to point out that very much lower investments in human capital, particularly in primary education, health, provision of water and sanitation, will do far more to raise the majority out of the morass of poverty. But then, this is hardly the priority of any Prime Minister, or of the sundry advisers, foreign and domestic, who brief him on what needs to be done.

— The writer is former Resident Editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express in Mumbai, and chairs the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.