In almost all the developing countries the society is torn between the twin challenges of eradicating poverty while maintaining environmental integrity. While the academics as well as the environmentalists insist that development should not be pursued at the cost of environment conservation, the industry, corporate and governments say that any development will come with its consequent environmental cost and right now their primary focus is economic growth.
They say that poverty is the biggest environmental disaster and the first and the foremost aim is to address the needs of a decent living for those millions who are languishing in crushing poverty.
The moment development versus conservation debate is shifted towards poverty alleviation, conservation is bound to take a back seat as the environmentalist will come across as unreasonable utopian thinkers determined to take the society back to caves.
In many societies, India included, environmentalists are deemed anti development, anti people and in some cases even anti-national.
But that’s hardly the case. The development versus conservation debate is not about either/or, it’s about the cost of development.
British Philosopher and civil servant John Stuart Mill propounded the theory of “greatest good of greatest numbers”. He believed that this was possible and the instrument to realise this possibility was democracy. Back home in India, poet Tulsidas talked about sarvjan hitai, sarvjan sukhae (Everyone’s interest is protected, everyone is content).
Based on these two premises the fundamental duty of a democratically elected government is to ensure the well being of its every citizen. This “well being”, however, is construed as economic development and even in economic development the focus is on enhancing the per capita income of a family or an individual. This offers people disposable income which promotes consumerism and creates a false sense of well being in people.
But to ensure real “greatest good of greatest number” there are a host of parameters that need to be fulfilled. Education, sanitation, equal right to natural resources, healthy living conditions etc, all form the basis of decent human living conditions.
The corporate entities as well as governments deliberately divert the core issue of development versus conservation because of two reasons. They do not want to discuss the cost of development as it will invite heavy penalty and new ways of doing business which will rationalise their profit margins.
The great management guru Philip Kotler has argued that the businessperson has entered the commerce arena for no other reason than profit maximisation. Businessperson is not alone in their quest for profit, the “development oriented” bureaucrats, politicians and policymakers too are motivated by this concept.
Take the case of Three Gorges Dam in China. It led to displacement of 1.5 million people. They were told that when built this hydro power project will meet 7 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. For this grand cause 1.5 million citizens were asked to pay the price of displacement and those who resented were forced to vacate the land.
When the dam was finally ready and started producing electricity it met only 1.3 percent of the country’s needs. Soon even that became difficult due to increasing silt. Downstream water shortage created its own problems. While the lake submerged some important heritage sites and also impacted the natural course of fisheries.
Now the question arises, what good the dam achieved except for the accolades it earned for its engineers for creating a masterpiece which in time will turn into a milestone around the society’s neck.
The cost of meeting China’s 1.7 percent of electricity needs was borne by 1.5 million people whose lives are disrupted beyond repair. Along with this, long term impact on water supply and fish resources and the livelihood of those fishermen along the river makes the scenario clearer for the reader.
Back home in India a flagship programme by the government to increase the agricultural output in the state of Punjab led to much touted “Green Revolution”. It did increase the production of grains but today, 40 years after the so called miracle, the input costs have grown disproportionately high leading to the law of diminishing returns.
The over use of pesticides and fertilizers has wrecked havoc on soil, underwater table and other water bodies. The soil can’t sustain a crop without huge dose of fertilizers anymore. Non communicable diseases like cancer are on the rise and the farmers are reeling under severe debt.
A question arises, is this kind of development good for the society? The supporters of this model insist yes it is as it took India out of chronic food shortage and provided much needed prosperity. While in China they say the dam offered employment of many construction workers and brought in money in the local economy.
However, a close look at these assertions unravels the claims. If an economic revolution fizzles out within a generation leaving behind a trail of disaster for two to three generations to clean up or if a construction site provides employment for five years at the cost of other vocations and then finally destroys all of them, then is it worth it?
Should policy planners plan for just one generation at the cost of those still unborn? Should politicians be concerned with their five year term? Should the corporate be obsessed with their quarterly results at the cost of the medium and long term future of the society itself where they need to sell their stuff?
In my native language, Hindi, there is an adage which translated into English means, “the gardener seldom reaps the fruits of his labour”. The adage is steeped into the reality of how nature operates. It accepts the fact that the gardener by instinct is a long term philanthropic thinker. He or she plans ahead and plants trees knowing full well that by the time they grow and start bearing fruit he or she would be long gone.
I think the same impulse would have overpowered Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland when she must have coined the definition for sustainability — “the ability to meet our needs without jeopardising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”.
This one simple line holds the philosophical premise for all the policymakers, politicians and the business community. They will have to understand that the debate is about the present as well as long term cost of our action undertaken in this moment.
I know many politicians, policymakers and corporate honchos are perfectly aware of what the environmentalists and academics are suggesting but deliberately chose to ignore as they caught in the vice like grip of over arching economic structure and their own need or rather greed for personal aggrandizement, super profit and fat pay packets.
This greed may be justified within their personal universe but is wholly unjustified at societal level where a vast majority pays for their myopia.