Indian Environmental Unsustainability: An Instance of Human Rights Abuse?

(This is an opinion piece with the aim of raising awareness and facilitating debate)

Climate change has long been considered a global problem despite naysayers arguing the contrary on the basis of doctored results or biased ‘expert’ opinions.  So-called ‘developing’ countries such as India have been particularly criticised for their government’s prioritising of ‘economic progress’ to the detriment of environmental sustainability. Yet, as critical journalism has pointed out, the political rhetoric is flawed and long-term economic progress cannot be separated from the health and environmental issues that are associated with unsustainable economic development policies and have a huge detrimental impact on average citizens.[i] This article argues that the main reason environmental progress has not been made in India is because of a bureaucratic framework that allows derogations from the fundamental and legal rights of poorer citizens in order to privilege the more economically powerful.

Although India has one of the lowest rates of pollution per person, it is reportedly set to become one of the largest world polluters, on par with China, if it pursues the economic policies delineated by Prime Minister Modi.[ii] Indian citizens have been quick to call out the hypocrisy of being criticised for environmental unsustainability by the so called ‘developed’ countries which have themselves developed and continue to develop in un-environmentally friendly ways in pursuit of economic growth when India has one of the highest populations of those living under the poverty line globally.[iii] And Indians are not wrong in doing so but just because others behave in reprehensible ways is no reason to follow.

Culturally, most Indians grow up with an ethos of recycling and sustainability. Indian grandmothers never throw away anything. Old items are passed on to family members, neighbours and beggars. Leftovers are always given to helpers, beggars or stray animals. Water is sacred, with many bathing out of a single bucket of water rather than using a shower. Half drunk glasses of water are given to plants, animals or any visible piece of soil. Most ordinary citizens grow up with a respect for the environment and the value of money that can be lacking in ‘richer’ countries where students might not think twice about tossing a half finished meal straight in to the bin. Economic growth and sustainability are inseparable on a micro-scale.

However, a dichotomy arises in the public sphere. Ordinary citizens have their legal rights violated on a daily basis with, for example, MNCs taking advantage of lax environmental, health and safety regulations such as the one that led to the Bhopal disaster and illegal land squatting by large companies.[iv] The institutional framework is composed of a government, administrators and law enforcement agencies that fail their most fundamental duty of acting in the service of all their citizens. It is true that progress has been made and India is host to some of the brightest scientific minds in the world with many innovative strategies such as, for example, that of introducing solar power to rural areas.[v] However, it would appear that politicians pay lip service to the notion of furthering environmental sustainability as opposed to really harnessing the resources India has to make true environmental sustainability a reality.


Moreover, when it comes to implementing existing environmentally sustainable policies, India fails miserably. Delhi has a higher rate of pollution that Beijing.[vi] A judge recently supported a ban on commercial vehicles entering the city due to the pollution caused by them.[vii] When responding to a submission made by counsel, he mentioned the personal example of his grandson wearing a mask to avoid inhaling polluted air. Many suffer from severe breathing difficulties due to the pollution in major Indian cities. Simply being able to breath can cost a fortune in medical bills.[viii] The lack of high environmental standards, strict enforcement of environmental regulations and a lack of education about these issues negatively impacts India’s biggest economic assets. Firstly, its people, that spend a fortune on medical bills, die early or leave if they can afford it.[ix] Secondly, its unique wildlife, natural and cultural landmarks that have great potential in terms of sustainable tourism. The kind of economic growth that is promoted is geared towards benefitting the very rich who can afford to cocoon themselves in sanitised and environmentally unsustainable environments whilst ordering muscle-men to work the employees in their dilapidated factories harder, exploiting lax environmental regulations or illegally seizing land from those who cannot afford to fight back.[x] It seems derogations from the legal rights of more financially vulnerable others, such as the ex-policeman in Raigarh who lost two acres of his land when those affiliated to a large company dumped rubble on it, are deemed acceptable by the government and its law enforcement institutions in order to further enrich exploitative, richer others.

One could argue that perhaps Indian citizens are not doing enough to make their voices heard. Perhaps they should bring more public interest litigation (PIL) claims and follow the example of the farmer, Leghare, who brought a PIL claim against the Pakistani government for failing him as a citizen by not instituting its own framework for implementation of the 2013 National Climate Change Policy.[xi] Judge Shah in the High Court upheld Leghari’s claim, highlighting threats to water and food security from climate change. He ordered that a national Climate Change Commission be established along with other practical measures to ensure effective implementation.  However, while such citizens’ initiatives are commendable, there is only so much the courts can do. Ultimately, it falls to the government and those who implement its policies to uphold the spirit of the judgments passed and work in the best interest of their people.

The climate change/environmental sustainability debate is not just about the short-term economic arguments versus the long-term health/environmental consequences. Rather, it is about the fundamental disregard of the Indian government for the rights of all its citizens not just the rich ones. No amount of economic progress is going to help a parent who spends every other night at the hospital with their asthmatic child unless they can afford to move countries.


 

Written by: Divya Jalan 

#TeamSkies

 

[i] The Economist, ‘India and the Environment: Catching up with China’ (10 October 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21672359-prime-minister-wants-india-grow-fast-over-next-20-years-china-has-over-past-20 (last accessed 25 October 2015).

[ii] The Economist, ‘India and the Environment: Catching up with China’ (10 October 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21672359-prime-minister-wants-india-grow-fast-over-next-20-years-china-has-over-past-20 (last accessed 25 October 2015); The Economist, ‘India and the Environment: Greenery by Stealth’ (10 October 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21672218-india-shows-there-are-more-ways-cutting-carbon-emissions-having-grand (last accessed 14 October 2015).

[iii] Adam Vaughan, ‘India Unveils Climate Change Plan’ The Gaurdian (2 October 2015), available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/02/india-pledges-40-percent-electricity-renewables-2030 (last accessed 25 October 2015); Navin Singh Khadka, ‘India’s ‘Ambitious’ Pledge to Slow Emissions Rise’ BBC World Service (2 October 2015), available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-34424930 (last accessed 25 October 2015).

[iv] The Economist, ‘India and the Environment: Catching up with China’ (10 October 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21672359-prime-minister-wants-india-grow-fast-over-next-20-years-china-has-over-past-20 (last accessed 25 October 2015); Alys Francis, ‘Why are Bhopal Survivors Still Fighting for Compensation?’ BBC (2 December 2014), available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-30205140 (last accessed 20 October 2015); Rohini Mohan, ‘Narendra Modi’s War on the Environment’ (10 April 2015) Al Jazeera: America, available at http://america.aljazeera.com/multimedia/2015/4/narendra-modis-war-on-the-indian-environment.html (last accessed 24 October 2015).

[v] Lisa Palmer, ‘India’s Climate Tech Revolution is Starting in its Villages’ The Gaurdian (12 October 2015), available at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/12/indias-climate-smart-villages-use-technology-improve-farming (last accessed 15 October 2015). See also: The Gaurdian, ‘Eco-friendly bio-toilets improving health and dignity for India’s poor’ (22 October 2015), available at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/22/eco-friendly-bio-toilets-improving-health-and-dignity-for-indias-poor (last accessed 29 November 2015).

[vi] The Economist, ‘Air Pollution in India: Breathe Uneasy’ (7 February 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21642224-air-indians-breathe-dangerously-toxic-breathe-uneasy (last accessed 14 October 2015).

[vii] Utkarsh Anand, ‘My grandson looks like a ninja because he’s forced to wear mask: CJI Dattu on pollution in Delhi’ The Indian Express (6 October 2015), available at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/my-grandson-wears-mask-cji-h-l-dattu-on-delhi-pollution/ (last accessed 14 October 2015).

[viii] Jason Burke, ‘India’s doctors blame air pollution for sharp rise in respiratory diseases’ The Gaurdian (23 September 2015), available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/23/india-doctors-air-pollution-rise-respiratory-diseases-delhi (last accessed 18 October 2015).

[ix] The Economist, ‘Air Pollution in India: Breathe Uneasy’ (7 February 2015), available at http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21642224-air-indians-breathe-dangerously-toxic-breathe-uneasy (last accessed 14 October 2015).

[x] Rohini Mohan, ‘Narendra Modi’s War on the Environment’ (10 April 2015) Al Jazeera: America, available at http://america.aljazeera.com/multimedia/2015/4/narendra-modis-war-on-the-indian-environment.html (last accessed 24 October 2015).

[xi] Malini Mehra, ‘Pakistan ordered to enforce climate law by Lahore court’ Climate Change News (20 September 2015), available at http://www.climatechangenews.com/2015/09/20/pakistan-ordered-to-enforce-climate-law-by-lahore-court/ (last accessed 14 October 2015).


 

Featured image via DipNote

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