Shifting from hell to hell

  • 30/05/1994

EVERY once in a few years, the authorities of the National Capital Territory of Delhi appear to notice with considerable shock that industries in the city may be polluting the city's atmosphere. When this periodic spasm hits them, it does little but give birth to a committee to look into the problem, and perhaps set a deadline by which polluting industries must shift out of the city.

The latest of these "deadlines" for shifting polluting industries out of Delhi lapsed in August 1993. However, the Union urban development ministry and the state government of Delhi took note of the industrial pollution in Delhi once again in April this year when a National Capital region Planning Board was constituted to coordinate the shifting of industries. Meanwhile, the number of industries in the area today stands at a stupendous 93,000 and the polluting ones among these account for about 25 per cent of Delhi's total atmospheric pollution.

Perhaps the best indicator of the government's progress in unclogging its noses comes from the fact that over 12,000 industries have come up in the past 4 years -- since, in fact, the last deadline for relocation was announced. In the light of all this, the new panel headed by the chief secretary of Delhi, is unlikely to inspire any hope among the pollution-choked citizens of Delhi.

It is time, however, that pollution control administrators in the country began to consider if the relocation of polluting industries is an option worth pursuing. Delhi's experience tells us that relocation may, after all, be futile. The gallop at which the city is growing leaves not many accommodating stretches where polluting industries could be settled -- even if its owners were to agree to this option. It is also clear that dense residential settlements will follow, no matter where these industries come up.

One argument for relocation is that many industries are bound to continue polluting, either because of their inability to afford pollution control technology or because -- in some cases -- clean technology is not yet available. In both cases, relocation only means relocation of the problem. In fact, shifting the location of polluting industries appears to be impossible, if the number of places countrywide where resentment against pollution is brewing are to be taken into account -- Delhi, Kanpur, Agra, Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Bombay, Banglore, Goa...the list goes on. Is it possible to find enough places for all the industries? And supposing it were done, who is going to foot the bill?

Therefore, the only viable option is to look for clean processes so that pollution from these industries can be minimised, if not eliminated altogether. Clean industrial processes for a large number goods that Indian industries produce are indeed available but the producers are reluctant to avail of them, largely to keep costs low. This reluctance will continue as long as the investments in clean technology are not made across-the-board to ensure that polluters do not enjoy a cost advantage.

At present, the implementation of pollution control laws is not only tardy but also highly erratic, which induces some industrialists -- who might otherwise have chosen to clean up their acts -- to be dirty. To the question of footing the bill, the answer is a tough one: the consumer must be prepared to pay a price. Big industry can certainly afford to pay for itself, and for those items produced by small and medium industries which they use as inputs. On the other hand, the country must also decide that the small sector cannot be allowed to go on being dirty merely because it is small. It must also be beautiful.