The green goblins

  • 30/12/2000

The latest environmental fix in Delhi, once again under the pressure of the Supreme Court, is the relocation of polluting industries situated in the areas that are in non-conformity with the city's Master Plan. Four years went by without the government taking any serious action and now that the court is insisting that action be taken fast, nobody really knows what to do. But everybody is out to pass the buck. Delhi's chief minister Sheila Dikshit is out to blame the Union urban development minister, Jagmohan, and of course, there is no dearth of people saying that the Court is being unrealistic.

Managing anything becomes unrealistic if you let the wound fester too long. There are basically two issues that lie at the heart of the problem. Firstly, urban management is in a total mess. Regulations only work for those who are pusillanimous at heart and do not know how to bribe. But for the majority, which doesn't have such qualms, rules never exist. Every rule simply creates its own price and the mayhem continues to flourish till it becomes a crisis. Secondly, pollution management is an issue that is totally new for India's generalist bureaucracy, generally incompetent in any case and not backed up either by knowledgeable and competent technocrats in specialised agencies like the pollution control boards. This incompetence and corruption have thus combined to become a deadly cocktail. And in the case of pollution, the pursuit of slow murder by no less than the government itself which is supposed to protect our right to life.

Let us look at the issues involved. The industry that the Court wants to relocate in Delhi is almost entirely in the small-scale sector. The government has promoted this sector through reservations with the argument that it creates more jobs than the large-scale sector and also helps in industrial dispersal and regional growth. But those who set the policies for the small-scale industrial sector, despite 20 years of the existence of the ministry of environment, have never looked at the pollution potential of this sector. In fact, a large number of small units work in areas that are inherently heavily polluting like leather tanning, electroplating, textile dyeing, etc. The ministry of environment itself finds their number so large that it is impossible to come up with any workable regulatory system for them.

Small-scale industrialists themselves have very few solutions. The sector uses very low-grade technology, which inevitably generates high levels of pollution. Moreover, since, pollution control technology has largely developed in the West and the West does not have a large small-scale sector, there is very little cost-effective pollution control technology available. In addition, small scale units work within a highly competitive environment and they try to survive by cutting every corner possible, and the first attempt is to avoid investments in pollution control. This is made all the more easy by bureaucratic corruption and political concern for vote banks. Large-scale industry that can invest in pollution control, also sees a great opportunity in all this and often dumps the more polluting parts of its production processes into the small-scale sector. And given the fact that urban management is literally non-existent, polluting small-scale units mushroom all over the place, especially in poorer localities where rents are cheaper, exposing children, elderly and more susceptible people to concentrated doses of pollution. Common effluent treatment plants also do not work because owners of small-scale units have not shown any interest in any part of the country in working together to operate these plants properly.

Not just Delhi, but all the way from Ambur in Tamil Nadu to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, polluting small-scale units today exist cheek by jowl with schools and homes, making India's urban environment one of the filthiest in the world. And as the problem grows, there is less and less political will to do anything about it because of the votes involved. For bureaucrats, the bribes run in crores every year. There is thus a strong and growing vested interest in the continuance of pollution.

Jagmohan and Sheila Dikshit will have to go through the trauma of making Delhi cleaner. But the problem will continue to grow, if not in Delhi, then elsewhere. One simple answer lies in revising the reservation policy for the small-scale sector. Only those industrial processes, which are almost non-polluting should be reserved for the small-scale sector or which have very cheap pollution control technologies available. The existing polluting units will just have to close down. A very simple way would be to let the market run its course. Take all polluting processes to the large-scale sector which are relatively easier to control, and let them wipe out the polluting small-scale sector. The faster we do this, the less blood will be spilled later.

A delegate of China, which has become more serious about pollution control than India, told a recent meeting of the un Commission on Sustainable Development that its biggest problem is the small-scale sector. We have already close down 200,000 units because of pollution problem. But we still have several millions more. "What we can do?" he lamented. The bottom line is that pollution control and a vision to avoid it in the first instance. But that needs competence and commitment. And that is totally missing among our politicians.

- Anil Agarwal