Those were salad days

Yesterday was the World Environment Day. In India, it passed without too much notice thanks to Baba Ramdev sitting on a fast to ask that black money should be brought back to India, and the entire Indian media camped inside his tent. Indeed, the attention of the country has been focused upon Baba for the last few days. And the media — which is at the mercy of that powerful remote control — urgently feels the need to concentrate on what everyone else is doing.

So we have breaking news every second about Baba’s movements and location. But there is little or no discussion about the environment — an issue that is crucial to our survival as a democracy and even as a people.
In the late 1970s, I joined what was then known as the Environmental Society of Madras. For me, it was the beginning of an awakening of the powerful impact our environment has upon us, and how the impact of the environment does not respect geographical boundaries. It is only today that we realise that if our oceans turn acidic or if far away Himalayan glaciers melt we may not be able to survive any longer on this planet. But in those days, today’s all pervasive “civil society” took quite an amused and patronising view of environment activists. I remember being constantly asked if I was going to fetch a broom and sweep the road. Also, I used to get phone calls from more pro-active people who would complain that the garbage had not been removed from their neighbourhood and what was the society going to do about it, or that somebody was committing public nuisance in front of their homes and could we do something about it. I soon dropped out. I had only been a rather inactive member of the society, not one of the founders, and the organisation itself later went on to do some very pioneering awareness generation regarding the environment.
I find it difficult to believe that the general attitude has changed substantially from that of the 1970s. Of course, today there is far more awareness regarding the environment. All of us have read about doomsday scenarios on how our fuel reserves are going to run out and how we will not be left with energy for growth and development, how pesticides are ruining our agriculture, how water conservation has assumed critical importance, how important it is to reduce our carbon footprint, how our forests have to be regenerated, how livelihoods need to be protected and desertification stopped.
On a different level, we talk passionately about the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy. Yet in the huge debate that raged around the sentencing and extradition of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson (admittedly important issues) only political issues rose to the forefront, namely how did Mr Anderson get away? Who let him go? At no point did the really substantive issue of environmental safety come to the forefront of the discussion. Chernobyl, Bhopal, now Fukushima — these are names and huge incidents that induce terror in the world of environment and citizen safety. And these incidents require our close and unwavering attention on all aspects — but not at the cost of ignoring the most vital aspect of all: How do we prevent another Bhopal tragedy and still keep our economy growing?
Environment issues are much more than all the above. The catch-all phrase environment covers and touches every part of our life today: the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. Today’s agitations — be it in Kerala to ban Endosulphan, an insecticide, or the agitations around the introduction of compressed natural gas in Delhi, which was part of the battle for clean air, or the ongoing agitations over water — are all vivid reminders about how environment is not just another political issue. It is an issue that relates directly to our survival on this planet.
India took the lead at the international forum as an environment and development activist country, when Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, laid down the parameters of environment and the problems of developing countries, when she addressed the world environment conference at Stockholm in 1972. Our efforts have not flagged since that day. There is something fundamentally unfair about countries that have used up all the natural resources and reserves on our planet, turning around and preaching to us about reducing our carbon footprint when with our billion-plus population, we are not even a blip on the radar of carbon emission. Western countries who preach the most have absolutely no intention of cutting their own carbon emission or to rethink about their wasteful economies, but they turn and point a finger at our population growth. At the international fora Indian speakers never tire of mentioning that despite our huge population, we use very little energy rather only a fragment of the gross domestic product/carbon emission ratio of the US or that of Canada.
The battle on the international front for fair growth and the right to sustainable development is being fought with great expertise by India and other developing countries. We keep reminding Western economies that they cannot achieve growth using the planet’s resources and then kick the ladder away. They have to contribute to equitable growth, so that if the planet is to be preserved, environment-friendly technologies have to be provided to developing countries and all developed countries have to contribute.
The political battles on the home front, whether water wars or Bt brinjal, are all being carried on by expert crusaders. However, on this Environment Day, 2011 my thought is with the average Indian. How many of us conserve electricity? How many use car pools or bicycles? How many save water in the shower? How many use recycled paper? Save food? How many of us really contribute our own little bit to save the environment? The honest truth is that while we are all too willing to be environment warriors at the global and national level, in our own homes there is a surprising amount still left undone. The time to begin by becoming an environment crusader in your own home is — now.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.

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