It was a bit like
Chipko movement in Delhi earlier this week.
Hundreds of citizens turned up to hug trees and protest the felling of almost 17,000 to create homes for government officials and commercial complexes.
a court in Delhi has placed a stay on chopping of trees for now, the event once again raises the eternal conundrum of development – how do you develop without damaging the environment (too much)?
There is an environmental cost attached to development. This is not a modern phenomenon. When the first hunter gatherers settled and took up farming, they cleared the forest to build farms. Later, when cities came up and grand palaces were built, forests were cut, both to clear the land and as building material.
Mahabharat there is the story of the forest of Kandhavprastha, which the Pandavas clear to build their capital – Indraprastha. However, in the pre industrial era, the type of growth, as well as relatively smaller populations ensured that a certain balance was maintained between development and nature.
The modern world is different. Not only is their unprecedented mass industrial growth but also a booming population. There are 7.6 billion people inhabiting the planet and over 17 percent of this lives in India. People need space, jobs, food, and energy – at the very least. And, that is going to be produced at the expense of some amount of environmental damage.
When cities, homes, factories, railway lines and ports come up, they replace trees, and forests that stood there. Hills are demolished to make way for housing. When factories fire up, they are going to emit something into the atmosphere, that is going to make the quality of air worse. When industries come up next to water bodies, there is going to be water pollution. And, when we expand the farm cover, it is at the cost of forests. There is a trade-off between development and environment and it will always be there.
The question is, who bears the cost, who reaps the profits, and what is the trade off?
What we are seeing across the country and the globe, are citizens refusing to take on the externalities of development. Externalities are negative consequences of an economic activity on unrelated third parties.
For example, in Toothukudy in Tamil Nadu local residents were protesting the environmental impact of an economic activity – the
Vedanta copper smelter. The company sold the copper. Buyers bought the copper. The community bore the brunt of this transaction. The economic gain to the community was considered less than the cost imposed by pollution. Governments usually try and mitigate an externality with a tax – a pollution tax, for example – but that is usually not seen as being enough to mitigate the damage to the local community.
Recently in Maharashtra, we have seen another type of policy making that has impacted one particular community – the community of plastic manufacturers. The much needed ban on single use plastic, has come into play. The purpose – to reduce pollution, and protect the environment. The action has consequences on profits, production and jobs.
The question every policy makers faces is simple. How do you minimise the cost to others from an economic activity? The simplest answer to that would be to involve the community and show them, in tangible terms, how they will benefit from the development. Make them stakeholders and help them make the transition. Much of development gets stuck because of top down diktats, that doesn’t have a buy in from the community. And, where all that they get from the project are externalities.
Delhi’s tree cutting saga, is a metaphor of development woes across the country. That Indian cities, and India, needs their green cover is not in question. The question also is not whether India needs to develop fast – she does. The question is how do get them to co-exist?
Harini Calamur works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences.