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Middle-class environmentalism will not work in India, says Sunita Narain of CSE

Sonal Khetarpal     February 22, 2019

The year 2018 was a year of revolt and 2019 should be when we realise how we do business and understand the state of the environment as it is today, said Sunita Narain, Director General of New Delhi-based research and advocacy think-tank, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Narain was speaking at the media conclave Anil Agarwal Dialogue 2019 on the State of India's Environment at Anil Agarwal Environment Training Institute (AAETI) in Alwar district of Rajasthan.

Environmental issues have become the hot topic. Even the most polluting industries are declaring they care about the environment; however, the effort to control emissions has been weak.

The government has put several important agendas such as waste management, health and cleanliness to the fore. Swachh Bharat has become an important part of public discourse. "But what really is happening is we are moving the garbage from where the rich lives to where the poor are," says Narain. "We are not talking about reducing waste or disposing it properly."

Another key issue is India's agrarian crisis. On one hand, the food farmers grow is costing more to produce because of higher expenses of inputs, including resource depletion like water or soil and also because of greater risks due to variable and extreme weather, says Narain. She adds, "On the other hand, governments want cheaper food to keep down inflation and also because they need to procure vast quantities to supply under the public distribution system. They need costs in control. There is little investment in the infrastructure to provide marketing support or benefits to producers."

If farming is not viable, more and more people will be leaving villages and coming to cities, which are already suffering from the crisis of services and pollution. "The fact is that today's urban growth is not in the "legal" areas- where housing and commercial establishments are in the light of governance. What is clear is that cities are imploding in the illegal areas, where business and housing is all without official sanction-or at least on the books. The irony is that as much as the government works to formalise the Indian economy, conditions force people into the illegal and informal business," she says.

The same is happening with environment protection. Middle-class environmentalism will not work in India, she says. "We cannot say not in my backyard and move it to poorer countries. But we do export it out of the formal business, working in the formal industrial areas to the unauthorised and out of bounds residential areas. Now business pollutes but it is out of the ambit of the regulators. It gets dark. The cost of regulation is what makes governance expensive, unaffordable for a country like India. So, pollution grows. Bad health grows."

Climate change is here and it will hit everyone. Today it is affecting poor farmers and fishermen, but it will affect the rich soon.

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