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Is India Too Poor To Be Green?

The argument that the best way for a growing economy to treat environmental problems is to get rich first and clean up the mess later is not defensible. India cannot replicate the processes of the developed west because it can neither shift environmentally damaging activities abroad nor can it "export" surplus labour released from agriculture to Europe or the US.

Is India Too Poor To Be Green?

The argument that the best way for a growing economy to treat environmental problems is to get rich first and clean up the mess later is not defensible. India cannot replicate the processes of the developed west because it can neither shift environmentally damaging activities abroad nor can it “export” surplus labour released from agriculture to Europe or the US.


s getting rich the answer to global environmental problems? A hypothesis called the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) claims that it is. According to this, at early stages of economic growth and industrialisation, environmental degradation gets worse, but after a certain level of income per capita is reached, the economy reaches a magical point where the trend reverses and environmental quality improves.

The theory goes that as citizens get richer, they begin to demand environmental goods such as clean water and air. Also, that as consumers reach a certain level of prosperity, their material desires are largely satisfied and their consumption changes to include more “post material goods” or services which are less environmentally damaging. Finally, it is argued that the technology and wealth accrued during the years of plenty allow you to clean up the mess of generations past.

According to this credo, widely touted by governments and international organisations such as the World Bank, the best way to treat environmental problems is to get rich first, clean up later. The problem is that the evidence to support the EKC is negligible and it is highly debatable if it exists at all. In part, this is because overall environmental quality is notoriously hard to measure. While individual local pollutants such as sulphur dioxide do exhibit this bell shaped curve, other indicators of environmental damage such as

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 soil erosion and carbon dioxide emissions show no such correlation.

Material and Energy Flows

Another method of examining the robustness of the EKC, favoured by ecological economists, is in terms of material and energy throughput in the economy. Ecological economics views the economy as a metabolic system with a unidirectional flow of materials and energy, which first enter the economy and then leave the system as wastes and dissipated heat. Thus they consider that dematerialisation of the economy in terms of reduced throughput is one way to gauge whether an economy is moving towards greater sustainability.

While some European countries such as the UK and Germany are experiencing relative dematerialisation (less energy and materials per unit of GDP), on a global level it is clear that promises of dematerialisation will not be fulfilled, either per unit of GDP or even less so in absolute terms. Particularly, statistics from the rapidly developing economies such as China and India reveal the folly of waiting for an EKC turnaround as a solution to environmental and land use issues.

Consider India’s per capita consumption of energy and materials. The country consumed 520 kg of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person of primary energy in 2003 compared to 1,090 kgoe in China and to the world average of 1,688 kgoe. The consumption in the US was 7,835 kgoe per person. The per capita consumption of steel in India is currently 30 kg a year compared to European and US rates of 300-4,000 kg per capita. Aluminium consumption in India is at 0.7 kg while US consumption is at 25. As India’s economy grows, the materials flowing in and out will inevitably increase. At the current rate of at least 7 per cent growth, doubling happens every 10 years. It becomes clear that if the developing economies are ever to reach the peak of this Kuznets environmental curve, they will not be able to clean up the way the west has – by outsourcing a large part of the dirtiest activities abroad and by using the atmosphere as a limitless dumping ground.

For example, according to a study by Giljum and Eisenmenger, in physical terms the EU imports four times the tonnage that it exports while Latin America exports six times more tonnage than it imports. This illustrates how the living standard of the developed countries is subsidised in physical terms by the enormous environmental wealth of the South. Yet as the most accessible stocks of fish, oil and ore become exhausted, the hunt for raw materials makes incursions into territories that are ever more remote. These regions, often inhabited by indigenous people, have now become the new “commodity frontiers” where bulk commodities essential to the metabolism of the rich economies (oil, coal, gas, bauxite, copper, timber, hydroelectricity) or preciosities (diamonds, gold, mahogany, aquaculture shrimp) are supplied.

In the past, these peripheral regions were either uninhabited or the local inhabitants were simply subjugated and the riches plundered. Today, they are often full of people who do not want to make way for mines, special economic zones and sponge iron factories. In a democracy such as India, getting peasants and tribal peoples to peacefully surrender their land in the name of industrialisation is no easy task.

Martyr’s days to mark the fallen are becoming a routine. January 2, 2007 was the first anniversary of the shooting of 13 people resisting a steel plant on their land in Kalinganagar in Orissa. In Maikanch, Kashipur, also in Orissa, three tribal men were killed in 2001 during a protest against an ALCAN/Hindalco bauxite mine, and women were lathi-charged and brutally beaten in 2005. In Nandigram, West Bengal, 14 were killed by police on March 14, 2007 when police tried to enter barricaded villages scheduled to be displaced by a chemical hub.

Battle for Bauxite

Orissa is representative of the conflicts over land and resources that erupt at these new points of extraction. Beneath the lush forests and rice paddies of India’s poorest state lies great wealth – vast reserves of iron, coal, chromites, and high-grade bauxite that national and international mining corporations are salivating to get their hands on.

Beginning with the liberalisation of the mining industry in the 1990s, the state government has signed dozens of contracts to set up mines, refineries, sponge iron factories and over 50 steel plants in the state. The players include Australian BHP-Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, the Vedanta group, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, the Tata group, Canada’s ALCAN and Mittal Arcelor, whose CEO Lakshmi Mittal was

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Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

recently ranked the third richest man in the world. The newest kid on the block is South Korea’s POSCO, whose 12 million tonne steel plant will be India’s single largest foreign direct investment to date, clocking in at $ 13 billion dollars.

Each stage of mining demands vast areas of land – for open-pit mines, to build installations and to store the toxic discharges. Mineral processing also consumes large quantities of scarce water resources and energy. The environmental impacts of mining include fluorosis, loss of landscape, poisoning of cattle, and reduction in crop yields. Most threatening is the impact the mines will have on the local watersheds. Beside the red mud ponds, fly ash and the eventuality that the dangerous heavy metals and the chemicals may leach into the groundwater, there is also the local belief in bauxite’s role in absorbing moisture during the monsoon to release in the dry summers. One project in Orissa, a bauxite mine, refinery and smelter by the Vedanta group is currently being heard at the Supreme Court for alleged irregularities in the land acquisition process. The mine, for export purposes, will be built at the top of Niyamgiri Mountain, inhabited by the dwindling scheduled tribe, Dongria Kondh, whose approximately 8,000 members spread out in villages along the forested mountain range.

Alongside the mines, accompanying refineries, smelters, dams for hydroelectricity and captive coal plants are springing up. Bauxite processing is the world’s most energy-intensive industrial process. In the mid-1990s, one-third of all coal mined in Orissa was fed to two aluminium smelters (‘Ecological Debt of Orissa’). In 2004 Orissa accounted for an estimated 1 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, a figure that will rise significantly in coming years if all of the mineral development plans come through.

As is often the case, those who bear the costs of this rapid-fire industrialisation are the tribal peoples, the poor, and the marginalised – those who live the closest to the land and depend directly for their livelihood on the forests and surrounding ecosystems. On too many occasions peasants and tribals have been killed in police firing while resisting the takeover of their land, water and forest resources.

Most of the energy for food and fuel consumed by adivasis in Orissa comes from the surrounding forests. Since the forests are held as communal property without title, there is no compensation granted for the fruits, nuts and roots gathered which will be lost. Gathering headloads of fuelwood is a crucial supplement for low-income families. Mining means the women have to walk further to collect the fuelwood and that the water will be polluted and less abundant. Historically, compensation and rehabilitation plans have been inadequate and badly executed. One need only visit the slum colonies of those displaced by the NALCO bauxite mine to get a taste of the future for the tribals who stand to lose their land.

How Much for Your God?

While it might be possible to translate the value of the environmental services lost into monetary values in dollars (for example, it is estimated that non-timber forest products would make up to 5 per cent of Indian GDP, and the carbon credits from the emissions avoided could also be factored into the accounts), it must be acknowledged that some services and benefits lost cannot be translated into monetary terms. Clean air and rainfall are not commodities that can be easily bought and sold on the market. Moreover, sacredness, the destruction of local cultures, and biodiversity are incommensurable with monetary values.

Beyond environmental considerations, the social costs of mining, particularly on adivasi people are devastating and irreversible. Felix Padel, an anthropologist who has written a book about the Kondhs and is now writing one about the bauxite industry in Orissa, notes: “Industrial projects, when imposed on a tribal area, destroy the cohesive social structure of their society. They are dispossessed of their land, of their identity, and many shift towards a class of landless labourers. Mining companies bring a new spirit of competitiveness, and hierarchy into what have been markedly egalitarian societies. Those who hold out against company interests tend to get poorer, while those who serve its interests get chances for quick wealth. In other words, a corruption of values sets in, which goes hand in hand with mass poverty, prostitution and the break-up of families.”

The bauxite mountain of Niyamgiri is the seat of the “Truth god” of the Dongria Kondhs and is sacred to them. The mountain is covered by a forest of rich biological diversity that is used as a corridor for elephants and other animals. It is a vigorous hike to the top, but when you get there it is not a clear neat peak but rather a plateau. On one side you can see the Lanjigarh refinery, its chimney rising 275 m. On the other, you can barely make out the thatched huts of the villages of the Dongria Kondh, whose way of life is inextricably tied to the mountain. At the planned rate of extraction (three million tonnes of bauxite per annum) the Vedanta mine will last 26 years. Yet most of the environmental effects are irreversible. If one side represents the past and the next the future, it is heartbreakingly obvious that after the minerals are all gone, there will be no Dongria Kondhs left to enjoy the upswing of the EKC if it comes.

The current situation in Orissa and neighbouring states reveals the holes in the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis. Firstly, because of the irreversibility of the damage caused. Secondly, because the minerals are developed for export abroad or richer regions – the pollution stays in Orissa while the consumption of the finished products occurs on richer and “cleaner” shores. Thirdly, we realise that environmental quality is not a luxury good with high-income elasticity – it is the poorest elements of society here that are fighting to protect the environment, there is an “environmentalism of the poor”.

Value System Contests

How many tonnes of bauxite is a tribe or a species on the edge of extinction worth? And more importantly, how can you express the value of these things in terms that a minister of finance or a Supreme Court judge can understand? In decisionmaking processes, economics becomes a tool of power in the hands of those who know how to wield it. Against the economic logic of dollars and cents, the languages of valuation used by the peasants and tribals go unheeded. These may include the language of indigenous environmentalism, the use of territorial rights and ethnic resistance against external exploitation, international human rights law such as the ILO Convention 169, which guarantees free, prior and informed consent for projects on indigenous land, or in India the protection of adivasi peoples by the Constitution and by court decisions (Samatha, 2003). Other appeals could be made to ecological and aesthetic values, or to sacredness.

Is India too poor to be green? India’s transition from an agrarian society to an

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 industrialised one cannot blindly replicate the process of the west. In India today, population density is more than 300 people per square kilometre, seven times the global average. Not only can India not shift environmentally damaging activities abroad, it also cannot export the surplus labour released from agriculture to Europe, Australia or the US. Mining is capital-intensive and offers few labour opportunities. Meanwhile a plague of farmers’ suicides across the country is just one symptom of an agrarian crisis.

Following the recent events in Nandigram, the government of West Bengal has suspended the SEZ project, while the BJP takes the side of virtue against “state terror” (please forget the anti-Muslim massacres in Gujarat in 2002). With some difficulty another site will be found for the chemical hub, but when it comes to a high-grade mine, how many have to die before the projects are rolled back? Responding to public pressure, companies such as Norsk Hydro pulled out of contentious projects in Orissa while other international companies like ALCAN refuse to be swayed by the appeal for human rights.

If the killings of those clinging to their lands and livelihood continue, some regions in India may soon be in the grips of a low intensity civil war such as the one currently raging in Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh between Maoist Naxalites and government-backed militias, while the rest of the country and the world callously look to the other side and consume increasing amounts of aluminium and steel. Such a situation is leading to the undermining of India’s admirable democracy, the largest in the world.



Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

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