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A Million Mutinies: Raising India's Environmental Awareness

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

But what also -- and this what I want to make as a point -- the point that I've been making about the exclusion of local communities is that the same village had a problem because they had regenerated the river, they now had water. And now that they had water, the bureaucracy came in and said they wanted to auction the river because they wanted to give out fishing rights. And it's very unusual because this village is actually a pure vegetarian village. It's called Hamirpura, which is a Muslimname. But it's a pure vegetarian village. And it's culturally, in any case, a problem for them too because the river regenerated. And now you're saying you're going to give it out for fishing. And so there was a huge protest, and we were involved with it and things like that. But, the villagers then decided that they would not allow the government to auction the river. But they also decided to form a River Parliament. And so they essentially have agreed that upstream/downstream negotiations will take place by this River Parliament in terms of how much water will be withdrawn, what season will be withdrawn. They're now even deciding what crops will be grown because this is a very drought-prone region. And therefore, what crops you grow and how water consuming the crops will also determine how much water you take out of the river and therefore how much water will go down to the downstream users. And it's a fascinating organization that has now been created.

And so essentially what we've been now doing -- and we've been doing a lotof work from pushing the Indian government to understand that when you're talking about water management, you really have to rectify the two discontinuities of the last century which is the fact that you have not focused on rain water and the fact that you had gone out of community management of water. And that's been, just interesting, to see that over the year how much response we have got both from the political system as well as from local communities -- but particularly the political system, which is really understanding to date. But the only way that it'll be able to drought-proof India is if it moves towards some of these systems in which communities can again control the resources.

But as I said, at the end of the day, the example still remains, and thisis because we constantly say that the system disables people from managing their environment. Success is not because of the government but really in spite of the government. And this is why the lesson in India and the message in India, as far as the environmental movement really is, that water management or trees or anything else is not about planting trees or even check dams but really about deepening participatory democracy. And therefore, what we're talking about in terms of environmental management is the type of institutions, the type of funding systems, the changing of the legal systems in which communities have far greater right over the management of their resources. And that's become a key issue of the Indian Environmental Movement.

But on the other hand -- and this is an area in which, frankly, we havemuch greater sense of pessimism and despair in terms of what are we going to do. Because what we're also seeing is growing pollution and toxification of the environment. And this is something that is frightening quite a few of us because we have -- we never anticipated the scale of change that we would see and so fast. I mean, it's not surprising really because we've all sort of -- we all sort of understood that the western industrial model, which we have adopted as well, is extremely toxic. I mean, it uses a lot of energy and material and it leads to huge amounts of waste and pollution. And therefore what you need is greater amounts of investment and discipline. But, and I've come to -- what are the issues? But if you look at it today, every city in India is really gasping for air. We did an estimation of what was the impact of air pollution on people in Delhi and we found that the death toll -- literally the number of people die would be about 10,000 each year just because of particle pollution. And this is not taking benzene or lead or anything else that we might have in the air. So that's why it's about a person an hour.

We have very high levels of SPM which are respiratory suspended particle matter. I'm sure many of you have heard of PM 10. You have a major case going on in the US, for instance, on PM 2.5 standards today, which is in the Supreme Court, which will determine what will be the standard-setting systems for the future. But, that's a key issue for us today because PM 10 which is Particle Matter of 10 Microns or less, and really what people are talking about PM 1 and PM 2 are very high annocities. And that's partly because of the fact that we have a lot of vehicles. And a city like Delhi, for instance, 70% of its pollutioncomes from vehicles. And it's not really surprising and this is whatwe've all come to understand, that if you look at the '70s and the'80s, Southeast Asia and East Asia grew at a rate that was unprecedented and today this region is the most polluted. And this is something that the World Bank, for instance, has done studies with Thailand which shows that when the Thai economy doubled during the'80s, the total pollution load grew by 10 times. When we did a study for India, taking that same model, we found that our economy had doubled over the period '75 to '95. So we've had a longer period in terms of doubling.

It would be interesting to repeat the study now because we've had an acceleration of our economical and industrial economic program. But with this study, we found that in the 20 years that the economy doubled, the industrial pollution load went up 4 times and the vehicle pollution load went up 8 times. We're talking about a massive change and a massive impact on health, as an aside to this. But again, as I say, it's not surprising at all. We should have anticipated this. If you look at the past and you look at the ecological history of the world, you'll find that in the First World War period you did see an economic boom in Europe, Japan and North America and, therefore, you had cities right from Tokyo to Los Angeles which were choking under pollution. And what you did was to respond to this with increasing investment in pollution control. It's estimated that in the '70s, Japan spent 25% of all industrial investment in pollution control measures. And you've seen that more and more when it comes to increasing toxification of the environment across this part of the world, the question that we have to ask in India is will we have the necessary investment to make in cleaning up our environment? In the '90s when India was industrializing we were far poorer-- on a much lower per capita income -- then in the west, when the industrialization tookplace. So you had funds and money to invest in terms of new technologies. The question for us, therefore, is will we have the necessary money but, more than that, will we have the necessary ability? Because pollution demands a high order of governance and discipline. Will we have the ability to do that?