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Anil Agarwal, founder director of the Centre for Science and Environment is arguably one of our best-known environmentalists. He, more than most, has been responsible for placing environmental issues on the political and policy agenda. In this interview he outlines the dangers inherent in a flawed, romantic reading of complex environmental problems.


This issue of Seminar tries to separate myth from reality in the discourse on environmental degradation. Researches in various parts of the world, and in India, indicate that the issue of degradation has both been overstated in terms of its magnitude as well as in the attribution of causality. It is often argued that that a growing cattle population is responsible for desertification, particularly in the Sahara. Equally, the issue of flooding in the Indo-Gangetic plains has been attributed to overgrazing in the Himalaya. CSE’s Third Citizen’s Report questions some of these arguments, as does other research, to the point where they are now being called environmental myths. What is your position on this debate?

I think the problem lies more with the nature of the environmental movement. It has, at one level, been very anti-science because scientific developments, when they get translated into technological developments, usually lead to environmental problems. Given the fact that technologies today are applied on a massive scale and the interventions in ecosystems are substantial, they may result in major environmental problems.

Technological systems existed long before the industrial revolution, but on a much smaller scale. Today, however, economic growth in the world is at a much higher level. There are financial resources to implement technology on a bigger scale. Consequently, new innovations usually get applied on a much bigger scale, whereas in earlier times the scale was different. Over time people learnt which technologies worked or which were not sustainable and these were slowly weeded out. Today, long before it is apparent whether a technology is unsustainable, like for example diesel cars, you have five million diesel cars on the road, and only 10-15 years later the horror is realized. So there has definitely been, for valid reasons, an anti-scientific streak.

On the other hand it is to be appreciated that how human intervention affects nature is an intensely scientific issue. Nature lends itself to deep scientific analysis and therefore, human intervention, whatever be the form – agriculture, industry, services, population growth – its impact on the environment has to be scientifically analyzed. And this is where the environment community sometimes tends to be lackadaisical.

Though within the environment movement there are various sets of people, we must recognize that the environmental concerns of the past 15-20 years have grown because of scientific concern. Rachel Carson was a scientist whose work gave rise to the American environmental movement, with her concern about pesticides. It was science that helped us understand that the use of DDT was leading to a thinning of the bald eagle’s egg shells and that the eagles were dying. This created concern about the need to control poisonous chemicals. The depletion of the ozone layer and climate change are again something scientists warned us about. So there is this one streak which is valuable.

Nevertheless, another streak of environmentalism tends to be dismissive of science and operates on its own whims and fancies. There are also all kinds of professional and non-professional activists. This is why one occasionally comes across a problem which may be described as an environmental myth – a myth that environmentalists have created.

Now some of these myths can be out of ignorance. Let me mention my own case. I am convinced that the scientific evidence about the particles that diesel creates is cause for deep concern. But science is still evolving; it is not as if we have the final answers. It is possible that 10 years later there may be evidence to suggest that perhaps this is not so serious.

However, as a good environmentalist I would argue that since evidence exists to show that there is a likelihood of it causing cancer, allergies and so on, we cannot wait because we are dealing with human lives. If it were a mater of choice whether we should have a petrol or a diesel car, I would say no to a diesel car – that under no circumstances do I want it. This is not a scientific myth as there is scientific evidence, there is scientific concern, there is scientific debate and major institutions are involved.

But there are scenarios where people just run a bit too fast – take the claims that the deforestation of the Himalaya is the cause of floods. Scientists have analyzed the situation and found that this is not really a major cause. The evidence is really simple. The Himalaya are the youngest mountain system in the world, the most erodable, lashed by the heaviest rainstorms that any mountain system faces, and at the same time they are very seismic. So, overall, they are major producers not only of water but also silt. When a massive rainstorm hits erodable mountains, already shaken up because of seismic disturbances, a massive amount of soil flows down. The silt fills up riverbeds and therefore the rivers move course. That’s what you call floods and it is inevitable. It does not mean that nothing should be done about floods, but that the real answer does not lie in the forests of the Himalaya – it lies somewhere on the floodplains itself.


Scientific interest about the problem existed prior to the current situation that you describe. Why was there such widespread acceptance of the notion that the lack of forests and land use in the Himalaya are directly responsible for floods?

As I said, ideas gained ground and were widely accepted before being subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. There was a widespread belief that when trees are removed, it contributes to erosion. True. If an area is deforested, it will definitely lead to erosion. This general principle was applied to all ecosystems without realizing that every ecosystem has its own differentiated response. This led environmentalists to believe that deforestation leads to soil erosion and therefore to floods.

Not only does this kind of thinking prevail, vested interests exist as well. As much as the environmentalists making such claims, this became a convenient argument for others. Take a simple example: Chandi Prasad Bhatt, for instance, was upset with me for arguing that deforestation in the Himalaya is not the main cause of floods, maybe because he himself had promoted the argument that if women hug the trees to protect them from being cut, it would also help the people in the plains. My argument is that women need to hug their trees because it is important for their own lives, to minimize the local impact of any environmental damage. Therefore, they have every right to do so. But this does not mean that the argument be extended to something that is not valid.

I also had a political concern. Chandi Prasad ji was essentially saying that there was a need to do something as it was important for the people in the plains. In the hierarchy of things this is like stating that people in the plains are politically more important than people in the mountains. I think people in the hills have every right, as much as people in the plains, to live and demand their right to the environment and to decide what is good for them – not because it is good for anybody else, particularly the more powerful.

The more powerful should be making space for the less powerful rather than the other way around. But Chandi Prasad ji had been saying that all his life. And he also believed that because of soil erosion, other ills follow. Of course, there may be problems at the local scale, but not necessarily at the subcontinental level.

Now then – on the other side is the professional lobby, the forester’s lobby for example, which largely is quite unscientific. It saw that money was to be made though watershed development, afforestation and so on, and presented the same argument: that it will stop the floods. So there came to exist an entire set of arguments which became science-proof, almost like a vested interest.

For me the real answer lies elsewhere. We need to follow a precautionary principle while dealing with environmental issues. We need to take cognizance of science very quickly. Also, to have a healthy distrust of technological development, for whatever be its nature, when applied on a massive scale, it can have serious environmental impacts. As good environmentalists, one must be sceptical of these tendencies. Simultaneously one must take cognizance of any scientific evidence of damage at an early stage, not wait for a crisis before taking action.


You sometimes indicate that the worst of India’s land-based problems are perhaps behind us, that in the case of JFM (joint forest management) and a variety of other contexts, we are encouraging a better use of land resources, mainly centered around better village-level involvement. That in some sense, perhaps forest cover and the general use of land resources is today not as bad as it was 10-15 years ago.

That is not what I’ve said. I said something quite different – that the problems are probably as bad today as they were before. There are some problems that have not worsened as much as we had feared. But that does not mean they have not worsened. Forests, for example. But, what we can say is that we do know how to reverse certain ecological changes. Whether the answers are applicable on a big scale depends on political will. It is quite possible they will not be applied. After all, these problems affect the poor much more, and they are not an organized force. Politicians look to them only during elections. If this trend does not change, there is no reason to believe that the situation in the field will actually alter.

But I am confident that if we look at the hill, plateau, semi-arid to sub-humid region, receiving about 500 mm to 1500 mm rainfall, a region which is almost 50-60% of India – the Aravalis going on to the Chota Nagpur plateau, the Central highlands, the Satpuras, the Deccan plateau, the Eastern Ghats, the Western Ghats – it is possible for us to manage the ecosystems well. We have the technology and the institutional mechanisms to do that.

We still do not have any answers on how to manage our natural resource base in the Indo-Gangetic plains, particularly the lower part. It is the most flooded floodplains of the world. It also suffers from extreme poverty, unemployment and social stratification. And yet, this is a region for which we have few answers. This is also true of our mountain systems, particularly the humid slopes, where shifting cultivation is practised. We have no clear idea about what to do. So too for the arid zone, the desert area.

In the areas about which we know, the answer is simpler. Essentially we need to revive or put back into place the traditional systems, and which may still be there, though in a degraded state. But the traditional mechanisms we had in the areas of shifting cultivation or nomadism, the question is whether we would like to retain those systems. Any answers that we look for would first have to answer this question. And that is where the major problem lies.

My approach would be to first learn to make the traditional systems sustainable. Many of these traditional lifestyles still exist. Nomadism is widespread in the desert – all the way from Kutch and Saurashtra into Rajasthan. Shifting cultivation is still a way of agriculture in most of the humid slopes, as is terraced farming in the Himalaya. We need to first look at these, nurture them back to stability and then slowly, as they begin to modernize and come into market agriculture, look at the issue of their transformation. The trouble is that if any effort is being made in these areas today, it is primarily to bring in modern market agriculture right away, with all its attendant environment problems. NGOs have also not provided any outstanding example of a micro experience that we can hold up as a macro model. This is a major weakness.

I am not saying that we have the knowledge for the different regions of the country, for all the diverse ecosystems that exist. Yes, we have the knowledge to deal with a significant portion of India’s ecosystems which harbor many of our poor, particularly tribal people. That it is possible to reverse the degradation and put the local economy back onto a sustainable footing. Whether it will happen is difficult to say. It all depends on political leadership.

It has happened in some places in this region, partly because of the drive of outstanding individuals who were able to change things. The problem is that the state rarely learns from them; rather it is dismissive. Intellectuals are equally dismissive, claiming that these are the efforts of unusual people. I disagree. These people appear outstanding only because they had extraordinary stamina, which was required because they had to face a pig-headed, obstinate, stupid bureaucracy. In order to deal with them they had to be super humans as the hurdles they had to cross were enormous. If there were no hurdles, then normal human beings would have been able to do something. That is what Digvijay Singh proved. That once a chief minister makes up his mind, and makes sure that his bureaucracy works together, in a concerted manner, with the people, then change is possible. Equally, it is clear that change has to be politically driven. Now the question is whether you would have the chief minister of Orissa doing the same to an area like Kalahandi or the chief minister of Rajasthan doing the same to the Aravali hills, the Sawai Madhopur plateau and so on.

I don’t expect the bureaucracy to do it – because it’s very clear from the Madhya Pradesh experience that inter-departmental coordination is extremely critical. Not only at the policy level, which is at the level of the state, but also at the implementation level, which is at the level of the district and the micro watershed. The only way the bureaucracy will work together is if there is a drive from the top.


In your recent work one gets a sense that the biggest problems confronting environmentalists and people concerned about the environment is pollution – air and water pollution. That this problem is an order of magnitude different in terms of its impacts on the everyday life of a person?

I am not sure if pollution is an order of magnitude bigger than the rural environment problems. In fact, I have always argued that rural environment problems are more important than urban environment ones – because they affect millions more. What is remarkable about the urban environmental problems is the speed with which they will grow, simply because the speed with which pollution grows with respect to the economy is quite astonishing.

This should not be a surprise to anyone looking back into environmental history. The biggest growth in the world economy took place after World War II, the post-war economic boom. But within 15 years of that boom, it was difficult to breathe in any big western city, be it Tokyo, London or Los Angeles. None of the rivers like the Thames or the Rhine were any cleaner than what the Yamuna is today – they were stinking sewers. This is precisely what is happening with economic growth in Asia. China is in a horribly polluted state, and Taiwan, Korea, Thailand are in a similar predicament. India, with its new found liberalization in economic matters, faces the same kind of problem.

A World Bank study indicated that when the Thai economy doubled, its pollution went up ten-fold. We ran that same model for India and found that while between 1975 and 1995 the Indian economy grew 2.5 times, industrial pollution went up four-fold, and vehicular pollution went up eight-fold. It is not entirely surprising that in the mid-80s Delhi was perceived as a clean city in terms of its air quality. In just 10 years, see the state Delhi is in. Imagine what will happen by adding 200,000 vehicles every year.

This problem can only grow. Even this co-relationship of India’s economy growing 2.5 times and industrial pollution increasing four-fold is an underestimate, since the model uses economy-pollution correlations of the US from the late 1980s. I don’t think the Indian economy is anywhere near that – so pollution must be much worse. And we are just beginning to urbanize, industrialize, modernize our agriculture, and all this will pump up more poison into the environment. And that is really a frightening prospect, which means, in terms of livability, our urban habitat is going to be almost impossible.


What are the specific, tangible manifestations of the emerging pollution scenario?

Very simple – you can see the air pollution. It is serious, not just in Delhi but literally in every Indian city. The small towns are in a far worse state. Looking at some of the pollutant levels, Rajkot is rated as one of the worst cities in the world. Delhi is supposed to be the world’s fourth most polluted city. But that is only because it is on a list of 20 cities the World Health Organization measures, which places it at number four. But it’s not even the fourth most polluted in India. There are other cities that are worse than Delhi – Kanpur, Lucknow, and Rajkot – and there are many cities we don’t even measure, like Srinagar where one would literally choke, the pollution is so bad. It’s a special situation because it’s a bowl inside a valley and during winter, there is inversion.

Water pollution is growing as well. Most of our small rivers, which have large human habitations and industrial growth centres in their proximity, are totally polluted. The Sabarmati is totally polluted; the Yamuna is badly polluted and these are not a small rivers. This trend will grow as there is no way to stop it.


The density of industry and vehicles is far greater in the West than in India. Why is it that we have such difficulty in dealing with problems of pollution?

Remember that this is a phase, a process in which the economy and the environment are interacting with each other. Also, in our industrialisation we are basically making use of low-grade technology. In the ’70s, when the West realized there was a serious environmental problem, it made major investments. It showed discipline, made rules and regulations which it enforced. It also invested a lot of money in pollution control. We cannot do that because the technology we need to deploy is far too expensive. Our per capita incomes even today are not the same as those of Europe in the 1950s. Consequently, our capacity to invest in high-tech technologies is severely limited. So, if they were able to control pollution within a couple of decades, we’ll probably take something like 4-5 decades at the earliest.

But it’s not just an issue of additional financial resources. There is clearly a regulatory context?

Yes, and the important thing is that the western regulatory systems work. There was enormous public pressure, enormous public demand. The politicians responded to the extent that they had become electoral issues. In India they are not electoral issues, so the pressure on politicians is limited. And to the extent that such pressure exists, we are constrained by our systems, the laws and institutions which are totally corrupt, and incompetent as well. As nobody wants them to function, the incompetence does not bother the politician. There is no pressure on the politician, no pressure on the bureaucrat to deliver. Neither do we have the financial resources, nor do we have the regulating capacity to deal with these problems. So we are in a deep crisis. While on the one hand there is a sense of hope for the rural community, I despair for the urban sector. It’s in a real deep crisis.


Some reports in the past year suggest that the quality of Delhi’s air has improved marginally. Is this correct?

Well, nobody really knows. The data from the Central Pollution Control Board does not show that. Also, comparing Delhi this year with the last two years doesn’t make sense. You need a long term data set to show that. So scientifically speaking, I totally disagree with these claims. But yes, one also has to recognize that the Supreme Court has taken many important decisions: totally unleaded petrol has been introduced in Delhi, 15 year old vehicles have been ordered out, and the order has been reasonably well implemented. Diesel fuel, earlier 0.5% sulphur is now 0.25% sulphur. There have been controls on polluting taxis and 3-wheelers. All this must have had some impact. Now whether that impact is to marginally reduce pollution or to marginally stabilize it in the face of the growing number of vehicles, or not increase to the extent it would increase otherwise is difficult to establish because we don’t have hard data. All that I can say is, the Supreme Court is doing a good job, given that the government is doing nothing and Delhi is the only city in the country in which anything is being done to control pollution. I think it is good and must be commended but we have a long way to go.


Would the Supreme Court’s intervention merely result in a displacement of pollution or is it actually acting to enforce the introduction of controls that reduce the emission load?

The point really is that we are in a crisis situation. And the Supreme Court is trying to deal with just one city, Delhi. Many of the orders that it passes can easily lead to displacement. For example, in some cases, it has ordered the closure of certain factories. But politicians will find it difficult to close them down because of pressure from the moneybags. There will also be pressure from labour seeking jobs. The only option the politicians have is to relocate the industries.

What is being done is to move industry out from one unregulated area to another unregulated area. But, if there was proper regulation elsewhere, then it would go from an unregulated area to a regulated area, and one wouldn’t expect the same pollution to take place there.

I don’t know how the Supreme Court can deal with it. It is after all a small body. It cannot replace a government and do everything on its own. I guess everyone will learn as they go along. If the Supreme Court is serious, stays committed to this issue for a long time, it will realise that if problems go elsewhere, then people from those areas will have to come up and say, ‘My lord, this industry is polluting here as well, action needs to be taken.’ Should the Supreme Court again move them around, a time will finally come when there is no place left but the sea. It is a long drawn out process, but you cannot blame anybody, at least not the one agency that is trying to do something. If anyone is to be blamed, it is the government which has created an all-around crisis. You can’t be saying, I’ll either have the best or have nothing at all.


What are the specific indicators, health wise or economy wise, of a deteriorating situation?

Well, in terms of health, clearly there will be a serious problem. We will see what Dr Ramlingaswamy, former Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, calls the double burden of disease. There are already serious problems of vector-borne diseases, water-borne diseases like gastroenteritis, diahorrea and all that. Now non-communicable diseases will come up in a big way, things like cancer. In Bhopal, 1 in 20 people have cancer, 1 in 7 in Delhi. The point is that a few million people will die as a result of atmospheric and water pollution. If that is acceptable as being just, as being morally okay, than that is what will happen. Currently, half a million die of water diseases and 100,000 of air pollution every year. Thik hai. So many have died of poverty in the past, now some will die of pollution. Not a big crisis in the sense that things will fall apart – just a question of how many people will die before we start doing something about it.