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Combating environmental degradation

We are impinging upon the silence, the peace, the greenery, the energy—in short, all that is pure about our surrounds and us. The environmental degradation that we give rise to by virtue of our industrial activity directly impacts the human lives, whether we are able to see it or not. Ensuring a clean environment is not just the responsibility of governments and industry but the business of every individual, of every economic unit—whether consumer or producer.

Dr Bhattacharya has advised the Planning Commission and Central Government on environmental issues. He has also been the Statutory Geological Advisor to the Environment Protection Act and has given his valued advice to the Supreme Court and the Parliament on occasions.

Dr Bhattacharya has also authored a book on “Mining Environment in India”. He is currently Advisor to the Hindustan Zinc Limited, Udaipur. He conducts several induction training programmes for GETs (Graduate Engineering Trainees).

An alumnus of JNU and Delhi Universities, Dr Goutam Bhattacharya, in an exclusive interview with Resource Digest, shares that environmental degradation is a result of the dynamic inter-play of socio-economic, institutional and technological activities. Excerpts:

How far is Carbon Trade going to have a positive impact in the Indian context?

It has created awareness about the GHG emissions and the urgency with which they need to be reduced. Take for instance the heat generated in the boilers in the power and metal industry. We are now able to recover a lot of waste heat, that in itself is good and it also gets a lot of cost benefit. We are now able to capture the heat that was previously going waste and as a pollutant. Irrespective of what the credit earning does to you, as per the Kyoto Protocol or the Global trading, this in itself is good. This one single factor has tremendously impacted the performance of our boiler plants wherein a large amount of heat is generated and was wasted away.

Uniform policy does not exist as of now among Corporates across Continents for tackling the environmental issues and Global Warming. How can this problem be dealt with?

There are two things to it. The warming and the cooling are a part of the Nature, part of the Cosmos. Global warming is a very natural phenomenon but which has got accelerated over the years. It has been happening in the past but it did not impact the society and the earth in the manner in which it is doing now. What happened to the Jurassican? A large part of the population, of the earth’s habitation submerged into the water. The only difference is that we are now able to see those changes which perhaps analysts during the Jurassic era did not have the perception to see, or that it was probably beyond their control to save themselves from these catastrophic changes. Possibly we are also entering into that kind of a situation where it could be beyond our control to save ourselves!

Do you mean to say we don’t really have a solution to this accelerated Global Warming?

Because you cannot slowdown your progress, which is probably the only true solution to this phenomenon. But slowing down your progress mean retrograding and society never goes back.

But are scientific and technological progress and an increased GDP the only kinds of progress we should look at? What about mental and physical health that we have compromised in the name of advancement and progress today?

True, that’s an important area in which we should have invested money, but it has nothing to do with your automobiles. Society has put money into areas which are not related to education, livelihood, the way of life; these are the areas where we have terribly ignored. In these last couple of decades it has been a deliberate kind of ignorance in these areas. Where is the benefit of the growth if we are not mentally and physically healthy, if our surroundings are not clean and safe? Unfortunately, a large number of people are falling into this bracket everywhere. Essentially, we are living in a society where we are living under environmental threat either because of a scarcity or because of abundance of something—both these factors make their own contribution in the scheme of things.

What then is the way out of this trap?

One will have to do a lot of re-thinking on one’s life, these are the things we will be confronted with in the nest couple of decades.

How can Corporate players contribute positively towards curbing or reducing environmental degradation?

See, actually the Corporates play a very small role in the entire civilization. Though they are very powerful, no doubt, they play a very small role in demonstrating what should be done. The society is not governed by the Corporates; society has its own very strong fundamental ethos. Corporates possibly can become a little more sober in their life, a bit more judicious, a little more responsible and more sensitive to the impact of their actions on surrounding communities. In this sense they have a major demonstrative role to play, to ensure their actions do not cause environmental pollution and degradation, especially the larger corporates. They become the role models for the entire communities of the manufacturers and traders.

Also, environmental protection has a cost but you’ll have to plan that cost, build it into your entire business. So the viability of the business proposition has to be calculated on the basis of the environmental cost. Since this is an integral part of the business, you cannot ignore this cost when you plan your business; you can’t say I’m not going to adopt environmental protection measures because these affect my income.

Do you think the law can enable better implementation of existing Acts and thereby ensure a safer environment in the Indian corporate context?

Law is the Civil society’s instrument. Law comes in when Civil Society feels threatened by a phenomenon or a domination of a group. The Judiciary is the most fundamental instrument in a Democracy to promote and support the Law. The only thing that the Corporates should actually learn is to have respect for Law and abide by it.

Do you think in the Indian situation, abiding by the Law really happens?

It is a vicious circle that somebody has to break. I’ve been with the Law for many years, with the EPA (Environment Protection Act) and I’ve seen how the dominant groups corrupt the Law enforcing mechanism. But the way it is presented it seems as if the law enforcing mechanism is the most corrupt whereas the rest of the others are holy. But that's not the case.

So it’s a cycle which has to get completed; it has largely to do with approach to men, approach to law, to democracy, our concerns for people, for fundamental rights, our basic concerns for humans and their rights. If these are integrated into our way of life, I see a very prosperous corporate emerging out of it.

In the context of exploiting alternative renewable energy sources , why is Solar Energy not exploited to its potential in the Indian context, notwithstanding the huge initial investment cost involved in it?

There are two things: first, the cost of experimenting with this technology is prohibitive. Second is the acceptability factor. When you come out with a new technology people are not very keen to accept it and experiment with it—the resistance to change is always there. When you have hordes of brands or models of a product, the urban crowd is willing to try, to experiment with something new. When you have large choices of commodities people have the ability to experiment. But where people are in scarcity, they don’t have the courage to experiment. So you have to provide them the courage to adopt a technology and see to it that the technology works, see that there is ample back up of spares, maintenance, etc. Unless these things are done, it is very difficult to propagate a technology.

Don’t you think the Government should take the onus for this?

Governments alone cannot do it. The NGOs should also be involved in propagating this technology and they should have massive demonstration of the technology also, introduce it in urban areas. Why can’t you and I use lamps from solar energy in our houses? Why can’t the townships of the Corporates use the solar lights in their streets? These are the things we’ll have to demonstrate. First, the people who have the money and the power—they must adopt the technology. The poor can’t do it.

Once the urban population experiments with these consumer goods, it trickles down to the rural areas also. It’s a demonstrative effect. Why can’t our schools and colleges in the urban areas adopt this technology using solar energy. Our Delhi Public Schools can do it, IITs, St Stephens, and the whole host of elite educational institutions can adopt the technology. Once such institutions do it, the demonstration effect will be tremendous.

But why this is not happening is because the cost of experimenting is very high unlike in the luxury goods sector like the mobiles and the malls. In the face of high experimental costs, we need the skill and will to experiment. In addition to these factors there should be a vehicle through which this entire business of experimentation may be carried forward. I think the Government should be courageous enough to adopt these technologies and use the panchayats, Block Development Officers as the vehicles for carrying forward these experiments and provide the initial funds for it. Unless you have a network created you cannot have a low-cost technology.

Multi-lateral or at least bi-lateral funding should be encouraged in such experiments and ventures because these are environment-friendly technologies and there is an international responsibility for these technologies to be propagated, developed and see that society at large is benefited.

If you look at the entire wind energy sector, we don’t have the expertise in it. But some Indian States that have taken Energy as a mission, promoting and attracting foreign investment in the field. The entire technological knowhow for wind energy has come from Denmark, Netherlands and Germany. This is the kind of international co-operation I'm talking about. A joint venture between an Indian entrepreneur and foreign investor is bringing in the best of technology to this country. This is a very positive step which would benefit the Indian community at large.

States are promoting it and entrepreneurs are there to back it up. This is where corporates have to come in, lead and demonstrate the ability to transform a thing from the shelf to the ground. There are hindrances which they will have to be prepared to face and find a solution, rather than give up. Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka are doing it, so why not the other states? They need to have players, the data base, the scientific and technical knowhow and the entrepreneurs. You have to have private money into it, and international co-operation; the government cannot do it all.

We’ve also done this in cement plants in India (German technology), in the steel plants (Russian knowhow). So why not in the energy sector?

In terms of years, how long do you think it will take for such a sea change to occur in India?

I would not be able to say that because you don’t know how things will change because there are options available, there’s a huge need to have an opportunity and then the right kind of entrepreneurship because it is the entrepreneurship that creates the opportunity. Government can’t do it.

But does not excessive red-tapism and bureaucracy prove inhibitive to entrepreneurs seeking to promote such changes? By the time they get all necessary clearances, perhaps their technology becomes outdated?

That is for the foreigners, these bottlenecks—not for the Indian entrepreneurs. I’m totally against this viewpoint because I think it has been blown up out of proportion. There is a method of working in India and the Indians know that method very well. All you need is the will to do it very systematically and in a planned manner.

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