In the first flush of Independence, the top-most priority of the nation was bringing the light of knowledge and prom.se of two square meals a day to the ignorant and the starving millions of India. It was necessary to provide water for drinking and irrigation as well as electricity to run the engines of development. Ambitious schemes of hydroelectric power and irrigation dams were launched to obtain affordable power and irrigation for the masses. In the process, the mountainous and forest regions underwent massive upheavals to give way to underground tunnels, huge water reservoirs and long roads.
While a very large number of people benefited from the irrigation, drinking water and electricity, substantial population of hill and tribal people, who drew their sustenance from their immediate hilly and forest environment, were displaced and underwent considerable hardship. The arrangements made for their rehabilitation came a cropper because of bureaucratic apathy and red-tapism. Many of these dams, constructed in ecologically fragile areas caused considerable damage to the soil and also created salinity and ravines. Moved by the pitiable plight of the hill and tribal people, some people took up their cause.
They launched movements for protecting the interests of these vulnerable people and by implication the cause of protection of the environment .Two of the better known movements are 'Chipko Andolan' - preventing cutting of forest trees - and the Narmada Bachao Andolan - the movement to save the people living in the valley of river Narmada. from displacement due to the construction of a massive dam.
While the first three decades after independence have been characterised by an unrelenting demand for expansion of irrigation facilities, water supply, chemical fertilizers and electricity for developing agriculture, industry and thereby the general living standards of the masses, the last two decade have witnessed a growing stridency on the part of environmentalists seeking preservation of the flora and fauna and the protection of the ecologically fragile habitations of the hill and tribal people of the mountainous and forest regions.
The protagonists of development can naturally depend on the political support and the pressure group of industry and business selling machines and material needed for lining the irrigation channels, energising the tubewells and improving the productivity of agriculture, the environmentalists derive their strength from the poor hill and tribal folk living in a symbiotic relationship with their immediate environment and to some extent from the unorganised and silent citizenry frightened by the hazy but certain prospects of environmental degradation due to denudation of hills, erosion of land and salinity of river basins. In india, the environmental issues have assumed an urgency following the entry in the field of environment - movements of the celebrities like Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize winner, whose recent book The Great Common Good has generated great concern among the intelligentsia of the country.
The 'Development Versus Environment' controversy has caught the popular imagination because nobody can remain completely untouched by either the economic development or its environmental implications. Closure of hundreds of industrial units in Delhi by the order of the Supreme Court has been lauded by the white collar workers of Delhi as they may be saved to some extent from the atmospheric pollution caused by the industrial units. It has, however, cast a long shadow of fear, anxiety and uncertainty on the lives of thousands of people who had so long been deriving their sustenance from this industry and attendant business. Government plans for relocation of these industrial units in another area have come a cropper. Very few people are inclined to accept an uncertain future in another place and some of them still nurse the hope that the political parties may be able to ward off their shifting.
The most spectacular and dramatic battle between the votaries of the Environment and the government is being fought in the areas affected by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The high watermark of this drama was witnessed when the police tried to arrest the Environment activist leader Medha Patkar standing in the knee water deep water submerging the area affected by the Dam in Madhya Pradesh in the summer of 1999. She was, at the time leading a big group of Dam-affected people who had refused to shift from their land to the land provided by the government for the rehabilitation of the displaced persons.
The group seemed convinced that their displacement will destroy them physically and mentally as they were ill-expected to ensure for themselves a living in their proposed habitat. Their main support, cattle, cannot be sustained by the infertile and arid land of the proposed settlement. The protagonists of development reel out statistics of alternative land sites made available to displaced persons as also of the monetary compensation paid to the displaced persons so as to enable them to take up self-employment The specialised government agencies set up to help the displaced persons are reputed to be seized of their problems and are ready to redress their grievances. Few, however, would buy this argument. Public dealings with the government agencies hardly inspire any confidence.
The displaced persons, who are generally resourceless, would not be able to grease the palms of petty officials for getting their work done. They have legitimate fear of being left high and dry once they leave their original habitat. It is a common experience that the beneficiaries of irrigation, water supply and power made available by construction of dams live in areas quite far away from the dam sites and have not to suffer any of the inconveniences that fall to the lot of the displaced persons. The occupational alternatives appear all right on project reports but their realisation in actual practice is rare and is generally fraught with uncertainties Environmentalists are not opposed to development per-se.
They, however, oppose development at any cost. They favor sustainable development, which according to them can be achieved only by preservation and protection of ecological balance, the conservation of forests and the water bodies and the preservation of the flora and the fauna of the country. India is very rich in bio-diversity, which is its potential strength. Environmentalists want it to be preserved. Millions of plant and animal species of the Indian sub-continent should be zealously preserved and protected against extinction. Hybridization may increase the productivity of foodgrains in the short run. It should, however, be monitored and chocked if it is likely to lead to long term fall in overall productivity of soil.
There are occasional reports in the press of large-scale poisoning of the fish in rivers like the Gomti due to large quantities of effluents discharged in the river by sugar mills and distilleries. The water of the Ganges has been polluted near industrial cities and become unfit for human consumption. Here, development has directly led to environmental degradation. The central and the state governments have now set up pollution control boards and the new industrial units cannot be set up without getting clearance from the Pollution Control Board. Still, many entrepreneurs are able to bribe and hoodwink the Pollution Control Board and defy the government regulations on reducing the pollution. Administrators with polluted morals cannot prevent development agents from polluting the environment. Environmentalis' suspicion of the whole gamut of development therefore appears to be well founded.
Increased use of pesticides has introduced certain toxins in the fruits, vegetables and foodgrain. These toxins cause many a disease of the liver and intestinal tract. Many countries are now opting for vector control of pests rather than killing them through chemical pesticides. Similarly, the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers are dissuading many well off farmers to discontinue the use of chemical fertilises and to opt for bio-fertilizers. Bio-tea is gaining in popularity in many parts of the world. Progressively more area is bought under cultivation of Bio-tea in the Eastern India. Bio- tea is also being exported. Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which was caused by a leak of poisonous methyl-isocyanide gas, was a great environmental disaster caused by unrestrained industrialisation. Even after 15 years of the disaster, the victims of the disaster are yet to be rehabilitated.
The greed of the man of business is unbounded and blind. It has often led to total neglect of environment or public safety. It has led to a conviction among many people that development per-se is undesirable and disruptive of environment.
Since the atmosphere and environment are not divided according to the national boundaries but are common to the entire global community, only international, united efforts can impact the global warming and ozone layer depletion. Those countries who are contributing more to the environmental degradation have to make greater efforts and exercise greater abnegation in their consumption-patterns to reduce the rate of pollution.
The rich countries like the U.S.A have not been able to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, the largest contributor to the environmental pollution. It is quite unrealistic on the part of these rich countries of the Northern Hemisphere to expect the poor and highly populated countries of the Third World to substantially adopt the high cost alternative sources of energy like the solar and the wind energy. Unless the North largely shares the cost of renewable sources of energy for the entire world, there is no realistic scenario of any tolerable level of pollution in the foreseeable future and the rich of the advanced nations will also have to suffer the environmental disasters like the HeatWave in the U.S.A. in 1998 which killed hundreds of American citizens.