It is time we recognised that the current ways of fixing the environment are not working. Rivers are more contaminated; air is more polluted and cities are filling up with garbage we cannot handle. The question is: where are we going wrong? What do we need to do?
For this, we first need to recognise that India and countries like ours have to find new technical solutions and approaches to solve environmental problems. It is a fact that the already industrialised world had the surplus money to find technologies and fund mitigation and governance, and they continue to spend heavily even today. We have huge demands—everything from basic needs to infrastructure—on the same finances and will never be able to catch up in this game. So, we need to build a new practice of environmental management, which is affordable and sustainable.
In this way, environmental management options will have to be explored carefully and leaps made.
Take river cleaning. For long we have invested in sewage treatment plant technologies that were adopted by the rest of the world. We hoped we would clean our rivers the way other countries did. But we forgot that most of our cities do not have sanitation systems or underground sewage networks. Even if flush toilets of a few urban Indians are connected to the underground drain, and their waste is pumped for some length and transported to sewage plants and treated, it does not clean rivers. The reason is that the rest—in fact, the majority—do not have the same connection. Their waste goes to open drains and then to the same river or lake. The end result is dirty water.
Pollution control measures must be affordable to meet the needs of all. They must cut the cost of water supply and the cost of taking back wastewater. This would require reworking sewage management so that we can intercept wastewater in open drains and septic tanks, and treat it as cost effectively as possible. It would also require strategies to make sure that rivers have enough water to dilute wastewater.
All this can be done. But it will require backing new solutions, ensuring that they are put to practice and scaling them up.
For this, we also require the ultimate investment in our institutions of governance. Without them we cannot have arbitration or resolution of difficult conflicts. For too long in our environmental journey we have neglected this aspect. The rot has, in fact, accelerated in the past 10 years, even as environmental issues have been mainstreamed. This is because governance has never been on the agenda.
As a result, governments and civil society have invested all their political capital, bureaucratic time, energy of committees and media airtime into airing differences on project and policy designs, and not on the capacity that we need to implement these in the real world. We continue to churn out notifications and policies for regulating environmental degradation—everything from battery rules to hazardous waste management to plastic disposal and clearance for every building or shopping mall or penalties against illegal dumping of waste—without any consideration whether we can actually do this on the ground.
It is time we focused firmly and squarely on strengthening the capacity of regulatory agencies. For instance, even after years, the pollution control boards remain understaffed and grossly neglected. The problem is that this is an agenda nobody wants to touch. Governments want to downsize or outsource governance to the private sector or civil society. They do not believe they can fix what is broken, and high-profile environment ministers do not want to touch this as it brings them little kudos. It is a hard job and it is not immediately recognised. Civil society does not push for this because it distrusts the bureaucracy and believes that strengthening it will further corrode the power of the people. So, the agenda is unattended and institutions, abused.
This has to be the biggest lesson of the past four decades. We cannot fix what is broken till we make an attempt to fix it. There is no doubt that we cannot have the same “inspectors”, but we can have new-age tools of transparency, data analysis and do everything that builds public trust and credibility. Similarly, we cannot have the same “sticks” but we do need even stronger enforcement systems that can make deterrence work.
This is the real environmental agenda, but one that is inconvenient to handle. It is about change that matters.