'The cost of free disposal', The Hindu, 1 October, 1999.
In most countries economic or social sanction against the free disposal of the dregs of consumption or production is no longer a radical idea. These stem from a certain view of the uses of the environment and aims to provide at least minimal indirect protection to the victims of pollution. It will not come as a surprise to most Indians that even in this department our country lags far behind the rest of the world. In general, the greater part of the bluster that is the establishment’s, including of its economists, response to the rising tide of protest over the degradation of our natural resources is really only a attempt to conceal a deep confusion on the matter. Now more than ever before there is need for clear thinking so that the weak and the voiceless are heard and thus the public interest is upheld. Playing out in Kerala presently is a case involving industrial pollution that has implications for far wider a region than the precise location and for far wider a set of issues than the environment alone. Indeed it has a major bearing on the question of what constitutes the public weal and how we might go about ensuring its ascendancy.
The case I refer to here is that of Grasim Industries of the Birla Group located at Mavoor in Kozhikode District. The issue has centred on the discharge of effluents into the
Waste is a complement to much of industrial activity. Not in the sense of inefficiency but in the sense of some part of the inputs inevitably emerging as unfit for further use. However, we often overlook the fact that its disposal actually uses up some part of the environment. After all, once the river is polluted the water can not be used for anything else, for as has been pointed out it is not as if
Now let us look at the situation at Mavoor in relation to some of these ideas. No pollution tax is levied. Instead the management is expected to conform to a certain standard of water pollution by controlling the effluent discharge. Details of the agreement between the Government and the management are not public knowledge. Therefore we can really only go by press reports based on wide local ratification. These point to the systematic violation of the environmental norm with the management not undertaking the steps required of it for pollution abatement. But above all, we see the failure of the command and control method due to feeble enforcement of norms by the governmental machinery. On the whole, we learn from the experience at Mavoor that there is perhaps no universally applicable standard in environmental cases. To choose the acceptable level of pollution we must, alas, use our judgement rather than a non-existent rule book. In this case we can assess the extent of the damage from the over two hundred pollution-related deaths due to cancer reported in the environs of the plant. At a meeting held at my workplace to discuss the case a young student had enquired earnestly "How does one value life in project appraisal?" This question must take the breath out of the best economist. After that we need not bother to devise schemes of how the dead might bribe the polluter in some elegant Coasian game! Those still interested in working out the pure economic value of continuing with the project may wish to ponder over a situation where after forty years of bankrolling by the state treasury the project can be kept alive only through further injection of support, to satisfy the management’s target rate of return. The project must be dumped as unworthy of further financial support.
The reddest herring across the audit trail thus far is the one drawn by those purveying the argument that the closure of the plant would stand in the way of Kerala’s attracting capital. It is difficult to imagine captains of sunrise industry ever being impresed by the State government trying to win the favour of a management so backward. Nor are they likely to be assured by a government throwing public money into a dying enterprise out of fear of militant trade unions. As a pre-condition for attracting capital to Kerala there is need above all else for a substantial physical and social infrastructure and a transparently non-partisan governmental machinery. The conditions necessary to bring this about remain with or without the Grasim plant at Mavoor.
Greenpeace International have described Mavoor as "