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The environmental situation in India is grave — our natural resources are getting depleted at an alarming rate and there is an acute paucity of expertise to combat this crisis. Like any other government department, the Union ministry of environment and forests merely goes through the motions. Programmes in the area of environment are handled by authorities (scientists as well as non-scientists) in such a manner as to not require any basic education, professional experience or specialist understanding of environmental sciences.

Weak research, unsound laws

Environmental science is yet to emerge as a comprehensive scientific subject with a truly inter-disciplinary character in Indian universities.

Though quite a number of them offer environmental programmes, these are nothing but old wine in a new bottle. Professors specialising in narrow basic science just choose to start a programme to cash in on the visibility that environmental issues have acquired during the last three decades. Very often the faculty have had no formal training in environmental science and technology. The strong tradition of compartmentalisation among basic science disciplines in our universities has hamstrung the development of comprehensive inter-disciplinary programmes that address environmental problems in all their complexity.

The situation with regard to the growth and development of environmental science and technology programmes in our national laboratories is not very different. We have truly no national laboratory to speak of in the area of environmental science and technology. The Central Public Health Engineering Research Institute, which has been rechristened National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), continues to be more of a public health engineering research institute — even in its new avatar!

The poor standards of education and research are also reflected in the enactment and enforcement of laws, rules and regulations by both central and state agencies. Quite often norms are prescribed, rather reproduced, with minor modifications from limits in force in other countries. It appears as though those who drafted the law are totally oblivious of the science as well as philosophy behind the fixing of limits by other countries. Poor research often leads to poor legislation.

Environmental norms are regarded as irritants. To cross this hurdle, there are several national institutes and public and private professional groups which are only too willing to provide an environmental impact assessment report. Thus, while the statutory requirements are met, real environmental issues are not addressed in a way as to achieve developmental goals without seriously impacting the environment. It is this kind of development, which led former President K R Narayanan to bemoan: “Almost all of India’s growth is wiped out by the health costs of water pollution, which don’t get factored into calculations.” In fact a study by neeri had shown that if the cost of environmental damage is taken into consideration, India’s gross domestic product during 1980-1990 actually registered a negative growth of -5.73 per cent.

Swadeshi science

Environmental science is unique in that this knowledge is mostly specific to climatic regions and ecosystems. While we can draw upon the literature with regard to general principles, most of the knowledge base has to be built by careful study of our natural ecosystems over prolonged periods. It is truly a ‘swadeshi science’; we can neither borrow this knowledge nor acquire its ‘know-how’ in the international marketplace.

The irony is that we have been found to be most wanting in this regard. Scientists and non-scientists, who have occupied the environmental space over prolonged periods, administered departments and managed the environment in a perfunctory manner. Clearly the problem pertains to the proverbial cleaning of the Augean stables.

In this bleak scenario, the work of New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Centre for Science and Environment and other activist groups like Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad has been responsible for the growth of public awareness on environmental issues in the country. This, coupled with the interest that the Supreme Court has evinced in matters of pollution and degradation of the environment, present us with a ray of hope.

K V K Nair is a marine biologist and an ecologist who was formerly with the National Institute of Ocean Technology.
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