Why we cannot ignore the poor

 One thing is clear—the solutions must work for the poor, for them to work for the rich

Some fortnights ago, I had discussed the issue of poverty and environment. I had then said that the question today is not whether the poor are responsible for environmental degradation but whether environmental management works if it does not address inequality and poverty. Why?

Take air pollution in our cities. Today, a minuscule number of people in Delhi and other cities of the emerging world drive a car. In Delhi, the estimate is that only 15 per cent commute by car. But air pollution is high and congestion is crippling. Can these cities combat air pollution, given that more and more people will drive? Is it possible to plan for the remaining 80-85 per cent? Is there space on the road, or space in the air?

Clearly, it is not possible. Our research has pointed out that unless we reinvent mobility at a scale not seen before, we cannot have clean air. A few years ago, in a landmark judgement the Delhi High Court had ruled that roads need to be planned taking into account “equity of use”—those who use more, should get more space. Today, the bulk of our cities’ population walks, cycles or takes a bus. It does so because it is poor. But we need to take the bus, cycle and walk when we are rich, and not wait till cars have occupied all the roads. Therefore, unless the strategy to combat air pollution moves from fixing the tail-pipe emissions of each car to planning for affordable and inclusive mobility, we will not get clean air. This will not be easy. But one thing is clear that the solutions must work for the poor, for them to work for the rich. 

Take water pollution. Indian rivers are increasingly polluted, but again the question is whether we can clean them when a large number of people do not have access to sanitation and clean water. Our report, Excreta Matters, showed why policy had to change. The current system of water and waste management is capital-intensive and it creates division between the rich and the poor. 

The state has limited resources and can only invest in providing for some—invariably the rich and not the poor. But if only a part of the city has access to clean water and underground sewerage, pollution control will not work. The reason is simple: the treated waste of a few will be mixed with the untreated waste of many. The end result will be pollution. 

It is also clear that the greater the pollution, the higher the cost of cleaning water. Even the rich in our cities cannot afford the current costs of delivering water, then taking back waste and treating it before disposal into rivers. So, either water is not supplied to all or sewage is not treated. The solution has to be to invest in affordable solutions for water and waste that meet the needs of all. Only then can we have clean rivers. 

Then take climate change, which is today hurtling the world towards uncertain weather and crippling devastation. In 1990, my colleague Anil Agarwal and I argued in our publication Global Warming in an Unequal World that the world cannot combat climate change unless the agreement is fair and equitable. Today, the same issue is on the table. If the solutions cannot meet the needs of all—is equitable—it will not work. The global carbon budget—the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted without crossing the threshold of temperature rise—has been disproportionately appropriated by the already rich. Their current low level of ambition means they continue to emit more, thus, take up more space. But one should understand that economic growth is linked to emissions, so tomorrow the poor, who are getting richer, will also pollute. In this way, all will be at risk.

The solution is not to ask the poor not to get rich. This is what the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed last December, is hoping to get away with. It is built on the premise that last part of the still developing world can build its future on a limited and much too little share of the global carbon budget. It assumes that this world will not need to emit to grow, or not need to grow at all. This is not possible. So, what will happen is that India and many in Africa will add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This will mean that the world will not be able to keep the temperature rise below the safe threshold. Climate justice is not a luxury, but a pre-requisite for an effective deal. 

It is then clear that the discourse on environment and development must be reframed so that it is built on the premise that sustainable development is not possible if it is not equitable. In other words, growth has to be affordable and inclusive. But most important is that we re-articulate that the environmental challenge is not technocratic but political. We cannot neuter politics of access, justice and rights, and still hope to fix environmental problems.