Environment and business

Print edition : December 09, 2016

Lakeside apartments at the Lavasa urban development project in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. An essay in the book talks about how neoliberalism promotes the consolidation of abstract, common-property spaces into real, privitised spaces. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

The strength of the book is that it casts a wide net and looks at the interface between business and the environment over multiple sectors. Its weakness is the varying quality of the papers collected.

WRITING is all about creating imagery. Words, when strung appropriately together, can create pictures that can nudge the imagination of readers. At the outset the editors of the book under review make a statement when they write about the number of lamps burning through the day in the conference room hosting a forest summit.

Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are unequivocal in their argument against business interests getting involved with environmental issues. “The environmental crisis also affects private profits directly”, and that is the reason that industry is interested in the environment, they state in their introduction to the collection of multi-author papers. “Economic liberalisation in many parts of the world allowed private players to enter into sectors that were held exclusively by the state,” they write. “Several laws on mining, electricity production and others have been amended to accommodate private corporations in these sectors, either by full ownership of production units or by joint ventures. As a result, they are pushed to respond to the escalating situation that if degradation continues there may be no resources for them to use in their processes.”

“International conventions and global congregations on environment, biodiversity and climate change are setting up formal dialogues between polarised entities such as affected parties and private corporations. Mediating this relationship is a whole host of actors that include scientists, policymakers, economists, legal experts, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], environmental activists, indigenous community leaders and heads of state.” The punchline is strong. “The configurations of partnerships or collaborations that emerge from these negotiations rely on commitments between parties—be they nations, regions or communities. These are similar to fiscal contracts and these efforts to arrive at agreements are presented as philanthropic initiatives of corporations for a better world or a greener planet. These partnerships and contracts for environmental projects blur the distinctions between public and private, choice and obligation, processes and commodities, producers and consumers, benefits and costs, and legality and corruption.” Even though these words come across strongly, lost in the narrative of the early paragraphs of the book is the space for nuance, engagement and negotiation. The arguments in some of the chapters are an articulation of position rather than an exploration of possibilities.

For instance, in the chapter on markets for ecosystem services, Jeremy Walker states: “[I]t was the publication of the U.N. [United Nations] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), which adopted the idiom of ecosystem services for its policy framework, that did the most to catalyse the mushroom-cloud shaped literature on ecosystem services across journals like Conservation Biology and the increasingly mainstream Ecological Economics, the ‘grey’ literatures of governments and natural resource management, big environmental NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund, global development institutions (UNEP [U.N. Environment Programme], World Bank, etc.), and transactional networks where scientific and policymaking coalitions are formed.” Walker attempts to kill two birds with one stone. With the imagery of the mushroom cloud, he links biodiversity discussions to the anti-nuclear narrative. And with a wave of his hand, he packs a range of institutions into a band of conspirators out to commodify nature and make money out of it.

There is a danger in such strident positioning. Self-righteousness and irrelevance can come as the two sides of a coin. Howsoever strong and pertinent may be the arguments for bringing judiciousness and conscientiousness into the process of economic valuation of biodiversity, leaving no space for engagement could mean that such voices are never heard. The objection to bringing business and economic interests into environmental discussions is old. Even before the Rio Summit of 1992, Edward Goldsmith, the editor of Ecologist magazine and the leader of the school of deep ecology, was decrying efforts by nations to commodify nature. That was the time when India had just embraced economic reforms, and Goldsmith spoke to a packed hall at the India International Centre, New Delhi, about the dangers of the neoliberal economic policies that first find economic values in nature and then market them.

These opposing voices reached a crescendo as the concept of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) took shape in international biodiversity discussions in 2007. As Walker articulates in his paper, one of the main objections was that “TEEB and other articulations of market-based conservation do little to question the dominant economic theory that has licensed the financialisation of social, political and economic life and led to our current global crisis”.

Fair enough criticism since TEEB takes neoliberal economics as a given and tries to find space for valuing biodiversity for conservation within this framework. But the point that those opposing economic valuation of biodiversity, almost at a philosophical level, forget is that policymakers take decisions by considering the utility value of biodiversity. If there is any hope of contesting a decision —say, to convert a 1,000-hectare coastal ecosystem to a thermal power plant —it is by pointing out the economic benefit that the conservation of the biodiversity will bring, in the short and long run.

It is in this context that the paper by Shripad Dharmadhikary on using value as a justification for water resource development gains importance. Dharmadhikary, a veteran from the people’s movement against the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD), goes into the history of finding value for water flow in a river. “Value has become an instrument in water resource appropriation. The key to address this problem is to democratise the concept and practice of ‘value’.”

This, Dharmadhikary suggests, would require the involvement of all communities in the planning for water resource development, thus making visible and giving appropriate importance to all values and not just those that are useful for a select few. “What is of importance is the selection of a proper framework in which to locate the values and valuation, for the selection of the existing global financial economic framework virtually predetermines the outcome by privileging certain values and consigning others as waste.” He lists examples to show how the current framework has been distorting values of water use. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal allocated the entire quantity of the water available at the SSD among Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. “[E]ach and every drop of water was distributed for these specified uses upstream of the SSD. The 150 km or so of the river downstream was almost forgotten, and any water that went down the SSD was labelled as wasted.”

Similarly, the project to interlink rivers across the country aimed to transfer surplus water across basins. Just as in the case of the Narmada, the water assigned as surplus was what was construed as wasted, ignoring the fact that rivers have other ecological and human needs. Another example that Dharmadhikary talks about is the concept of tradable water entitlements, by which every citizen could have a right over a certain quantum of water, which can then be traded in water markets. The flip side is that the rights could be monopolised by the rich and the powerful. When the concept was tried in Maharashtra, it led to diversion of irrigation water for industry, especially in the Vidarbha region, which was already in the news for farmer suicides.

Just as a natural resource has value, space too is a natural resource that has value for communities beyond what is normally perceived. Himanshu Burte, in his paper on the abstract nature of building, writes about how neoliberalism promotes the consolidation of abstract, common-property spaces into real, privatised spaces. He gives three examples: the Sabarmati Riverfront Development project in Ahmedabad; the Lavasa urban development project in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra; and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) stretching across seven Sates and involving the creation of nine new cities. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development project involved construction of platforms and walls along the natural flood banks of the river flowing through the heart of Ahmedabad. About 185 hectares of land will be created along the riverside, most of which will be used as recreational and public space. About 15 per cent of the land will be sold as real estate, from which Rs.1,500 crore is expected. What the project has effectively done is to alienate the rights of the multiple communities for whom the river has many social and livelihood uses.

The Lavasa hill station is planned over 100 sq. km of the Western Ghats slopes and offers a range of residential, hospitality, event management and conferencing facilities within a controlled faux environment. “Committed to enabling consumption, it wears the disguise of an exaggerated place identity, and thus of an exaggerated promise of relationality. At the same time, it lets the mask slip just enough so that the consumer is not distracted by the possible bite of either real nature or social relations,” notes Burte. The DMIC is expected to create a corridor for establishing manufacturing facilities. This in turn will generate jobs and strengthen the economy. There is one catch: It is located in water-scarce parts of the country. Thus, its ecological footprint will go far beyond the corridor.

The strength of Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis is that it looks at the interface between business and the environment over multiple sectors: forests, water, intellectual property, space, coal, payment for ecosystem services and the green economy. It spreads its net wide. Its weakness is the varying quality of the papers collected. While a few break new ground, others recycle rhetoric. Neoliberal economics has its problems vis-a-vis the conservation, use and management of natural resources. It is not as if non-market economies have always been benign towards nature. If so, the Aral Sea would not have died in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither have all the decisions of gram sabhas, the grass-roots democratic institutions in India, been friendly towards the environment.

Ecosystem services of natural resources have an economic value. It cannot be argued that the very act of computing this value pushes the resource towards exploitation by business interests. The bias in the process starts after the value is computed. There can be two possibilities: the resource is extracted for use in the market or its economic value is used to argue for its conservation. True, the process of value assessment would require broad-basing the definition of value and getting it assessed by multiple sources. This would ensure that the real value is reflected in decision making.

By opposing the concept at its roots, there is a danger of denying the opportunity of developing a system of economic valuation. Natural resources would then continue to be taken for granted and exploited without their real worth ever reflecting in national budgets or corporate balance sheets. This could mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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