Industry and environment: Locking horns for too long?

We often err in adopting an extreme view. We want growth, we want employment, yet, we frown on industries that create products which empower economic activity or enable green mobility.

Power plant
The presence of chimneys is straight away seen as an indicator of air pollution, while often overlooking the longer-term benefits of such projects. (Image: Pixabay)

By R. Chandra Mouli

Activists act on the belief they are right. Must have been, at least 50% of the time, as proved by history. Our freedom fighters, led by the Father of the Nation, endured hardships to end foreign oppression, and it is their rightful actions that give us civil liberties we cherish dearly. 

Nelson Mandela, Father of Modern South Africa, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his sustained campaign against white domination, which led to racial equality.

This narrative is about the balance 50%, whose actions stem from myth, misconception and misleading information. 

Remember the Narmada Valley project, and the years spent resolving protests? As we look back, the completed project has transformed agriculture by enabling water supply to arid areas, villagers who have been resettled now own parcels of land that have appreciated in value, and new economic opportunities have arisen in the region. 

To the credit of one of India’s most objective columnists, it must be said he reviewed the fracas on resettlement in the Narmada Valley in a recent column and had the courage to say he was wrong to have endorsed the views of protesters in his initial analysis. As for activists, we don’t get too many who display such a degree of humility.

The truth is, there is no project which can be categorized as 100% beneficial with 0% percent harm. Such an expectation would be Utopian and a location as remote as Timbuktu. Every time a key industry is set up in a city, town or rural area, the benefit for the community is employment generation, and for the country’s self-sufficiency – precisely the premise and principle of AatmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.

The long-term view   

On a related note, since capital-intensive greenfield projects are of long gestation, the upshot, beyond sustained careers and income for employees, is a revenue opportunity for ancillary industries which support the manufacturing process through the supply of materials or components, or conversely by the intake of by-products which become raw material for a sustainable process (fly ash from a thermal plant is used as construction material in low-cost homes, as an example).

Here is a lesser-known fact: Let’s take computer and cloud-based services such as BPOs, KPOs, GICs and other centres of excellence which dot our IT corridors. How many of us realise over 1,000 terminals in an eight-story building located in the IT corridor of any city emit a high quantum of carbon on account of power consumption and screens that glow 24X7? That a food-delivery service with more than 3,000 riders adds to pollution and such activities are a far cry from carbon net zero? 

A computer that is on for eight hours a day emits 175 kg of CO2 per year, and a two-wheeler emits 102 kg of CO2 per year. Given this information, should all these be shut down, to have cleaner air and a greener city? 

Where we often go wrong is judging the tipping point. If the growth scale tips towards progress significantly or markedly, if minuses are manageable, giving the project a green light will be a good call.    

We often err in adopting an extreme view. We want growth, we want employment, cars to drive, buses for daily commute (and now we want all vehicles to become EVs), round the clock power, mobile phones and countless apps to order online. Yet, we frown on industries that create products which empower such economic activity or enable green mobility.

Also read: Budget 2023: EV industry reacts on Govt’s Green push

As an example, let’s take refined copper away from electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar energy equipment – that’s the end of renewable energy. Likewise, copper, now ranked as a “green metal” is a key requirement for wiring, plumbing, and industrial machinery, and due to increasing demand, analysts have already forecast a global supply deficit for 2023. 

We rush to conclude the presence of chimneys in a factory design is an indicator of air pollution, we are convinced the plan to extract methane gas from coal beds will lead to crop failure and setting up a bottling plant will affect groundwater. 

Often, the conclusions are drawn by a minority, yet by constant propaganda, amplification of negatives and forecast of doom, their voice gets heard more often. 

Ignoring the greater good

Against this backdrop, let’s take projects which (a) were scrapped at the blueprint stage (b) had a delayed start resulting in significant increase in project outlay (c) shut down within a year of commencement (c) or brought to a hard stop after several years of operation. In some cases, time and circumstance have restored truth and proved the opponents have ignored the greater good, in others such a discovery is a matter of time, and in a select few the realisation comes too late.

In the case of Narmada Valley, a public sector initiative, concerned state governments and the central government worked towards communication of positives and announcement of rehabilitation measures and financial compensation for resettlement. Projects launched in the private sector, which land in a controversy in the early stages do not have such an in-built advantage, which the Nation’s leadership must recognize, and in the national interest, step in for an active resolution rather than passive observation.

The setting up of the Tata Nano plant in Singur, West Bengal, and its subsequent dismantling has been well documented. The lesser-known irony is the invitation, years later, to the Tata Group to re-enter the State. 

The proposal to set up the Coca Cola plant at Erode, Tamilnadu, around 2015, never took off because of a campaign that pointed to water shortages and air pollution if the plant was commissioned. 

Sterlite Copper, a smelter in operation for nearly 25 years in Thoothukudi, Tamilnadu, had to shut operations in 2018 following allegations of air pollution and ground water contamination. A recent study by Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International estimates the resultant loss of the plant’s closure to the nation’s economy to be around Rs.14,749 crores. 

Vedanta Resources, which owns Sterlite Copper, had earlier considered Maharashtra, Telangana, and Karnataka to set up its semiconductor plant at an outlay of Rs. 1,46,000 crores, but the final decision has been taken in favour of Gujarat.

As we can observe in the case of the Vedanta-Foxconn semi-conductor project, such a massive investment can make a life-changing impact on a State’s national standing and its local economy. When a project moves away, the indirect sufferers are the very people whose state of virgin existence was sought to be protected by activists.

A case in point, and ultimate proof of a timeless seclusion and exclusion from the public eye now undergoing a sea change, is the announcement in mid-September 2022 of the Rs 75,000 crore development project in Nicobar Island which will include the construction of a greenfield international airport, container terminal, a township, and a power plant (as a policy, tourists are not permitted to visit Nicobar in order to preserve its native culture).  

The Environmental Ministry, aware of the impact of the decision on the biosphere reserve, has reasoned that mass development at this scale is essential to strengthen India’s regional presence in the Indian Ocean. 

The reasoning illustrates the tipping point theory presented earlier. In the case of Nicobar Island, a decision has been taken for strategic reasons despite an extent of harm to flora and fauna and likely impact on the welfare of Shompen and Nicobarese tribes. While the northernmost part of the archipelago is only 22 nautical miles away from Myanmar, the southernmost point, called the Indira Point, is 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. 

The Chinese Navy is said to be active in the region and there have been reports of naval vessels camouflaged as fishing boats traversing the area, while submarines have been found lurking close to Indian territorial waters. (Question: will we continue to press for seclusion of the island, even if our actions result in depriving the necessary defence infrastructure to prevent a future intrusion or invasion?). 

Without doubt, the decision taken by the current government to fortify naval assets in the farthest point from the Indian mainland is a welcome change from an earlier policy of benign neglect towards the islands. The appeal to our forward-looking Central Government is to mirror the resolve it exhibits in the defence sector to the core sector as well. 

If no definitive action is taken, if the standoff between environment and industry continues, if every attempt at development is countered by protests, our ever-resilient Nation will continue to progress, albeit at a slower pace. The answer to this conundrum could be a relook of Public Policy – a review of Laws, Statutes and Regulations created to protect the environment – and ensure practicality in their applicability and enforcement. 

This is happening very selectively though. Last year, the timeline for power plants to meet SO2 norms has been extended to December 31, 2027, for units which are scheduled to retire, and December 31, 2026, for plants that will continue operations beyond that period. 

Why the leeway? There was no progress on earlier orders passed for achieving compliance. The answer to emission control is not in harried, hurried extensions but in investing in clean tech on a war footing.

As for stalled projects, the Centre and State Governments must engage with activists and environmentalists to find a workable solution and interface with the judiciary for quick disposal of pending cases. 

A retired judge of the apex court recently observed it is the duty of the judiciary to strike a balance between the environment and development. The judiciary must ensure that one does not come at the cost of the other. Courts should be conscious of the adverse effect the stoppage or delay of projects will have on the economy, he said.

The clock is ticking in the world’s 5th largest economy. While India’s has proved its emergence, resurgence and dominance in diverse verticals, manufacturing continues to take a beating. Ironically it is this sector which can reduce dependence on imports, which can make the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of AatmaNirbhar – self-reliance in raw materials and finished products – come true. 

For too long, Industry and Environment have operated in silos, and continued to face off at factory sites, at public rallies, in industry tribunals, and the courts. 

Democracy by design encourages expression of views. The Central and State Governments must judge the tipping point, where an inalienable right is overstretched, and step in when horns are locked too long.

(The writer is a strategy consultant, columnist, and former journalist. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily that of

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First published on: 04-03-2023 at 13:50 IST
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