It’s time we talk real about Environment.
In the last couple of months, we saw two extreme environmental catastrophes play out in two parts of the world. In Indonesia, man-made forest fires raged on for months killing hundreds of indigenous plant and animal species in the last of the world’s peatland rainforests while releasing smoke and carbon dioxide creating tremendous health hazards for humanity and also adding to the climate crisis. In Brazil, two dams on River Rio Doce storing mining waste collapsed releasing toxins into the river killing all biodiversity in the 500kms stretch of the river and affecting communities dependent on the river for life and livelihood. Closer home, a rap video on the dumping of toxic mercury in Kodaikanal went viral putting a spotlight on Hindustan Unilever’s operating standards.
There are many examples from across the world such as Justin Trudeau’s stand on the tar-sand oil pipelines in Canada, Shell withdrawing its oil drilling plans in the Arctic, banks withdrawing from investing in coal mines near the Great Barrier Reef of Australia etc. which are slowly bringing the question of businesses’ relationship with environment to the forefront.
The British economist E.F. Schumacher once said, “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility”. For the business sector, environment has been a taboo subject for long. In India it’s still so. The issue of environment in India, unlike that of the developed West, is all the more critical since a large percentage of our population is rural (more than 65% as per Census 2011 and 70% as per a 2012 World Bank Report) and mostly dependent on natural resources for their life and livelihood (70% of the rural population as per NABARD). And it is this segment of population who are and will be hit the hardest due to climatic changes, pushing them further into poverty. For example, the lack of a robust monsoon this year has heavily impacted crop harvests across the country in general and Marathwada in particular where communities are reeling under acute water crisis. These concerns, along with large scale environmental degradation adding to climate crisis, have always been at the heart of environmental agitations against corporations who have essentially failed to take cognisance of them.
The current economic focus on growth (as emulated from West) and consumption by the middle class (to maintain this growth) has helped in further widening the gap between environment and business, to a point where environment now has come to mean the anti-thesis of development. When a current-Greece-like bankruptcy situation was facing India in the early 90s and the markets were finally opened up, the issue of environmental degradation and climate change had already begun to rear its head in the West. India therefore was in a unique position to take cognisance of the fall out of adopting such an economy and create checks and measures for sustainable ways of doing business which could have addressed both business and environmental and social concerns. Anil Aggarwal, the founder of Centre for Science and Environment who had been addressing the issue of sustainable development even before economic liberalisation in the 90s, once said that “new socially and ecologically relevant approaches can be found but only if the private sector were to try and understand the true challenges before the nation and seek honest ways to solve them”.
Sadly, it is only now – with the climate crisis taking catastrophical proportion and global adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – that countries, including India are at last beginning to focus on environment.
But all talks on sustainable development or SDGs are bound to fail if the business sector does not start dialogue or get involved in India’s environmental and related social concerns. At the outset, there are two main steps to take. The more difficult yet the most important step is to review current business strategies and include sustainability as the core business practice. This would include evaluating the extent to which a business is directly impacting biodiversity and taking steps to minimise these impacts, sourcing raw materials responsibly, taking cognisance of communities and livelihoods affected by the business, including employees as well as consumers in the dialogue, strictly adhering to environmental norms such as Environmental Impact Assessment (EIAs) and Social Impact Assessment (SIAs), and ensuring participation in environmental audits. A question often asked in the environmental circles is that if companies like Adani who agree to follow stricter environmental norms, impact assessments and compensation for affected communities in other countries, then why are they so reluctant to follow the same in our own country. This step requires tough questions to be asked and even tougher decisions to be taken.
The second step which is easier to implement than the first is to include environment in every Corporate Social Responsibility programme/plan. Over the years, with the growth of our economy, our environmental problems have also grown and become complicated – such as cities like Hyderabad and Gurgaon facing acute water shortage, increasing beach erosion in the Coromandel Coast, increasing human-wildlife conflicts in the mountains, lack of solid waste management in rural areas, impact on food security due to changing weather patterns etc. The varied and unique eco-systems and micro-climates in India have always been closely associated with communities. In order to honestly work on environment, CSR plans need to understand these connections, help in regenerating natural resources, bring in innovations to maximise natural resource management, and revive traditional knowledge which have helped communities for centuries in the past.
While the Indonesian forest fires have raised the spectre of unsustainable palm oil plantation and brought the focus back on companies sourcing palm oil from these regions, in Brazil the share price of the company owning the dam crashed resulting in a huge financial loss. In India, though environment awareness has been low amongst consumers, videos like the Kodaikanal rap is helping push the awareness envelope. Companies can take note of this now and build better brand connect and brand salience through ‘honest’ steps towards our environment and communities.
Even though we missed a chance in the 90s to show the world a path to real sustainable development, we can still forge ways to show we are serious about our environmental and social goals.
Bipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as a communication consultant for various NGOs and CSR projects.