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Is It Right To Blame Poverty For Environmental Degradation?


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No food without soil is a well saying.

A few years ago, 193 countries of the UN General Assembly adopted SDG (Sustainable Development Goals), setting a target of completing 17 worldwide goals within a period of 15 years, i.e. 2015-2030. These SDG replaced MDG (Millennium Development Goals), proving the inefficiency in fulfilling global targets. Under SDG, our first and prime aim is “to eradicate global poverty”. This goal is the foremost goal as, with the eradication of poverty, many of our other objectives will automatically be taken under consideration.

Poor people, due to lack of efficient resources, are more prone to the effects of environmental degradation. Similarly, if we observe other aspects, it is true that environmental changes may lead one to poverty. Hence, poverty and environment are interrelated to one another, and their balance is necessary for the fulfillment of our sustainable development goals, i.e., SDG.

Poverty and environment have long been seen as separate units of developmental issues, causing nations to adopt a singular approach to each of them. However, since the 1970s, it has been almost universally agreed that poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. The Brundtland Commission of 1987 states that “Poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems.” Hence, it would have been futile to contain the larger issue of environmental degradation without alleviation of poverty.

Clean air volunteers demand clean air
Action at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi Image courtesy: Greenpeace India

Environmental degradation and poverty alleviation are urgent global issues that have a lot in common. They must not be treated separately, because their interrelation is key to a sustainable world. The evident skewness of wealth created by incorrect, selfish capitalistic policies has bifurcated the line of development from sustainability.

Shall The Poor Be Blamed?

Recognising the Forest Rights Act gives a significant right to forest dwellers: the right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource that they have been traditionally protecting or conserving for sustainable use. Encouraging poor people to adopt green technology by giving them a tax holiday and promoting ease of doing business in sustainable technologies will go a long way in creating a utilitarian world.

However, once the linkage between poverty and the environment got accepted, the global approach moved towards ‘blame the victim’ approach. Indira Gandhi, in her speech at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, stated: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” This idea can find an echo in the Brundtland Commission as well, which gave ‘Sustainable Development’ itself.

It implies that the poor are unable to utilise the resources sustainably and will destroy their immediate environment in order to survive. This logic provides us with the future action that the alleviation of poverty will lead to sustainable environmental use, and for that, equity in development has to be reached.

This approach ignores two empirical realities: firstly, the poor may or may not be the greatest polluters, but they are indeed the greatest sufferers. And secondly, ‘development’ of the poor, on the same line as of the rich, may equip them to handle the vagaries of nature, but it will not directly stop environmental degradation.

The second part is rightly explained by Delhi-based environment organisation, Centre for Science and Environment, which says that if the poor world were to develop and consume in the same manner as the West to achieve the same living standards, “we would need two additional planet Earths to produce resources and absorb wastes.. and good planets are hard to find!”

So, to get to the right approach, one must first explore the differential impact of the rich and poor on the environment, and the impact of environmental degradation on the globe. Since the industrial revolution was fuelled by energy, mostly from fossil fuels, and major industrialised nations have a higher incidence of wealthy people, it’s pretty obvious that historically speaking, richer nations have contributed a lot more towards environmental degradation than the poorer colonies. This fact has been confirmed too in the CBDR and ‘Loss and Damage’ clauses of the climate change agreements. Even today, the biggest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases are developed countries such as the US.

The poor being projected as a foe of the environment could not be further away from the truth. While it might be true that they might not be much versed with the technical aspects of sustainable development strategies, evidence suggests that they traditionally respect nature, and even if they want to, they cannot exploit it unsustainably, given the limitation of resources. For example, Canadian lumberjacks using large machines to clear out forest can do a lot more damage than a villager cutting trees and branches for construction of a hut or basket.

In fact, the strong dependence of the poor on nature encourages them to protect it, sometimes even attaching supernatural importance to them. For instance, sacred groves are revered by tribal communities in the mangrove forest. The Forest Rights Act 2006 has recognised the forest dwellers’ ‘right to conserve’, given their traditional expertise in this field.

Despite the establishment of the fact that the rich are more capable of exploiting the environment, many studies, including one conducted by the World Bank, have found that the poor are more at the receiving end of the vagaries of the environment and climate change. The logic flows from the already-stated fact that the poor are more directly dependent on the environment for their survival and less capable of dealing with the adverse effects of climate change.

Indira Gandhi in her speech at Stockholm Conference in 1972 stated: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” This idea can find an echo in the Brundtland Commission as well.

For instance, rain-fed agriculture, the mainstay of many of the poor, suffer the most with an increase in the uncertainty of rainfall patterns. Coastal farmers and fishermen are the most affected by coastal floods, cyclones or tsunamis. The rise in the sea level threatens the existence of small island nations.

It’s not surprising that the Marshall Islands filed a suit against nine nuclear powers to prevent an increase in nuclear activity. Deforestation indeed leads to a decrease in the carbon sink of the world, but the fact often ignored is that it also uproots the lives of forest dwellers, destroying their homes.

Sadly, despite knowing about the above situation, most countries have denied stopping their fast developmental progress at the cost of environmental degradation and higher incidence of income disparity due to various socio-political or economic reasons. The Trump administration pulled out of the landmark Paris Pact, incurring a serious blow to the international fight against climate change.

India And Its Environment Policies

Even in India, which has vociferously advocated for renewable energy, industrial development continues to take priority over environmental conservation. For instance, to skip EIA, many hydel power plants show their capacity to be 4.99 MW, given the fact that above 5 MW, the EIA would be made compulsory.

Recently, the Narmada Control Authority announced raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to its full potential, despite its earlier repercussions evident with protests led by Narmada Bachao Andolan, Supreme Court judgments, and even a documentary made on the issue. This is slated to submerge more than 176 villages and poses a risk to cause flooding in backwaters due to increased siltation.

The silver lining can be seen in many countries’ decision to finally link the issue of poverty with environmental degradation, which can be seen in the adoption of the SDGs. Promotion of renewable energy in countries like India and China is a welcome step in this direction. While China has exponentially increased its solar energy production, India has led from the front by creating the International Solar Alliance and targeting the adoption of 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Going a step further, Sweden has announced that it will run entirely on renewable energy by 2040. However, there is still a long way to go given the numerous impediments in the approach.

The Poor Are Not The Only Stakeholders

Countries, especially India, must approach a right-based approach instead of a ‘charity’ approach by making the poor as the stakeholders of environmental conservation. The role of grassroots level organisations like Gram Sabha in India needs to be properly identified while conducting EIA of developmental projects. The traditional relationship of forest dwellers and the environment must be respected, and their development should be in lines of their own genius.

Stringent regulations are needed on direct industrial discharge and waster water treatment to prevent river pollution. A sustainable measure can be adopted by utilising natural coping mechanisms that will benefit both the environment and the poor, for instance, by increasing mangrove cover given their resistance to flooding.

On the international front, technology transfer and equitable development must be accelerated, given the urgency of the issue. Diplomatic pressure must be exerted on the US as being the largest emitter; it needs to be a part of an alliance against climate change. Trading of sustainable technologies, instead of emission trading, must be prioritised. Poverty and Environmental degradation must be seen as a global issue, as only a joint effort can alleviate the threat posed by both.

The only effective solution can arise when we shed the attitude of ‘not my problem’. As General Eisenhower had said, “The world must learn to work together, or finally it will not work at all”. There seems to be an optimistic approach in most countries. However, the effectiveness of their plans is yet to be seen. The era of being in denial that ‘poor are the biggest polluters’ has longed passed and the need of the hour is to develop an integrated plan for poverty alleviation and environmental conservation at the policy level.

You must be to comment.
  1. Meenakshi

    There is a book I believe will be of some interest to you. It is by Sopan Joshi. “Jal Thal Mal”. You can perhaps watch the YouTube video instead by Sopab Joshi. Interesting article btw!

    1. Meenakshi



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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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