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Book Extract: Power And Responsibility

There is an urgent need for organisations in India to warm up to the idea of sustainability

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Historically, India has been a country where waste was mostly taboo, and living in harmony with nature, a cherished cultural norm. The ancient scriptures looked upon life as a gift to be celebrated and the earth was seen as something to be praised and worshipped. The Isha Upanishad, a sixth-century Sanskrit text has talked about all life forms living in harmony with the earth system without encroaching upon each other’s rights. Ancient wisdom also frowned upon waste and everything in the Indian cities and villages had to be reused and recycled, leading to a highly evolved system of waste collection and disposal. Over the centuries, this philosophy of conservation and love for nature was strengthened further through art, music, scriptures and traditions. In fact, the first recorded measures of conservation anywhere in the world were the edicts issued by Emperor Ashoka in 269 BCE. These edicts carved on stone and iron pillars prohibited the destruction of forests and the killing of animals. Over the years, many tribes and villages began to celebrate certain trees, animals, rivers and ponds as sacred. This environmental thinking became part of the rich cultural heritage of India.

These ancient tenets were, however, forgotten when India decided to move towards an industrialised system, falling in line with modern-day economics. As companies scaled, supply chains became bigger and more complex. The commons, such as forests, rivers and hills, lost their ‘sacredness’, with large companies viewing them merely as resources that had to be modified and used as inputs. Economic performance was prioritised irrespective of the social cost. Industries could dump sewage in rivers as only their cost of production mattered and treating waste would only add to these costs. Cutting forests was okay to make paper but replanting trees was a cost that the company did not want to bear.

If one were to drive to the Kudremukh National Park in the Western Ghats today, there are still the remnants of a gigantic strip mining operation by the name of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL). What was once a mining town with residences for the workers and management, teeming with activity, carefree school children and buzzing markets, is now a ghost town, with nothing but dilapidated buildings, storing within them memories of a time gone by. A time that, in hindsight, resulted in severe ecological damage to the region. The mining activity, spread over forty-eight square kilometres in the middle of the park, caused widespread destruction to the Kudremukh National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spread over a 630 square kilometre area, the park is a hotbed of biodiversity in the form of mountainous grasslands and tropical rainforests housing many species of animals and plants. It is home to the great pied hornbill, the Malabar civet and the lion-tailed macaque, besides also sheltering a population of tigers. The national park is also the origin-site of the rivers Tunga, Bhadra and Netravathi. All of this fragile ecosystem was under threat because of the operations at KIOCL. A landmark judgement by the Supreme Court in October 2002, finally brought the curtains down on the mining operation and what the court deemed as ‘an environmental abomination’.

Sadly, by then, the impact of mining had already gone beyond the actual extraction of ore and dumping of tailings. In the case of Kudremukh, for instance, since the hill range (Aroli–Gangamoola) was inaccessible, a ghat road had to be constructed to reach it. Other roads connected the mini-township that housed the workers and management. These roads were needed to provide access for giant earth-moving machines, and this resulted in cutting through untouched forest land. Also, to allow for the iron ore (in the form of slurry) to reach Mangalore, the closest port city, a sixty-seven kilometre pipeline was laid out which cut right through the forest. This pipe was prone to breakage (in the year 2000, for instance, it broke four times), spilling approximately 4,000 tonnes of concentrated iron ore into the pristine streams that make their way through the mountainous terrain.

The case of KIOCL is but one example of the ill-effects of modern-day industrial systems. Environmental groups the world over are up in arms against the harmful practices of industry and of the irreparable damage they leave behind. Also, consequences of climate change and ‘short-termism’ become increasingly apparent, it is clear now that ignoring sustainability concerns is dangerous. For the better part of this decade, India has reeled under the impact of floods in several parts of the country, drought in others and extreme pollution in almost all its cities. Extreme weather events have damaged physical infrastructure, disrupted supply chains and impacted business continuity.

In corporate offices, though, there has been confusion about cause and effect. For instance, whose responsibility is air pollution? At one level, there is a realisation that it is everyone’s responsibility, but at another level the sustainability manager might well take this view: ‘I comply with the law, what more can I do?’ The prevailing business frameworks have led managers to focus on the symptoms and not the actual causes. Large sums of money spent on mitigating emissions and discharges haven’t really helped since they are only part of the core design of production systems that are immersed in toxic materials and polluting energy sources.

To begin with, companies decided to overlook their responsibility and passed off the problems of pollution and environmental degradation to the government and citizens. The Delhi smog being a case in point. The thick blanket of smog that enveloped Delhi and surrounding areas at the end of September 2017 was the worst in seventeen years and has been compared to the Great Smog of London in 1952 that resulted in 4,000 deaths. Air pollution claims around 10,000 to 30,000 deaths in the national capital every year. With the escalation in pollution levels, all eyes turned to the government and what it could have done, or can still do, to remedy this situation. As a short-term measure, schools were shut down, roads hosed down and construction activity halted. The courts then came down hard upon all levels of government and demanded that they offer more than what they termed an ‘ad hoc’ and ‘unserious’ response. Described in the media, social media and other conversations as a ‘toxic cocktail’, a ‘gas chamber’ and ‘poison gas’, amongst other things, air pollution is here to stay unless everyone works together. While Diwali crackers are one reason for the spike in air pollution levels, automobile emissions, refineries, chemical plants, coal-fired power plants, manufacturing of cleaning products, pesticides, degreasers and unchecked crop burning in neighbouring states are some of the other sources of this heightened level of toxic air. To add to the lethal brew, the three landfills of the city also have their own list of lapses. The methane gas produced in these landfills catches fire ever so often, further spiking the pollution indices.

Companies are now slowly beginning to realise that they are indeed part of the problem, which is why the sustainability narrative in India in the past few years has become more nuanced, and the environmental movement has become broader and more professional. Indian businesses are also facing international regulatory and compliance issues around sustainability and emissions. Sustainability challenges have been dovetailed with global concerns on climate change, ozone depletion and the loss of biodiversity. The alarming consequences of excessive overuse of natural resources is being seen as we reach Earth Overshoot Day faster each year. In 2017, we reached it by August, which points to the fact that we had consumed what the earth could replenish in only eight months. The environment is a global issue and the world is coming together to address these challenges. The increasing incidence of man-made disasters such as the Chennai floods and Uttarakhand floods are, therefore, forcing corporate leaders to emerge and speak up for change.

This trend is only likely to gather momentum in the light of the Paris Agreement of 2015. Governments the world over, after more than two decades of intense negotiations and debate, finally came to a legally binding agreement that aimed at containing the increase in the global average temperature to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’—a more ambitious goal than had been expected. The implications of the Paris Agreement are not just in terms of the new business environment but are also about the larger impacts on how businesses will have to be run five, ten and fifteen years from now. The cost of environmental damage can no longer just be passed on to the community. Businesses will increasingly be expected to bear this cost and, in fact, undo the damage. The Paris Agreement has had significant impact on climate finance as well as enabling technology. Inter-governmental initiatives like COP215 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are platforms that are helping companies find common ground and encouraging them to align together for greater impact on specific targets.

The move towards sustainability in India is also being assisted by a spate of legislations to clean up rivers, manage waste and protect the environment. India’s ‘E-Waste Management and Handling Rules of 2016’ are one reason companies are looking at how they are disposing of their electronic waste. Electronic waste is hazardous to health and the environment, and the new 2016 rules have recommended the setting up of a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO). Stringent norms and checks are being set in place so that organisations are made responsible for managing the end-of-cycle of electronic waste generated by their products.

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