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Cover Story

Environmental flashpoints

In the years to come, the country will have to deal with three main issues that can be termed environmental flashpoints. In one form or another, they reflect the existing fights over resources. The answers to these concerns are largely political in nature, not technical or legal. Law and technology can only help the political establishment to achieve what it desires. People often suggest replacing political will with laws. But in the end, laws only codify political will.

REDEFINING THE TERM 'NATIONAL ASSET' Today, when the government puts the `national asset' tag on a natural resource, it usually ends up helping the wealthy to make more money. For example, iron ore and coal are national assets or properties for common good under the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act. But those who lived on and owned the land where these minerals lie get virtually no share of the royalties and taxes the government collects from mining companies. On the other hand, miners and exporters make a huge profit and sectors that use these minerals, like the steel industry, get captive raw material at cheap government rates. The poor who have protected the resources over generations, find themselves evicted from the lands on which they have traditionally lived. Shutting down one refinery or two mines (eg Vedanta's bauxite mines in Niyamgiri, Orissa) is like put a lid on a simmering pot. Sooner or later, the government will have to bite the bullet and work out a plan for equitable sharing of mineral resources. The proposed mining bill (to replace the existing MMDR Act) may be a step in that direction.

URBAN EQUITY In cities too, public resources are not shared equitably. The poor pay through their nose for private water supply and illegal electricity because civic authorities have not drawn up proper distribution plans. The rich pay peanuts because the government subsidises them. The poor pay with their health for the lack of sanitation in slum colonies and the rich have taken over a disproportionate amount of road space with their cars because the government doesn't spend enough on public transport. Urban resources will have to be distributed more rationally otherwise metros and cities will collapse.

ENERGY An energy crunch exacerbated by the challenge of climate change will make it tougher for the country to produce electricity for the 400 million households that still use biomass sources like woodfires or cowpats. The challenge for future governments is to electrify these households at a cost the poor can afford and the atmosphere can bear. With the battle for energy increasingly becoming a political one defined by geostrategic realities, it will be tough task for the country to claim and retain rightful carbon space for economic growth.

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