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Poverty, The Biggest Polluter?

By Neerja Dasani

02 July, 2011

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘Dilli Darbar’ on Wednesday reaffirmed this government’s unyielding belief in the trickle-down theory. Let a select few be given the pie and eventually they’ll share it byte by byte. One of the hand-picked senior editors at this super-exclusive meeting said Mr. Singh came across as “totally relaxed, confident and jovial” even as they confronted him with ‘very embarrassing questions’.

The life-altering titbits flashed repeatedly on our TV screens. “I am not a lame duck PM” – Arre wah! “I have full support of Sonia Gandhi – What more could we possibly ask for? “This is not a puppet government” – Hear, Hear! “I can come under Lokpal” – Or the Lokpal can come under you, same difference. “Inflation will come under control by March 2012” – No rush, we’ll just quietly wait in a corner, maybe eat a meal or two less, work three jobs, drop out of school…anything for the nation.

But hidden deep within all this rhetoric was a misquote of great magnitude, one that reveals a lot about the man at the helm and the dodginess of the boat we are all currently rocking along on.

When asked about Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s statement about having to reverse many previous decisions under pressure from the PM, his curt response was “I think he is right.” When pressed further he said “As Gandhiji said, poverty is the biggest polluter. We need to have a balance.”

So far the media has faithfully reproduced this quote as being that of MK Gandhi. But it isn’t. And anyone who has made the slightest effort to acquaint themselves with Gandhi’s philosophy should have immediately caught this.

Could the man, who called poverty ‘the worst form of violence,’ condemning in no uncertain terms the systemic failures that force people into a life of bondage, ever have blamed poor people for a wrecked environment? If anything he believed the opposite: “Every palace one sees in India is a demonstration, not of her riches, but of the insolence of power that riches give to the few, who owe them to the miserably requited labours of the millions of paupers of India.”

The words in question were in fact spoken by a politician at the other end of the ideological spectrum, one whose most (in)famous slogan was ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty) – a campaign which included among other things the displacement and resultant homelessness of thousands of poor people and forced sterilisations and vasectomies in the name of birth control.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, made this statement at the Stockholm environment conference in 1972, even as poor women from her country were inspiring the world with their ‘forest satyagraha’ (http://www.newint.org/features/2009/01/01/climate-justice-resistance/). Some analysts suggest that this was just a poor choice of words on Indira Gandhi’s part and that she actually meant only the richer and more ‘developed’ countries can afford pollution control mechanisms.

Without indulging in our favourite pastime of dissecting, only to further deify, our ‘great leaders’, there can be no doubt about what Manmohan Singh meant by his choice of scripture this week.

Singh’s former Finance Minister had quoted these exact same words while being cornered by a relentless Shoma Chaudhury in 2008. That segment is worth reproducing:

“Poverty is the worst polluter. If you are poor, you live in the most polluted world. The sanitation is poor, the drinking water is poor, the housing is poor, the air you breathe is poor. Everything is polluted. Poverty is the worst polluter. It’s our right, our duty, to first overcome poverty. In the process, yes, we will be sensitive to concerns expressed by other countries but not at the cost of our growth and our goal of eliminating poverty in our lifetime.” (http://www.tehelka.com/story_main39.asp?filename=Ne310508cover_story.asp)

This is doublespeak at its best. The poor have to live with the pollution caused by the rich and therefore poverty is the cause of pollution. The logic seems to suggest that we must continue down this destructive path of ‘growth’, so that the poor can become rich and polluting too. But how do the poor become rich if they’re dying from gas leaks, oil spills, waters poisoned by industrial effluents, cancers caused by pesticides, collapsed lungs as a result of illegal mining and so on? They don’t. They’re not meant to. All this is just a highly toxic smokescreen.

So was this misquoting a deliberate attempt by a wily but beleaguered politician to further blur the bounds of dynastic politics? Indira Gandhi becomes MK Gandhi becomes the end of ideology in Indian politics (what little of it is left anyway). Or should we just add this onto his ever-growing ‘errors of judgement’ list, while simultaneously praising his ‘impeccable honesty and integrity’? As for the biggest source of pollution, perhaps Percy B. Shelley could help clear the muddled minds of our ‘overworked’ overlords: “Power, like a desolating pestilence,/Pollutes whate'er it touches.”

Further references:

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaMx_i-diLI (Yamuna – Poverty is not the biggest polluter)

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2011/jan/21/tuberculosis-deaths-mining-rural-india

3. http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/richpoor.htm

UPDATE: Someone at the Prime Minister’s Office seems to have noticed the gaffe and a ‘corrected transcript’ of the interaction is now available at http://pmindia.nic.in/. The mainstream media doesn’t seem to care either way.


Neerja Dasani is a frequent contributer to Countercurrents.org



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