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May 06, 2003
Green India socks three offenders

India is a stage on which everyone of this world’s activities is on view right now. Naturally that would include both the promising and the threatening. If the former represents opportunity, the latter is it’s inevitable part. The only way an aspiring nation can resolve this conflict is by being an open society and by empowering its people locally.

India appears to have done this if one goes by three recent successes by environmentalists taking on powerful multi nationals.

In March 2001, residents of Kodaikkanal noticed a huge dump of mercury laced waste: 15 tonnes of it. Dumped by Hindusthan Lever Ltd [HLL], the Indian wing of the Dutch company, Unilever. Soon, activists gathered and organised themselves to fight a seemingly unassailable adversary. But in a pioneering collective action, HLL was first driven to admit its crime and then was forced to close down the factory. Finally, in April,2003 activists succeeded in chucking the muck back over the fence, so to speak. 219 tonnes of mercury contaminated waste were packed for shipment back to the USA. Some justice there, for after all the hazardous factory making mercury thermometers was uprooted from the US in 1983 and recommissioned in India.

India may have arrived at a watershed in the debate that rages on about genetically modified crops. When GoodNewsIndia wrote about the Green Revolution of India’s last century, it pointed to many of the problems that it had thrown up despite giving India a breathing space. Were the GM crops to spearhead the next revolution as some quarters were suggesting. It seemed unlikely. The test case was with GM cotton, said to be immune to the traditional cotton pest, the boll-worm. Monsonto brought the controversial cotton seeds amidst howling protests and environmentalists accused the Government of having been brow-beaten. But, increasingly, the Indian system doesn’t admit of such sell-outs: India is a truly open society, people are well informed and activists are implacable. Activists like Vandana Shiva. . The Government had appointed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee [GEAC] to get to the bottom of the truth about Gt cotton. Shiva’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology [RFSTE] ran a sustained campaign showing how the claims of Monsonto were false. Yields were nowhere near the promises made and while the boll-worm may have disappeared, six previously unknown ones emerged calling for greater sales of Monsonto’s chemicals. On April 25,2003 GEAC rejected a proposal to induct Gt cotton widely.

Finally as an example of how the sting may be in the tail, take what a single village Panchayat did to mighty Coca Cola. It struck the villagers of Perumatty odd, that the company would mine their water, colour it, sweeten it and sell it for huge profits with a few jobs thrown in for the village, the while depleting a valuable resource for a trivial market. So the village Panchayat cancelled the license to Coke. There is more to the current anti-US soft drinks mood in Kerala and much of it is is mixed with political posturing and anti-war sentiments. But the display of grassroots people power at Perumatty in Pallakkad district should not be dismissed as being a part of that. It appears to be a pure environment play . And, GoodNewsIndia would like to add, that it’s a play made possible by the empowerment of Panchayats.

Admittedly corporate misdemeanour in environmental matters has not been tamed. Even as the mercury issue seemed to have been sorted out, HLL in early May, allegedly discharged toxic waste from one of it’s factories in Chennai at a remote village and investigations are on. So there will be violations. But the way forward appears to be not in stopping all development in the bad name of globalisation. What India needs to do is hone it’s information networks, vigilance and response times. If responsible activists like Vandana Shiva are encouraged this will happen.
Related links:
An Indian victory against bio-piracy.
A look at India’s Panchayats

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