Evolving A Path for Combining Protection of Environment and Protection of Workers’ Interests


The recent closure (mostly from October 1 onwards) of several industrial units in the National Capital Region (NCR) has led to the unemployment of a very large number of workers in several leading centers of industrial activity like Panipat, Faridabad and Gurugram.

This is hardly the first time that pollution control curbs have led to the unemployment of workers on a large scale, and is certainly not likely to be the last. In fact as pressure to reduce GHG emissions increases with the escalating seriousness of climate change, the chances of such unemployment being caused are likely to increase, although the possibilities of this can certainly be reduced by better planning for which there is much scope.

Therefore, it is high time that mechanisms for compensating workers for such forced periods of employment must be introduced. These should come into force automatically whenever such unemployment is caused. The compensation should continue till such time that the worker is employed gain by the resumption of work in the industrial unit or in some alterative employment, or else this can be fixed for a period which is reasonable enough for finding alternative employment in case of prolonged closure.

This is justified further by the fact that most workers have passed through exceptionally difficult times in recent years caused by a number of policy decisions including   prolonged and strict lockdowns, sudden instability in employment caused by demonetization as well as ceiling and demolition drives in some cities.

Workers in Delhi, to give an example, have faced a series of government actions including the removal of slum-dwellers to outlying parts of the city, an earlier wave of dislocation of industries relating to environment protection, yearly bans on construction activity for restricted periods to reduce pollution, various ceiling drives, lockdowns of 2020 and the related reverse migration back to villages. All these have led to prolonged periods of unemployment for large numbers of workers, increasing their precariousness and reducing their ability to withstand more shocks.

However the distress suffered by workers generally does not get the due attention, and concerns of workers seldom if ever become the main factor in decisions taken on these issues. This is true of the government as well as the judiciary.

Workers in some categories like brick kilns and coal mining in various parts of country may be particularly vulnerable to decisions taken on environmental grounds, even though they already suffer from many problems.

At the same time, the urgency of reducing GHG emissions and reducing air pollution is certainly a very important factor and cannot be ignored, keeping in view the high levels of air pollution in many cities and the seriousness of climate change. So what we really need is much better planning to take forward these tasks in ways which can minimize unemployment for workers. Once this problem is substantially reduced, it will become easier to arrange compensatory payments to unemployed workers.

To give an obvious example, once deadlines are fixed for industries to shift to cleaner fuels, there should be simultaneous speeding up of the arranging of cleaner fuels to the extent needed by various industries, along with the credit/subsidies needed particularly by the smaller units to make the switch-over. The changed equipment needed by some industries for this purpose should also be available readily. If electricity supply is regular, many otherwise non-polluting industries will not need big generators which use polluting diesel.

Such planning will reduce avoidable disruption, closures and the resulting pollution.

Several arbitrary government projects and actions involve considerable pollution. The twin tower demolition in NOIDA caused a lot of avoidable pollution. The avoidable demolitions of the Central Vista project also caused pollution. Many unjustified demolitions of hut colonies caused a lot of avoidable pollution and generate massive waste (apart from disrupting life and livelihoods of people). Such pollution can be avoided.

Several polluting industries, like brick-kilns, produce essential products which we need in any case. Hence the way forward is not arbitrary closure but a helping hand for less polluting but reliable technology, linked to more protective conditions for workers (many kilns are notorious for exploiting workers). In such a situation environment protection and worker protection can proceed together.

A big source of pollution in several cities is the methane gas (a very powerful GHG, much more harmful than carbon dioxide) emanating from huge landfills which appear to be assuming the form of mountains of dirt. These can be largely avoided by better waste management practices based in on-source waste-segregation and decentralized, improved composting and recycling. Much useful and creative employment too can be generated in the process.

Trees absorb the most important GHG carbon-dioxide. At many places there is mass axing of trees which is avoidable.  In the case of Ken-Betwa Link Project as many as two to million trees will be axed, even though this project has been widely exposed by eminent experts to be non-viable and harmful. By carefully listing all such projects involving avoidable slaughter of trees, many millions of trees can be saved.

This brings us to the wider reality that there can be various paths of reducing GHG emissions and keeping in view India’s problems of poverty and unemployment, we have to be very careful in choosing that path which reduces poverty and unemployment at the same time. Large-scale sustainable livelihoods can be created in re-generation of forests in degraded lands, to give only a more obvious example. Spread of low purchased input, low-cost, self-reliant, eco-friendly farming can help rural communities to increase sustainable livelihoods and at the same time contribute much more to soil and water protection and to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Renewable energy and better waste management can help to reduce GHG emissions in a big way, while also proving to be leading sources of new and creative employment generation. Just one source of clean energy, Mangal Turbine, based on the innovation of an Indian farmer (Mangal Singh) which has been praised at high official and expert levels, can contribute in a big way to reducing GHG emissions as well as increasing highly creative employment in many, many villages.

By carefully planning a path of reducing pollution and GHG emissions, we can choose options which will not cause unemployment and dislocation of workers. Training for newly emerging opportunities in ecologically protective lines of work can help to re-employ those workers who have to leave activities involving high GHG emissions. Once the problem of unemployment caused by new environmental regulations is reduced, it becomes much more possible to provide financial compensation to unemployed workers till they again find employment.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.


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