February 17

Environmental issues need holistic approach: UN official

FEBRUARY 16, 2002]

MUMBAI: Environmental problems in India can only be solved with a holistic approach, which also tackles economic and social needs, said Nitin Desai, United Nations under-secretary general for economic and social affairs, here on Friday. Desai was speaking at a seminar organised by Times Foundation and Citizens Ahead on "Environmental Challenges in India."

Addressing a packed audience comprising representatives of citizens’ groups, environmentalists and industrialists, Desai emphasised the need for policy-makers and governmental organisations to seek solutions which combined the objectives of development. "Even if the concerns are environmental, the locus of action must lie in other areas of policy," he said.

Desai gave the example of indoor air pollution from wood and coal stoves, which he described as "the greatest environmental problem, killing 600,000 women a year in India."

In this case, giving the women an alternate cooking stove would solve not only the social objective of improving women’s health but also environmental objectives, by reducing the demand for forest firewood. "We are now looking for interventions that fulfil several purposes," he said, referring to the upcoming world summit on "Sustainable Development" in Johannesburg in August, which is to be a follow-up to the Earth Summit at Rio 10 years ago. Desai admitted that despite the Rio summit and other advances in legislation and policies on the environment, there was "no evidence" that the problems of environmental stress, resource degradation and poverty had been successfully tackled.

Desai, who is in charge of organising the summit, identified the four greatest global challenges that would be taken up as poverty, excessive per capita consumption or using up of resources, urbanisation and disaster preparedness.

With the bulk of the world’s population increase in the urban areas, sustainable urbanisation would be a big challenge for Asia and Africa, he said.

"The challenge will be not just about how to meet the needs of the urban population but how to balance it out with the needs of the areas outside cities. Specifically, India, he said, would face the problem of increasing population, solid waste disposal, air and noise pollution. Needless to say, the mention of air pollution struck a chord with Mumbaikars in the audience and on the dais. The Times Group’s chairman, Mrs Indu Jain, emphasised the need for people to feel reverence towards the earth. She said that Times Foundation wanted to send out the message that "respect for the environment and the worship of the earth as mother is part of the Indian way of life." She announced that Times Foundation would institute an award for outstanding work in the field of environment.

Municipal commissioner K.C. Srivastava emphasised that "changes in lifestyle, especially where transport is concerned, would be necessary to limit vehicular pollution." Environmental activist Debi Goenka criticised "investment decisions which were not based on the principles of sustainable development," referring to the priority given to road infrastructure instead of public transport in Mumbai. Climate change, global warming and forest loss were some of the environmental issues confronting India, he said.

Goenka also highlighted the importance of citizens’ awareness and initiatives with people’s participation as the "only ones that will work." All speakers emphasised the importance of people’s participation in initiating change. The biggest challenge of all, Desai noted, was to encourage the sense of solidarity among people, "connect people to their traditions which teach respect towards the environment and the sense that the world is my family."