The overall scene that has emerged, after 35 years of Stockholm Conference, at the world as well as the national stage, should make us ask a few pertinent questions. Why is it that resolutions and declarations of the United Nations agencies and the projects and programmes sponsored by them are having only marginal impact? Why conditions in some of the key areas of environment are worsening? And how is it that we continue to close our eyes to the ?gathering storm? which has its epicenter in the economic and ecological imbalances of our times? While no straight answers are available to these complex questions, it should be quite clear that there are two main reasons for the current contradictions and complexities.
One reason is the very nature of the present structure of the global economy. In an economic order wherein, for example, India has to compete with other developing countries in most arenas of exports, it has to keep the wages low, compromise with the norms of healthy environment and put more than bearable pressure on natural resources. Proper land, housing and civic facilities cannot be provided to the labour. Slums and squatters? settlements grow. Thus, to succeed in its export-drive, India has to virtually export its environment. This, undoubtedly, brings in little more foreign exchange and result in a small improvement in the growth rate. But in this process, its social and environmental capital gets depleted and its overall capacity to secure sustainable development is reduced.
The only way of removing the above shortcoming is to change the principles on which present-day globalised capitalism is operating. These principles must take into account social and environmental costs, besides the criterion of economic profitability. The national governments and institutions of the United Nations must ensure, through suitable laws and regulations, that private corporations and companies internalise these costs and evolve a pattern in which equity and sustainability play an important part. They must not be allowed to act in a manner in which the developing countries are virtually forced to ?run to the bottom?, competing with one another, to attract foreign direct investments or secure other short-term gains in export trade. Nor should they be allowed to create artificial demands amongst the rich beneficiaries of growth, while leaving the minimum need of the dispriviledged uncovered.
A fundamental flaw of the current form of capitalism is that in quite a few areas of economy, it virtually manufactures desires and make people buy what it has to offer, thereby swelling its profits. It is inherently iniquitous in its impact. Nor is it compatible with sustainability. It causes continued expansion of desires. This flaw has to be removed. If invisible hand does not act, visible hand has to come in. The system has to be made socially and environmentally accountable.
The second reason which is far more basic than the first pertains to very character of western civilisation which is dominating the present-day world and whose predominant ethos are rooted in acquisitiveness. These ethos push the individuals towards the pursuit of economic affluence alone and create no inner prompting to maintain the integrity of the earth and respect the limits that the nature imposes on the use of its resources.
All along, the modern Western man has, consciously or subconsciously, remained under the influence of such philosophies as materialism and existentialism and entertained such views as propounded by historian Westfall: ?The world is a machine, composed of inert bodies, moved by physical necessity, indifferent to the existence of thinking beings.? He has, in practice, refuse to take a holistic view of reality and help in developing a system in which requirements of body, mind, intellect and soul are integrated in a balanced and harmonious pattern and in which human societies function, not as separate, but as complementary and mutually reinforcing units of the same universe. He has not understood that if one or two aspects of human personality or one or two arenas of human society alone are catered to, or are not accompanied by a proportionate advance in complementary spheres, than negative results will accrue.
It is because of this lack of understanding that the Western man and his institutions have created a world which is scientifically and technologically advanced but morally and socially retarded. Both the modern man and his institutions require balance, harmony and spiritual under-pinning of a higher order. Could the ancient wisdom of India help in correcting their orientation? In my opinion, it could.
The present-day India has virtually forgotten all the noble and insightful strands of its ancient thought which led the world-renowned historian of civilisations, Arnold Toynbee, to observe: ?At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way for salvation of mankind is an Indian way?. Unfortunately, instead of being at the vanguard of a new movement to create elevating environmental values, she has chosen to hold the tail of the modern western machine, propelled as it is primarily by the fuel of ?gross-domestic-product?, no matter how many cities are belighted, how many rivers are polluted and how many natural habitats are destroyed in the process. India calls Mahatma Gandhi Father of the Nation. And yet she has geared her policies to serve the unending greed of the few, caring little for the unmet basic needs of many and also for the catastrophe that may visit the whole of mankind by way of climate change or radiation from the sun. She is fast losing the locus standi to advise the world to learn from the ancient wisdom of her sages.
(The writer is a former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir and a former Union Minister)