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Unfolding Lawrence Summers Principle

Written By Gopal Krishna on Saturday, February 14, 2009 | 8:24 PM

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma (SS) in conversation with Gopal Krishna (GK) on how some years ago, Lawrence Summers, a distinguished World Bank chief economist, US government official sent a memo to one of his subordinates justifying transfer of harm from developed countries to developing countries. This memo said in part:

`Just between you and me shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs....A given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that...Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradeable industries and the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste...'

The Economist (Feb 8, 1992, 66), to which the memo was leaked, found the language `crass, even for an internal memo,' but `on the economics his points are hard to answer.'

GK I have read the Memo sent by Laurence Summers, his economic reasoning is clearly at work.

SS Q: In your work against toxic import are you not confronting `economics' with `ecology'? How do you position sound economic logic against an unmeasurable ecologic percept?

GK: All economic activities take place in an ecological space. The confrontation with the very substratum and the basis of human action emerges from a naked and blind lust for profit at any cost. Such blindness is a result of abnormal and unsound economic logic that is primarily guided by conditions dictated by market. As recently as the year 2000, Millennium Declaration calls for "policies and measures, at the global level" to undo the consequences of barbaric commerce but not the causes despite manifest display of trade being put before human health and environment As to positioning ecological concerns to counter economic logic, the stark fact is sane economic reasoning cannot decouple environmental health imperatives. What is required is injection of sanity in economic and industrial decision-making and financial instruments, which is conspicuous by its absence. Ecology is not out of us. We are ecological beings ourselves and we are quite measurable. Language creates outside-inside illusion especially with respect to ecology. In reality, the air we breathe, every drop of water we take and every human and technical activity we undertake is a constant reminder of this universal truth still we become oblivious of it under the influence of dismal and totalitarian science.

SS Q: In an era when market undermines community because it replaces personal ties of health necessity by impersonal market transactions are you not up against odds?

GK: When shareholder are allowed to become disproportionately and myopically more powerful than communities every human rights concern takes a back seat. The fact is shareholders are dominant in a fictitious economy whose make believe world and its worldview is enthusiastically supported by corporate media and sponsored academicians. Communities are part of the real economy. There is not an iota of doubt that they will have the last laugh when having witnessed the collapse of welfare nations-states, they will discover that all governments- be it capitalistic or socialistic- are of, for and by the industry and constitute a an empire called 'developmental' state.

SS Q: How do you intend correcting the large economic gains in light of the serious individual losses by way of human health?

GK: History is testimony to the rise and fall of the biggest empires. Had rise in large economic gains been the the panacea of all ills, the British Empire would not have come to an end. The narrative, which treats human health concerns in terms of individual health concerns, is dictated by market logic, which does not acknowledge the presence of communities, public health and public good.

Human health concerns and ecological needs are part of the same bundle of crises such as food chain poisoning, infant mortality, hunger and disease that has been caused by "large economic gains". It can be corrected by if human cost incurred for such "gains" is also calculated.

SS Q: Why individual health loss (say at ship breaking industry) doesn't become common issue? Have we lost the sense of community?

Communities, families, workers and unsuspecting consumers are getting overburdened by huge number of chemicals entering our body directing, through our food chain and through free trade. The industries commit this chemical trespass routinely and with impunity and the nation state responds by revealing its developmental face. The onslaught by the developmental state and its myriad agencies has shaken the sense of community but it is not lost as yet.

SS Q: While health minister can ban smoking in public places why ban on toxic asbestos important is held back for want of results of a study that may take two more years?

GK: A ban on smoking in public is just a half step in the direction but the availability of tobacco products is far more significant. The full step requires that the tobacco products be declared illegal substance then possession of cigarettes would become a crime, and the number of smokers would drastically fall.
As to asbestos, the recent assertion regarding the need for a study to ascertain the hazards of killer fibers at a UN meeting in Rome by R H Khawaja, an Environment Ministry official is act of sophistry and dishonesty. Our Health Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss has already informed the parliament saying, "A lot of poor people use it. As regards the issue pertaining to banning of asbestos, on health grounds, the government certainly has not taken it up. It is an occupational hazard and people working in the asbestos factories are prone to lung cancer, but we are taking the enormity of the usage of asbestos. Mostly, poor people in the villages use it. Hence, I cannot take a decision on this issue." While enormity of use of asbestos as a reason for allowing its use is unpardonable because it reveals how the government has caved in under the influence of asbestos manufacturers.

Indeed it is for the Union Commerce Ministry and Chemicals Ministry to take a decision and amend the existing import policy for chrysotile without which the alarming rise in the asbestos consumption is unlikely to change. Sonia Gandhi led UPA government has legitimised hazardous waste trade, supported asbestos use and promoted hazardous pesticides like Endosulphan that cause incurable but preventable diseases. But the government in its sanity chose not to safeguard the health of its own citizens in order to protect the immoral profit mongers who indulge in what is referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility by the Public Relations agencies.

SS Q: Why has the issue of `toxics' not become part of our heath consciousness? Do you see it changing?

GK: There are more than 80,000 chemicals in trade and commerce but only approximately 15,000 have ever been tested. Out of even these, few have been studied enough to correctly estimate potential risks from exposure. Even when testing is done, each chemical is tested individually rather than in the combinations that one is exposed to in the real world. In reality, no one is ever exposed to a single chemical, but to a chemical soup, the ingredients of which may interact to cause unpredictable health effects.

The amount of data on body burdens available in the world is extremely limited, particularly compared to the voluminous data we have for chemical levels in air, water, soil, food, and wildlife. Most population-wide body burden data we do have covers only a limited number of chemicals.

Even in cases where a small number of them have ever been screened for even one potential health effect, such as cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, or impacts on the immune system and the hazards conclusively established, tremendous influence of companies that are more powerful than governments do allow any against these chemicals. If legislators and lawyers start getting their blood tested for chemicals and back trace to their source, the current situation might change.

SS Q: The issue of radioactivity in elevator switches doesn't become an issue? Is it because much of the toxic stuff is invisible and hence not easily measurable?

GK: Pollutants of all ilks are passengers without passports. When the French ships, laden with radioactive material, such as SS Blue Lady (SS France, SS Norway) got dumped purportedly for scrap metal in India, the European ship owners must have heaved a sigh of relief because they managed to escape decontamination costs. Little did they realize that the scrap metals would end up in their backyards as lift buttons made of the same contaminated steel. In the current case, it's a case a glaring loophole in the law. Both the relevant legal instruments Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Trans-boundary Movement) Rules, 2008 and Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules, 1987 failed to forsee the likelihood of such a situation and neither of them provide for prior decontamination in the country of export. Now almost all nuclear countries are alerting Indian about its ramifications. Indian workers who suffered remain untraced.

Officials like R H Khawja and his "almost defunct" Central Pollution Control Board is responsible for it and they must be made accountable. Department of Atomic Energy must constitute a Nuclear Safety Authority, trace the victims and investigate all the secondary steel manufacturing units. Besides prior decontamination in the developed countries, similar efforts are required for hazardous substances and wastes. If this is done toxics and their health impact would become visible and measurable. Absence of criminal liability for companies and officials is the root cause of the chemicals induced health crisis being deemed intangible, which it is not.
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