In this election, rising unemployment, especially of the youth has been one of the sour points of the ruling government. The unemployment rate in India rose to 7.2 percent in February 2019, the highest since September 2016, according to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Well, the ruling government had another story to tell. According to the government, the CMIE report did not portray the real situation.
In any case the PMO decided to prepare a concrete plan of action to address the issue of unemployment. The assumption was that the party will once again win the election. Key line ministries were asked to investigate strategies that will push employment in their own sectors so that the overall unemployment rates return to all time low of 3 percent. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change was also summoned. My Professor friend was asked to organize a meeting in the Kaveri room adjoining Secretary’s office with key stakeholders and so-called thought leaders and change makers. Professor asked me to accompany and take notes.
“Well, let us accept the fact. The employment in the environment sector is driven by compliance. If we make our enforcement stricter, then the defaulters will have to look for consultants, laboratories for monitoring and turn-key solution providers for implementation of pollution control measures. Lots of professionals and equipment suppliers will get employment if we follow this strategy” said a Delhi based environmental activist whose son ran an environmental consulting company.
“But you don’t understand Sir- the PMO wants more ease of business” retorted the Professor emphasizing the words EASE of BUSINESS “Don’t you realize that strict enforcement of environmental laws will put the business into trouble – there will be shutdowns in the industries – and thousands of people will lose jobs. So does a strict enforcement of environmental laws make any sense”. He was brutally sarcastic.
I thought Professor was right. By diluting the environmental regulations, government was doing its best to improve the ease of business for the industry. In most cases, environmental clearance was not required. Care was taken that the staff at the Pollution Control Boards (PCBs) remained frugal, not commensurate to the new responsibilities that were assigned. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was keeping PCBs fully occupied by asking them to make affidavits of all sorts and keep attending the courts. PCBs had thus no time to do any systematic enforcement.
But despite this clever strategy, why was the overall employment in the industry still declining? I wondered
A senior director from Indian Institute of Public Administration had a proposition to make.
He suggested that like followed in the safety regulations, we should stipulate a compulsive employment of an environmental professional and include this requirement in the Water Act, Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act. Every polluting industry or business must be required to hire one or more trained environmental professionals, depending on the production or size of business. “If we have 10,000 such industries then assuming 2 staff for each unit on an average are recruited, then we will be able to create an employment of 20,000 professionals right away”. He said this in a high pitch.
Professor liked this idea. “A good suggestion” he said.
I understood why Professor was pleased.
This intervention was not going to create any “trouble” or “ripple” in the business. By just recruiting environmental professional of some sort (i.e. “bodies” to show) to meet the regulation, the ground level situation was not going to change. The safety sector faced a similar apathy. Essentially this requirement was going to become a greenwash or a yet another form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Very clever I thought.
How about then insisting on the certification of operators of the pollution control plants? Voiced the Director of the Indian Technical Institutes (ITI) “If this requirement is made as a consent condition then we will create thousands of jobs for the 12th standard passed youth and those with a diploma in environmental sciences”.
Wow, I liked this suggestion. In this way even the compliance was going to improve.
Professor said that while this was a good idea, he will put this scheme a bit on hold because we would need to commence a national program to train and certify the existing operators first and then launch a campaign to attract the newcomers. And where are the training institutions? He beamed.
I was tired of such talks now. We have been debating and agreeing on the certification requirement over last two decades but there has been no or little action.
A Professor from IIT Delhi had an important observation to make. He said that the statistics on the MHRD portal said that there is a 50 percent dropout in the students who register for the environmental courses. There are two reasons he explained. One reason was the fact that most students applied for UPSC exams and had taken admission to the environmental course as a paid refuge or a “pause”. The second reason was that the salaries offered after the graduation were discouraging. The national average annual salary was Rs 300,000, much lower compared to other disciplines. The careers (and so the employment) in environmental sector will rise only if we ensured a better salary – close to at least Rs 500,000.
“How can such a salary be paid by companies who hardly make any money because of stiff competition?“ President of Indian Association of Environmental Professionals pointed out. For an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study that would at the minimum require a fee of Rs 20 lakhs, consulting companies were quoting even 5 lakhs and the L1 procedure got them the job. “It makes for the industry a business sense to spend the least amount to get the environmental clearance (EC)”. He made his point
I thought he was right. With such low fees, how could a consulting company pay decent salaries to the staff? Besides the quality of EIA study was going to be poor. But who wants a quality EIA study so far as the EC was granted – I mused.
Professor lit his cigar. Clearly, he was thinking on the root causes of poor employment in the environmental sector. The issue was deeper – a weak market and a poor opportunity and non-availability of quality environmental professionals were some of the concerns.
He then spoke sounding like a seasoned administrator.
“Friends, let us then stipulate a Minimum Consulting Fee (MSF) for the EIA studies depending on the sector, project size and location. No bid below this minimum fee will be accepted. Prescribing a minimum will ensure that the companies will offer a decent remuneration to the environmental professional and assure a good quality EIA. I will request the Secretary to consider issuing such a notification on MSF and send a draft to the PMO for a nod”
There was silence for a while. The meeting was concluded. I started doing the minutes.
The idea of stipulating MSF appeared close to the concept of Minimal National Standards (MINAS) promulgated by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). But will such an imposition be really possible? And will this really help towards job creation and move the market? I was not sure. To me, the concept sounded close to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the farmers– a term much talked about in the election campaigns.
While driving Professor home, I said that we must address the situation of jobs in the environmental sector a bit differently.
- First we need good academic institutions, good faculty who understand the needs of both research as well as the market and a well-designed curriculum. The faculty should blend the curriculum with theory as well as practice. They should inspire the students to take on this fascinating discipline and encourage them to stay, grow and contribute. Question is do we have such faculty?
- Industry must learn to differentiate the value adds of good environmental studies and management and should not merely look into the price quoted. This requires a visionary leadership.
- The job market should not be only compliance driven. Going beyond compliance pays and makes the business future ready. We need convincing examples to make the business believe.
- The stakeholders are now not just limited to business, community and government. Financial institutions have an increasing role. They must understand role of environmental assessment in decision making and employ environmental professionals.
“Dr Modak, I hope you are not putting all these suggestions in the minutes of the meeting” Professor said in a rather dry tone.
I stopped the car as the traffic signal was red.
I am grateful to some of my colleagues who met to brainstorm the challenge of green jobs in Mumbai last month. Discussions with them inspired me to write this post.
Cover image sourced from https://grist.org/green-jobs/2011-06-29-in-defense-of-green-jobs/
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