Useful guide to industrial pollution

THIS book is part of a project on technology transfer, transformation and development implemented by United Nations University (UNU), a UN organ established in 1972 to conduct research related to pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare.

UNU undertook a project to study the Japanese experience between 1978 and 1982, so as to understand the processes of technological development in Japan. Research for the project was conducted by more than 120 Japanese specialists and covered a wide range of subjects, including rural and urban society, small industries, female labour, education, and technology policy. The present volume presents the research findings on the negative aspects of Japanese technological and industrial advances.

The book deals with various cases of environmental contamination and accidents. It avoids scientific and technological arguments and highlights the social and human aspects of environmental pollution, which makes for easy reading.

The authors of the various chapters have taken pains to document case histories of environmental contamination like Minamata, arsenic milk poison, Ashio copper mine pollution and the Miike coal mine explosion. It is enlightening to learn how public opinion and concerted social action played a key role in gaining justice for the victims of pollution. All the cases presented show that invariably industries responsible for pollution demonstrated scant interest in dealing with the victims until confronted by a mass campaign. The industries took the matter so callously they did not even arrange to pay the money necessary to comply with a court ruling and compensate the victims. The book also has well-written chapters on Japan's post-World War II environmental problems and on the social strata of the victims.

It is surprising, however, that this book, dealing primarily with environmental disasters, chooses the case of Miike coal mine explosion, a relatively insignificant one, as an example. As the book recounts how Japanese military ambitions during the World War II systematically destroyed the environment, it would have seemed more appropriate if the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been analysed. Clearly, Japan, or, for that matter, the UN, has exercised unusual restraint when it comes to publicising the USA's most long-lasting and intense environmental catastrophe. The omission is an eloquent comment on the politics of this book, whose overview, written by book editor Jun Ui, turns out to be one of its most interesting and educating chapters. In it, Ui traces the history of environmental degradation in Japan from the end of the 19th century, when Japan commenced the process of industrialisation. He details how the repressive and imperialist government could achieve its targeted growth to support its expansionist policies, only through the wanton exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of environment.

We in India believe with a tropical climate characterised by plentiful rainfall and high air draft makes rather remote the chances of environmental pollution assuming the proportions of a disaster. Strangely, the Japanese also seemed to have believed this, probably because their archipelago is surrounded by the ocean and their shores are constantly washed by the tides. They believed, therefore, that water pollution would never be a problem and strong, seasonal winds would sweep away air pollutants. But Japan has been the victim of several environmental disasters and there's a lesson to be learnt from this.

Ui raises a pertinent question while criticising Japan's environmental policy: "Is there any other country in the world that makes protection of business and industry the basis upon which the environmental pollution regulations and legal codes are built?"

It is important to read this book, which is not only a valuable reference on industrial pollution, but also encourages readers to rethink their country's policies and practices.

S Mukherjee is a writer of popular science.