There is universal acknowledgment of the fact that India needs to come back on the path of high economic growth quickly. Although GDP grew at an unprecedented annual average rate of growth of almost 7.7% during the past decade (the highest for any democracy in the world), the last two years have been disappointing. High economic growth rates fuelled by high rates of investment are essential because they generate huge revenues for the government, which can then be utilised for social welfare and infrastructure expansion programmes. Of course, it goes without saying that rapid growth alone is not enough. It must be of a nature that creates increasing productive employment opportunities and it must be inclusive as well so that more and more sections of society benefit visibly and tangibly from it.
There is a yet another dimension to economic growth, in addition to its being rapid and inclusive. And this is that economic growth has to be ecologically sustainable as well. India simply cannot afford the “grow now, pay later” model that has been adopted by most other countries, including China and Brazil. This is for at least four pressing reasons.
First, no country is going to add another 40-50 crore to its current population of about 124 crore by the middle of this century as India is destined to do. (By contrast, China will add just about 2.5 crore over the same period to its current population of about 150 crore.) We cannot compromise the prospects for our coming generations by our impatience and greed today.
Second, there is no country that faces the type of multiple vulnerabilities to climate change, both current and future as India does. This is because of its dependence on the monsoon, its very large population living in coastal areas who are vulnerable to increase in mean sea levels, its reliance on the health of the Himalayan glaciers for water security, and its preponderance of extractable natural resources like coal and iron ore in dense forest areas (more extraction means more deforestation that aggravates climate change).
Third, environment is increasingly becoming a public health concern. From unprecedented industrial and vehicular pollution to the dumping of chemical waste and municipal sewage in rivers and water-bodies, the build up to a public health catastrophe is already visible. People are already suffering in a variety of ways and environmental deterioration has emerged as a major cause of illness.
Fourth, most of what is called environmentalism in India is not middle class “lifestyle environmentalism” but actually “livelihood environmentalism” linked to daily issues of land productivity, water availability, access to non-timber forest produce, protection of water-bodies, protection of grazing lands and pastures, preservation of sacred places, etc.
Environmental concerns are, therefore, not part of some foreign plot or conspiracy by some NGOs to keep India in a state of perpetual poverty. It is an imperative we ignore at our own peril. It is not just a matter of increasing the contribution of renewables to our energy supply. Much more important are investment and technology choices in industry, agriculture, energy, transport, construction, and other sectors of the economy. In April 2014, the Planning Commission’s expert on low carbon strategies for inclusive growth submitted its final report. In the debate on the future of the Planning Commission, this report vital to our future has unfortunately been ignored. The report concludes on the basis of its detailed sectoral analysis that low carbon inclusive growth is not just desirable but is also eminently feasible even though it will require additional investments.
The Modi government, like its predecessors, has stressed its resolve to integrate environmental concerns into the mainstream of the process of economic growth. This is admirable but we must recognise that at times there will be trade-offs between growth and environment, occasions when tough choices will necessarily have to be made — choices that may well involve saying “no”. It is when you work the integration in practice, that you confront contradictions, complexities, and conflicts that cannot be brushed aside. They have to be recognised and managed sensitively as part of the democratic process.
The debate is really not one of environment versus development but really be one of adhering to rules, regulations, and laws versus taking the rules, regulations ,and laws for granted? When public hearings means having hearings without the public and having the public without hearings, it is not a environment versus development issue at all. When an alumina refinery starts construction to expand its capacity from one million tons per year to six million tons per year without bothering to seek any environmental clearance as mandated by law, it is not a “environment versus development” question, but simply one of whether laws enacted by Parliament will be respected or not. When closure notices are issued to distilleries or paper mills or sugar factories illegally discharging toxic wastes into India’s most holy Ganga river, it is not a question of “environment versus development” but again one of whether standards mandated by law are to be enforced effectively or not. When a power plant wants to draw water from a protected area or when a coal mine wants to undertake mining in the buffer zone of a tiger sanctuary, both in contravention of existing laws, it is not a “environment versus development” question but simply one of whether laws will be adhered to or not.
By all means we must make laws pragmatic. By all means we must have market-friendly means of implementing regulations. By all means, we must accelerate the rate of investment in labour-intensive manufacturing especially. But mockery should not be made of regulations and laws. Indian civilisation has always shown the highest respect for biodiversity. Therefore, it should not be difficult for us to become world leaders in green growth. This is an area of strategic leadership where India can show the way to the world. Both the champions of “growth at all costs” and the crusaders for ecological causes must work together to enable India to attain this position.
Headline image credit: Between Sissu and Keylong, Manali-Leh Highway, Himachal Pradesh, Indian Himalayas. Photo by Henrik Johansson. CC BY-NC 2.0 via henrikj Flickr.