The Human Development Report 2007-2008 of the UNDP draws attention to climate change as a potential impediment to social sector progress in the developing economies. The question is particularly important for India as it attempts to overcome mass deprivation and associated challenges in various areas. Modest improvements have been registered over the long term in health, education, and poverty indicators. India’s Human Development Index value is rising but in relative terms the country fares abysmally: 128th in a list of 177 countries. The gains — raising life expectancy at birth by four years and the virtual doubling of per capita GDP between 1990 and 2005 — are not insignificant. But much more could have been achieved in the social sector after economic liberalisation had national policy taken on the challenge of overcoming mass deprivation as a priority. A determined state-led expansion of public health, education, and welfare would have created wider access to good quality healthcare, literacy, universal education, and economic opportunity. Now these unmet goals must be pursued under the shadow of new costs for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen sets out the human development perspective lucidly in his special contribution to the UNDP report. Development in its true sense, he points out, is an enabler of human freedoms and well-being, rather than a mere enhancement of inanimate objects of convenience. It is inseparable from environmental and ecological concerns such as clean air and water, epidemic-free surroundings, and the preservation of all life forms. Well conceived policies will recognise this need to harmonise economic and environmental imperatives. India cannot avoid factoring in the likely climate change effects: economic stress from changes in rainfall patterns, debilitating losses in agriculture, the continuing retreat of Himalayan glaciers feeding vital river systems, and more extreme weather events. The common future of Indians, as with people everywhere, urgently demands policy changes to reduce climate risks . In the area of climate, India must give up its defensive, do-little stance and become a world leader in working out and implementing emission reduction, mitigation, and adaptation strategies.