Avoiding a false choice

EARTH WATCH: Environmental degradation is a symptom of wastage of resources and the pursuit of short-term profit. A jhum field in Karbi Anglong district, Assam.   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

Much of the national discourse in India poses environmental sustainability as desirable but inimical to our objective of achieving a high rate of GDP growth, without which poverty eradication and economic and social development of our people would not be possible. There is a trade-off, it is argued, between pursuing development and safeguarding the environment. Still others point to the history of modern industrial development: first there was widespread pollution and degradation of the environment, and then a clean-up and setting of high international standards once prosperity was achieved. China appears to be following the same logic even though there appears to be some rethinking on the subject. We reject these arguments. At the very outset we wish to reiterate that safeguarding the environment is not at all inimical to rapid economic development. In fact, in our resource constrained world today, maintaining high environmental standards may have become a prerequisite for achieving steady, long-term growth of our economy. This is particularly so given our high population density and the dependence of large numbers on ecosystem services. Nor do we accept the argument that higher standards of living are incompatible with an insistence on environmental sustainability. In fact, maintaining and improving the quality of life for all our citizens may only be possible if the environmental degradation that we witness all around us is reversed and the fragile ecology of our country is preserved. These two propositions lie at the heart of the concept of Green Growth.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Green growth is about fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that the natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies.” The 13th Finance Commission clearly underscored this in stating, “Green growth involves rethinking growth strategies with regard to the impacts on environmental sustainability and the environmental resources available to poor and vulnerable groups.”

Diminishing returns

In rethinking growth, we need to focus on the current reality of a resource constrained world. During their period of rapid economic growth, the small cluster of western economies had access to the resources of the entire world. Technological progress further extended such access. Today, with the “rise of the rest,” in particular the rapid development of continental size and highly populous countries like India and China, the demand for resources of every kind, has been rising exponentially. We are entering an era of finite resources where the production and consumption patterns typical of the advanced western economies are no longer sustainable. Resource intensive and, in particular energy intensive processes will need to make way for more efficient and resource frugal development strategies if we are to avoid an economic dead end or a world in which only a small elite is able to enjoy affluence in the midst of a sea of poverty. Environmental degradation is, in essence, a symptom of wastage of resources and the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term sustainable development.

In India, we face a crisis in agriculture because it is land, energy and water intensive and all three resources are becoming increasingly scarce. The heavy use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides has ravaged our soil and contaminated our food chain and water supply. The prolonged and unprotected handling of toxic chemicals is also exposing our farmers to multiple health problems, whose economic and social costs are rarely considered. The Green Revolution may have led to a period of food self-sufficiency but that input intensive strategy has now run its course and is yielding diminishing returns even while generating widespread environmental degradation. The good news is that a number of field studies carried out in various parts of the country have demonstrated that high yields in agriculture are compatible with practices that make minimal use of chemical inputs, conserve water and rely on organic nutrients and bio-pesticides. The natural fertility of the soil in these locations has been restored also leading to the revival of microorganisms in the subsoil which make the soil a living asset.

Fossil fuels and a shift

The air in our cities is heavily polluted and this too, is leading to increasing public health problems. The incidence of respiratory and ophthalmological problems in our urban population has been on the rise alarmingly. Even in our villages, the inefficient burning of bio-mass for meeting rural energy and cooking needs continues to cause both indoor and external air pollution again with serious health consequences, leave aside their climate change impact globally. The use of carbon-based fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is at the heart of our economic processes and hence the challenge we face both in dealing with most forms of environmental degradation and climate change. Unless we make a strategic shift from our current reliance on fossil fuels to progressively greater use of renewable and clean sources of energy, green growth will remain a chimera. Making this shift requires rationalising our pricing of goods and services. The Indian economy suffers from pernicious subsidies, such as those on kerosene, even though it is common knowledge that 40 per cent of subsidised kerosene finds its way into adulteration of petroleum products. There is a cost-effective alternative to meeting the lighting needs of our rural population, without the health costs of ingesting kerosene fumes. TERI’s “Lighting a Billion Lives” campaign, based on modern designs of solar lanterns, has established the economic viability and social benefits of this option, but the spread of this technology is hampered by the barrier of kerosene subsidies.

Steps forward

Green growth in India can only be promoted by providing certain essential services to people as public goods. People have the right to mobility, not necessarily the right to private transportation for obtaining this service. If the density of car ownership in India was to reach even a fraction of that in western countries, the requirement for fuel imports and land for roads and parking would be multiples of the current global levels. We must invest in convenient and efficient public transportation and discourage private transport. Rail transport and the use of waterways would be less costly and less polluting, while bringing benefits to the vast majority of our people. India should position itself as an early leader in the green technology revolution, having missed out on the industrial revolution and becoming only a late entrant to the ICT revolution.

Green growth is efficient growth. Green growth is inclusive growth. Green growth is sustainable growth, ensuring that we never take from Nature beyond her capacity for regeneration. India is living on an ecological overdraft. It is time for us to balance our books reflecting our true assets and real liabilities. Mahatma Gandhi rightly stated, “We may utilize the gifts of Nature just as we choose but in her books, the debits are always equal to the credits”.

(Dr. R.K. Pachauri is director general, TERI, Dr. K. Srinath Reddy is president, Public Health Foundation of India, and Shyam Saran is chairman, National Security Advisory Board.)

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 3:28:26 AM |

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