One of the unfortunate ironies emerging from the Paris talks is the discrepancy between the Indian position and the Indian situation.
India is the site for the most extreme forms of environmental degradation. It is home to 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, according to the Centre for Science and Environment; its major rivers are degraded, silted and dead; its forests form only 23.7 per cent of land area, according to the World Bank; and it has one of the highest global figures for respiratory and water-borne diseases.
Obviously, the dirty fuel path to development has had such a convincing history that everyone feels entitled to it. What the U.S. and Europe achieved in a century after the Industrial Revolution, China compressed in a maddening rush of industrialisation in a mere two decades. By becoming the world’s worst polluter, China’s position now as an active participant in an alternative future places it squarely with the Americans — with high levels of per capita consumption, but with a professed desire to cut back to green fuels and technologies.
India, however, is still pitted with Colombia, Nigeria, the Gambia and other countries of West Africa and Latin America. But unlike these smaller countries, the scale of its operation is large enough to cause a noticeable coal dirt cloud over the world’s clean energy horizon. India has neither funds nor technical know-how to ease poverty without resorting to fossil fuels and the Western model. A case being illustrated now is the lacklustre experiment to unpollute Delhi.
Technology failure New Delhi today stands as a sad microcosm of India’s own alternative technology failure. Seen only as a 15-day trial, pollution control in Delhi is based on the erroneous belief that mere limiting of private cars on the road will be a major step towards changing the city’s respiratory health. No similar limits are extended to illegal industry, trucks or buses; no incentives are given to electric vehicles; and cycling and other non-polluting modes of transport have not been encouraged. Should those with two or more cars be penalised with higher road taxes and should those without cars be allowed to travel free on public transport? No expert needs to tell you that commuting is one of the biggest causes of pollution in Indian cities. Rather than building highways and increasing public transport, should mixed-use developments be encouraged so that they cut out commuting altogether? The Delhi experiment is an example of the tentative half-baked nature of most environmental initiatives in India.
Obviously, no one can deny India or China or countries in Africa their need to develop and prosper, but the inconsistency of the face that India presents at home and at international forums is both worrying and out of line with its own values. Throughout the Paris dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi harped on the twin ideals of climate justice and sustainable lifestyle. How has this translated to reality? In 2008, the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had proposed an eight-pronged National Action Plan on Climate Change that outlined serious structural changes to mitigate climate change. Among them were the promotion of solar power at a commercial scale, a new energy-building code, and incentives for urban public transport. Those eight laudable objectives lie today on a dusty government shelf, even as India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Despite wordy assurances, the Paris promises remain hollow and unsubstantiated. Neither the funds nor the technology promised to the developing world seems to be forthcoming. While the Modi government rightly asks that rich countries should have more stringent responsibilities towards the climate agreement, in reality India’s growth path itself needs serious correction. Indian ground conditions are now so desperate that they call for immediate action to alter lifestyle, urban transport and civic design. Industrial policy and the creation of buildings from an environmental perspective should be a national imperative.
Unfortunately, unable to take a stand on international ideals, India has always used abstinence as its moral calling, as was the case with North Korea, Bosnia, and Israel and Palestine. But climate change is another story. The persistent droughts in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the melting of Himalayan glaciers, and the Kashmir and Chennai floods make it all too clear that we can no longer sit on the fence. We are quick to point out the sins of the rich world, but the real offences have a decidedly local origin: among them, overbuilding, constructing in shallow riverbeds and floodplains, uncontrolled urban migration, proliferation of illegal polluting industries, lack of environmental controls, no restrictions on transport and sale of cars, and absence of clear green alternatives. Without initiatives of its own or the ability to think independently, India is a disaster waiting to happen.
Many in the developed world question whether climate change is natural or man-made; some even say it doesn’t exist. Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of choice. Whatever the arguments, a lifestyle of frugality and conservation is the only chance of surviving a future with few resources and fewer funds. When megacities the size of Delhi and Chennai become disaster zones, the time to think and react has already gone.
(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.)