In the run-up to last month’s climate change summit at Copenhagen, there were many invitations to physical and electronic forums to discuss “green jobs”—that is, those jobs that either pass the test of not harming the environment or focus on green technologies. While this concept may be relevant in rich countries, environmentalists are knocking on an already open door in India: 95% of our working age population lives off agriculture, in rural areas, or suffers poverty—the greenest jobs in the world. So this is one global ranking that we undisputedly top.
But this ranking is shameful for many reasons. First, because a job in our low-productivity agriculture is often a ticket to poverty—the reason 65% of our population produces 18% of our output. Second, because informal employment is the slavery of the 21st century—93% of our labour force works in the unorganized sector. Third, because job creation clusters are missing—200,000 of our 600,000 villages have fewer than 200 people. Fourth, because 40% of our labour force is low-productivity working poor—they make enough money to live but not enough to pull out of poverty. Fifth, because our rotten 3E (education, employability and employment) regime means that the most important decision a child makes in India today is to choose his or her parents wisely.
Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
I believe that people who care for the environment are making a Faustian bargain by aligning with trade unions, the left chatterati and anti-free market types. While there seems to be a short-term alignment among these ideological types arising from a perceived shared opponent—markets and business—such associations undermine long-term legitimacy and soft power. That’s because the best odds for saving our environment lie in finding regulated market solutions for poverty, energy and transportation.
Trade unions—always quick to position their own self-interest as the greater good—are reacting predictably. They released a report just before Copenhagen entitled, Green growth for jobs and social justice. Prepared by a global association of unions, this report is not only self-serving because it “strives to put social justice on the climate change agenda” but also patronizing because it advocates “finding a new development model for poor countries”.
Green jobs are a child of the “good growth” concept propagated by well-meaning folks who believe poor countries do not need to make trade-offs between growth and the environment. While this positioning of “green” as the ultimate free ride is intellectually and spiritually appealing, I’m in the camp of Ronald Reagan, who once said, “You can have everything you want. You just can’t have it all at the same time”. Today, there are clear, real and high costs of going green. These parallel lines only meet when technology creates viable, sustainable and scalable alternatives that make the green environment trade-off superfluous for poor countries. But we are not there today and it is dangerous, discriminatory and dishonest to insist that we are.
The last few years have confirmed that we don’t have to be Western to be modern. But moral pressure around green jobs or good growth only reverts to old biases in the game that favour developed countries. Copenhagen disappointed because, right or wrong, the fairness gene in our heads—and the burden of history and hope—will sabotage anything that either raises the development bar for poor countries or doesn’t involve the rich countries undoing their carbon debits.
The Copenhagen initial offer made by rich countries to help poor countries for $10 billion per year for three years is a joke. And given rich countries’ fiscal positions and demographics, their collective vow to mobilize $100 billion by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation programmes deserves Mahatma Gandhi’s quip to the 1942 offer made by Stafford Cripps of guaranteeing India’s independence after World War II—a “post-dated cheque on a failing bank”.
India must get its sequencing right and currently focus only on creating jobs and equality of opportunity. Nuances to economic development and industrialization are only acceptable after we hit certain per capita income, health and education thresholds. Growth before good growth. Food for stomach before food for thought. Thresholds before limits.
India needs to reform labour laws, skill its youth, and fix its education system so it can get people off farms, explode manufacturing, increase urbanization and expand organized employment. And, thereby, eradicate green jobs and poverty.
Manish Sabharwal is chairman, Teamlease Services. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org