Rethinking development, sustainability balancing act

India has a chance to break away from past development paradigms that have largely subjugated the interests of the environment


India’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels are the third highest in the world, and soon likely to become the highest. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
India’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels are the third highest in the world, and soon likely to become the highest. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

On 15 June 2012, Nikolas Nik Wallenda did something remarkable. A seventh generation member of The Flying Wallenda family, famous for its acrobatic feats, Nikolas became the first human to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope—after a lifetime of practice and protracted discussions with both the US and Canadian governments. Finding the right balance between economic development and environmental impact is much like walking the tightrope across Niagara Falls.

On one side is the argument for economic growth. India has made a lot of progress in the last two decades, but it is clear that the growth engine has to remain fired up for many more years to ensure increased incomes, improved livelihood and a better quality of life. Many other countries have made this journey—some in the last couple of decades (China), some in the last half century (the Asian tigers) and others over the last century (most of the Western world).

The other side of the debate centres around the issue of environmental sustainability. Its proponents paint grim scenarios of the future that include water scarcity, high levels of pollution, extreme weather phenomena and the regular occurrence of natural disasters such as floods and droughts that can have a catastrophic impact on millions of lives. Constant rehabilitation of displaced citizens, erratic food supply, contaminated water, and rampant disease among other issues could strain an economy fighting to grow, destabilizing the very fabric of our society.

Some of these scenarios can actually become reality unless we rethink the balance between development and sustainability. Some would argue that India’s past environmental record for most key pollutants tracked globally has been less effective than desired. India’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels are the third highest in the world, and soon likely to become the highest. Some of the cities in India have earned notoriety for being the most polluted in the world, based on the urban air quality.

Others would argue that on a per capita basis, these Indian cities are still among those with the lowest emission levels. They would argue that every country made trade-offs while going through economic development and fixed the issues later. Some of the rivers in Europe were among the most polluted at the turn of the 20th century but have improved dramatically since.

The fact is that this is a complex issue and there are no silver bullets that would satisfy either side. What makes it even more complex is the intergenerational and global nature of the impact. In many cases the impact on the environment is not localized, and in almost all cases it would have a greater influence on the next generation than the current. There are those who argue that countries such as India should curb consumption and contribute to minimizing the impact of their activities on the environment—in fact, tighten their belts and not eat so much in order to save the planet. Those on the other side say developing countries have come to the party during the dessert course of the five-course meal—but are being asked to pay for the entire dinner eaten by the developed countries.

As our economy grows and we strive to lift 280 million people out of poverty, our socio-economic development models will be put to the test. One of the challenges we will face will be responsibly managing the environmental impact of our country’s rapid growth.

There are four key aspects in the way things work today that merit consideration as we think through our sustainability paradigm. First and foremost, India will need to recognize and factor in environmental implications of development into its growth roadmap upfront, rather than deal with these issues as an after-thought.

Secondly, the current model of “managing” the impact of growth on the environment involves a combination of “license raj” permits and remedial “judiciary-led” prescriptions. This model will not help in dealing with the complex, interrelated effects of India’s large-scale, cornerstone infrastructure projects on the environment.

Thirdly, while our fundamental environmental laws are comprehensive and well intentioned, what we lack is an active entity that focuses exclusively on ensuring these laws are adhered to right at the beginning, during the planning process. Many individuals and organizations adhere to these laws only on paper, taking advantage of loopholes in licensing processes. Identifying those who bend the rules to procure permits has been left to public activists or to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The only method of redressal for them is to appeal to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for justice. This mechanism, however, is not sustainable.

And finally, learnings from the development models of the Occident over the past 200 years, the Industrial Revolution, America, Europe, Japan, the more recent Chinese model, and the sunrise in the knowledge economy model provide us the benefit of “historical” wisdom to make choices that stay clear of environmental costs and “mistakes” and hence forge a unique development model that is inclusive of the sustainability imperative. India should learn from the past and also work collectively with others to find a solution.

To do that, first and foremost, we must acknowledge the problem and not dismiss it, or worse, accept the situation, as is our habit. Our well-honed “jugaad” capabilities help us surpass and “delay” the recognition of the problem but not wish it away. When tap water was found to be contaminated, water filters emerged. We then had bottled water everywhere, letting us bask in our false sense of security of having surmounted the problem. Today, we are trying to battle air pollution with air filters and face masks. Soon, people will start stepping out of their homes with portable air filters, raising the false sense of security to a whole new level. Many will start working harder in a growth economy to be able to afford these new contraptions, which ironically, address problems of our own making. Those unable to do so will see their lifespan shortened. We will then move into an era of “survival of the richest”. It would be important not to repeat the story of our “innovativeness” with water to other elements. Let us first and foremost recognize the problem for what it is and direct our energies in solving it from the root rather than “mask” it.

Second, we need to realize that environmental issues are not secondary to other issues related to growth, such as improving infrastructure, providing uninterrupted power for all, or arresting inflation. The premise that environment should take a back-seat until we develop as a nation and solve our basic needs could prove to be flawed. It is likely to lead us down a path where we transfer the costs of our short-sightedness to our future generations. We can learn from the “mistakes” of our predecessors, who have been on similar development journeys and combine it with the emergence of newer, better and cheaper technologies to ensure that our choices and solutions address environmental aspects. Environmental issues must be addressed simultaneously as we move along the path of development.

Just as civil engineers design buildings with re-enforcements to ensure they can endure the seismic conditions of the region, we need to make environmental planning a mandatory and integral part of the development process. This debate and its conclusion, with its inherent trade-offs, will necessarily have to be a multi-partisan effort.

An important aspect of the development path we choose is that we must not merely accept the duality of the problem, i.e., the fallacy that we have to choose between growth and environmental perseveration. The two can and must co-exist. To make the right choices, we need to have as much information as possible about the environmental impact of development, including the true cost of this impact. Equipped with this data, we can make intelligent trade-offs, and sustainable choices.

A case in point is the debate on coal versus natural gas as a source of power. Prima facie, coal-based power is cheaper than gas-based power—the reason why we have chosen coal to meet about 60% of our power requirements. But is coal really cheaper? Have we factored in the cost of CO2 emissions? Or the cost of other air pollutants (SOx, NOx, PM10, PM2.5)? We also need to understand that in comparison to gas, conventional coal uses four times as much water. These are not straightforward issues—and even the so called developed countries are facing some of these choices as they think about energy security and pollution. The important element is to realize explicitly the choices that need to be made and factor in the best possible information available at the time.

There is no duality, there are multiple development paths available, and a holistic understanding of the environmental impact of each alternative will allow us to make sustainable choices. This understanding of trade-offs with a longer horizon may allow us to make the case for even bolder moves in renewables.

Third, we need to create new institutions or bolster existing ones to drive greater vigilance, compliance and enforcement of our environmental laws and policies.

In most countries, there are quasi-autonomous, quasi-government organizations or agencies that ensure compliance and enforcement such as the Environment Agency in the UK and the Federal Environment Agency in Germany. In India, we have similar institutional establishments—the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the associated State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs). However, these entities need to be revamped to gear up for the challenges ahead.

Finally, we should not bear the burden of solving these issues alone or in isolation; we can and should lean on other nations. Global warming, for instance, caused by GHGs, is a worldwide problem and advanced economies have historically contributed disproportionately more to this problem than developing nations. Developed countries bear a higher responsibility for the costs—the $100 billion fund committed in COP-21 is a reflection of this “guilty” sentiment. But this $100 billion fund should be a real fund that creates real impact—and not merely a symbolic or rhetorical gesture. India should find ways to mobilize public and governmental support in developed countries to ensure that a balanced outcome can be achieved. The recent Kigali agreement signed by India and 196 other countries is a good example. Critics on both sides would argue that India did too little or conceded too much—but the fact that there are differential time frames and thresholds is a step in the right direction that takes into account India’s starting position and its place on the economic development curve.

We should therefore work with foreign governments and global organizations to find ways and means of subsidizing clean fuel and cleaning our rivers and aquifers. We should unashamedly “ask” and work with developed countries and traditional “polluters” to fund the sustainability war. India should use the best technology available anywhere in the world and have the developed countries fund the same. The future “wars” to protect our environment require a new “coalition of the willing” as the problem we face is as much local as it is global.

Making the move, now

India has an enormous opportunity to demonstrate sustainable growth and break away from the development paradigms of the past that have largely subjugated the interests of the environment.

To be able to realize this potential, we need to acknowledge the urgency of the environmental agenda and make bold moves heretofore uncharted. Instead of leaving the quagmire for a later “developed” day, we must adopt a “green vision” as part of the development agenda in full earnest today. The time has indeed come to add “swachh paani” and “hawa” to “roti-kapada-makaan-aur-bijli”, so we can begin our journey towards sustainable growth from today.

Rahool Pai-Panandiker is partner and director, Boston Consulting Group, and Abheek Singhi is senior partner and director, BCG.

The views expressed here are personal.

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