High economic growth rates are essential because they generate huge revenues for the governments, which can then be utilized for social welfare and infrastructure expansion program. Of course, it goes without saying that rapid growth alone is not enough. It must be of a nature that creates increasing productive employment opportunities. It must be inclusive so that more and more sections of society benefit visibly and tangibly from high economic growth. There is a third dimension to economic growth, that in addition to being rapid and inclusive, it has to be ecoologically sustainable as well.
That is the simple but powerful message of this book – that environment matters, and it matters here and now for us, that sustainable development is not a luxury but an overriding necessity for India and, indeed, that sustainable development is eminently feasible. India simply cannot afford to follow the conventional ‘grow now, pay later’ model of development that has been adopted by most other countries, including China.
This is so for at least four compelling reasons. First, because India will add an additional 400 million or so to its current population of about 1.2 billion by the middle of this century. India, more than any other country, has to worry deeply about its future generations. Our impatience now cannot jeopardize growth prospects later – our greed cannot threaten future need.
Second, because India faces unique vulnerabilities – both current and projected – to climate change. These arise from our continued dependence on the monsoon, from the threat of an increase in mean sea levels to millions of families along the 7,000 km-long coastline, from the dangers posed by receding Himalayan glaciers to water flows in the north Indian rivers and from the fact that most of our vital natural resources such as coal and iron ore are located in forest-rich areas and their extraction will inevitably entail loss of a vital carbon sink.
Third, because the environment is increasingly becoming a public-health concern. From unprecedented industrial and vehicular pollution to the dumping of chemical waste and municipal sewage in rivers and water bodies, the build up to a public health catastrophe is already visible. People are already suffering in a variety of ways, and environmental deterioration has emerged as a major cause of illness. Poor health impacts productivity, pushes the poor into indebtedness and further poverty, and adversely affects growth.
Fourth, because most of what is environmentalism in India is not middle-class ‘lifestyle environmentalism’, but actually ‘livelihood environmentalism’ linked to daily issues of land productivity, water availability, access to non-timber forest produce, protection of water-bodies, protection of grazing lands and pastures, prevention of scared places, etc.
Environmental concerns are, therefore, not part of some foreign plot or conspiracy by some non-governmental organizations to keep India in a state of perpetual poverty. These are concerns that are part of our daily lives. While it is important to integrate environmental concerns into the mainstream of the process of economic growth, we must also recognize that there will be trade-offs between growth and environment. occasions when tough choices will necessarily have to be made – choices that may well involve saying ‘no’. It is when you work out the integration in practice that you confront contradictions, complexities, and conflicts that cannot be brushed aside. They have to be recognized and managed sensitively as part of the democratic process.
Adhering to Rules
The debate is really not one of environment versus development but really be one of adhering to rules, regulations and laws versus taking the rules, regulations, and laws for granted. When public hearings mean having hearings without the public and having the public without hearings, it is not an ‘environment versus development’ issue at all. When an industrial project begins construction to expand its capacity without bothering to seek any environmental clearance as mandated by law, it is not an ‘environment versus development’ question, but simply one of whether laws enacted by the Parliament will be respected or not. When closure notices are issued to distilleries or paper mills or sugar factories illegally discharging toxic wastes into India’s most holy Ganga river, it is not a question of ‘environment versus development’ but again one of whether standards mandated by law are to be enforced effectively or not.
By all means we must make laws pragmatic. By all means we must have market-friendly means of implementation regulations, and we must accelerate the rate of investment in labor-intense manufacturing. But none of it should become a mockery of regulations and laws. There is no denying that laws, regulations, and rules need to be reviewed from time to time, to ensure that new and emergent realities are addressed. But no review and no iterations should move away from the basic purpose and intent with which the legislations were created. In the case of environment related laws and regulations, the aim is to create a balance in which concerns of ecological security and other needs such as economic growth are met in a manner that neither is put at a great disadvantage. The work of achieving that balance, precarious as it is, is a continuous one.
Maintaining the balance, carefully calibrating it to meet emergent needs requires constant vigilance. While we focus on the legal structures, we often forget the key lies in how the laws and regulations are implemented and observed. We need to be more watchful, in our approach to using our natural resources, be it forests, minerals, or water. This need to be vigilant should not be at the same time be stifling, and it is for this that we need independent institutions that are transparent, accessible, and tasked with people with expertise, who are able to function without eat or favor. Compliance with laws and regulations should be the watchword at all times.
Indian civilization has always shown the highest respect for biodiversity in all its myriad forms. Therefore, it should not be difficult for us to become world leaders in green growth. This is an area of strategic leadership where Indian can show the way. Both the champions of ‘growth at all costs’ and the crusaders for ecological causes must work together to enable India to attain this position. Reasoned and sober dialogue must give way to the present acrimony, must give way to simplistic solutions advocated by either side.
There is an ancient Sanskrit saying, prakruthi rakshati rakshita – Nature protects us if we protect Nature. As the edifice of India’s environmental laws and regulations comes under renewed assault because of corporate interests, we ignore that piece of wisdom at our own peril.