Teaches economic and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. He has been on an advisory group of the ministry of environment as well as environmental fellow at the US Environment Protection Agency. He is also the author of Encircling the Seamless — India, Climate Change and the Global Commons
The Ganges has never been in greater despair! For many years she ungrudgingly provided a watery grave for half burnt human corpses. But now the immense strain on her long, windingly beautiful body is palpably evident. Trying hard to live up to her reputation of being a sin cleanser, the toxic sin of pollutants poured on her by industrial units situated along her banks seems to have weighed her down. The assault continues in spite of ambitious action plans to restore her to her prime. Her famous sisters, the Narmada, Mahanadi, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery who nourish and nurture human settlements in Central, North East and Southern India lie parched in critical stretches, choked with silt, thanks to relentless deforestation and unsustainable projects on their catchments. If some of us have our way, we would even stifle the natural course of the seven sisters to the sea by positioning our industry, tourism and real estate complexes along critical outfall points.
India is the latest showpiece in the world, a democracy that has sloughed off her developing status to rise as an emerging economic power. The latest gossip making rounds in world’s finance capitals is about the Indian economy steadily posting a 10 percent plus annual growth rate in the current decade. In reality, the Indian economy is left with no other option. Our tremendous demographic dividend of ‘quality human capital’ is also our liability. It compels us to churn out more and more ‘quality jobs’, not just for one or two years but for at least three decades at a stretch. We need more power projects, transport infrastructure, services and manufacturing units that do not tax our environment. All the same we have our responsibilities towards large communities of forest dwellers and poorer sections of the society who, despite the country’s economic miracle, eke out a miserable existence.
The chasm between the educated class and the poor communities of India is not easy to manage. For sections of prosperous India that dream of driving Ferraris on superhighways, the key concern is to have their deep fuel tanks full and brimming. They do not hear the gasp of the Ganga. They see nothing tragic about gigantic land gougers, comically branded ‘Caterpillar’, breaking lush green landscapes to feed CO2 guzzling power plants. However, we also have many others with us who would like to resolve the environment-economy pull off. In the preceding three years many Indian companies have voluntarily come forward to declare their carbon trail.
In reality, we have our share of imagined trade-offs. Let us take illegal mining in the Western Ghats. Today, things have come to such a pass that we deploy aerial vehicles (our version of ‘snoopy’ drones) to detect convoys of trucks carrying contraband minerals. Where is the trade-off problem here? All that we need is the will to crack down by drawing in the support of local communities.
The real challenge lies in resolving trade-offs that rise from environmentally sensitive projects that seek regulatory nod. In the past two years India’s Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has, by saying nay to certain classes of projects, attempted to indirectly guide our trajectory of development. However for this indirect message to gain mainstream acceptance, we need to bring in a philosophical shift of policy in at least two directions. First, by having a clearer definition of what constitutes ‘economic progress’ and secondly by bringing in principles of environmental governance, which Oliver Williamson terms as ‘fiat and forbearance’.
The term economic progress suffers from multiple connotations that are conflicting in nature. For many of us economic progress is about livelihood. For others it means improvements in standards of living. Indeed there is a fringe that considers progress to be capabilities to enjoy high-end, effulgent lifestyles.