Last Sunday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a book launch that in order to take on China India would have to work on three Ss — “skill, scale and speed” — he was right on the spot because those are certainly things to learn from China’s record of explosive growth during the past three decades. China has achieved incredible economic success in a remarkably short period. Since the mid-1980s, its GDP has consistently grown at an annual rate of 9.5% to 10%, a feat not paralleled anywhere else in the world. Modi hopes India can compete with China by emulating the three Ss that its economic superpower neighbour has used but he should have added a fourth S to those: sustainability.
The side effects of China’s turbocharged growth are not popularly cited when that country’s economic miracle is seen by other economies such as India’s as a model to aspire for, but they are serious ones that can jeopardise the benefits of high-speed economic progress. China’s relentless pursuit of growth has had terrifying negative fall-out. According to an official Chinese news report, in 2010, environmental degradation amounted to 3.5% of China’s GDP. Air pollution is China’s most storied and serious environmental problem but it faces every other kind of environmental crises — falling water resources; deforestation; imbalanced bio-diversity; land and water pollution; and growing greenhouse emissions. You name an imminent ecological problem and you’ll find it in China.
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About how this came to be there are many reasons but the common theme that runs through them is the path of ‘grow first and clean up later’ that China, as other industrialised countries in the past, including those in the West, have followed. For China there was another imperative: in order to maintain its legitimacy, the Communist regime had to either continue rapid growth to create jobs in large numbers or face a challenge to its authority. It’s pretty clear what happened in that trade-off.
To be fair, China has in recent years realised the enormity of the side effects that its growth strategy has spawned. The trigger could well be last year’s horrifying air pollution in many of its cities, including Beijing, where the concentration of suspended particulate matter reached alarming levels and hit the headlines in every part of global news media. China has now focused attention on its environmental problems and in some areas such as controlling carbon emissions it has already achieved progress. Yet, given its profligacy in use of resources, reversing the environmental imbalances won’t be easy.
That’s a lesson India’s new government could learn from China: what not to do. Not unlike China, India too faces the challenges of achieving high growth and creating jobs — key promises that the ruling BJP made in its manifesto during the election campaign — and Modi and his team have said they’re determined to deliver on those. Many expect faster decisions on large infrastructure projects and liberal policies that would spur more investment. But the new regime would be wise to keep the health of the environment in mind.
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In the few weeks that the new regime has been in charge, its environment minister has said project approvals will be fast-tracked: by the end of June, held-over projects worth `1,20,000 crore are likely to be cleared; and from July 1, online time-bound project approval will start. Speedy and efficient steps such as those are welcome for ensuring growth but Modi and his team need to keep an eye on the environment as well. China’s experience is like that of the frog who found himself in a bowl of comfortably lukewarm water, which was sitting on a slow flame. By the time the temperature slowly reached boiling point, it was too late to jump out — he died. In India, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be better to prevent environmental disasters than to wait till it’s too late.