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Now to sell the idea

Sustainability is a political project that politicians need to make happen. KumKum Dasgupta writes.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2012 23:22 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

It is no secret that developing countries like India are finding it difficult to balance economic growth and its development and environment agendas. But at the same time, they have also begun to realise that the impact of unsustainable growth will be a costly affair. For example, to tackle the impact of climate change on its coastline, India is installing a gird of weather radars and early warning systems - and these instruments definitely don't come cheap.

In India too, politicians and bureaucrats are speaking the language of sustainability. Ahead of an international meeting on climate change, the PM tweeted: Economic growth is essential for the people, but we cannot allow growth to be pursued in a manner which damages our environment. (This made its way to Facebook and led to a flurry of comments, mostly asking him to walk the talk).

The issue of climate change and sustainable growth has also come up in pre-budget consultations. Recently, chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu revealed that the forthcoming Economic Survey will have, for the first time in its history, a chapter on climate change finance. A couple of days later in Pune, K Kasturirangan, member of the Planning Commission said the 12th Five Year Plan, which is in the process of finalisation, will focus on reclaiming wetlands and protection of biodiversity.

While going green is no more a question of choice, a new United Nations report - Resilient People, Resilient Panel: A future Worth Choosing - is a timely reminder to governments of the areas that need constant support and attention. The report says that while the world's economic growth curve has been moving upwards, the process has not been very sustainable.

But is there a way out? Is making that sustainable choice easy when there is not much money available for poor countries to put in technology and systems in place to reverse the trend? "There is no silver bullet," Janos Pasztor, executive secretary of the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability that brought out the report, tells me. "But if we empower people to make sustainable choices, transform the way the economy works, set up a new institutional architecture, we can be at least of the right path."

Instead of looking at environmental or social protection as expensive additional costs (which get dropped off the priority list by most finance ministers when financial crunch kicks in), there should be, according to Pasztor, "whole government approaches" that focus on growth, while addressing the environmental and social issues.

But such a focus needs a strong political will. But, as we all know, it is easier said than done. Take the Uttar Pradesh polls. While development was a key promise when the campaigning had just started, nearer to elections the vocabulary was back to the old issues: caste and community. So centralising the sustainable development agenda and making it a political issue will take much more than just a few token words.

Pasztor agrees and adds that sustainability is indeed a "political project". "Leaders need to recognise the inter-linkages between the issues, and create the conditions in which the different governmental and non-governmental actors can address these issues." As an example of what he is saying, one could look at India's Green Revolution. It increased productivity, but it did so at the expense of the environment.

"Now we have a chance to address these issues together, and make choices that will be better for society," says Pasztor. "But no programme can be successful without the people. But we cannot push people. Instead, conditions have to be created to help people make rational choices like labeling of green products and services".

He adds that market mechanisms also have an "absolutely crucial role" to play: "With limited public resources, governments should create the appropriate space in which the private sector can make those investments that can move us substantially toward sustainability".

But while institutional mechanisms and political push are important, sustainable development is not something specific that one can achieve. As Pasztor says, "Rather, it is a direction, and a way of doing things." In the year of the big Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio, this is something India - and the world - will do well to remember.