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An unbalanced act

The recently concluded Rio+20 summit has led to reflection on the idea of development and an acknowledgement that the world's natural resources are under serious pressure. What does this mean for India?

delhi Updated: Jul 01, 2012 01:26 IST

India's economic growth had been impressive but it has failed to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner. Forty years down the line, the call of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 to strike a balance between growth and environment still remains a distant dream. "Back at the Cocoyoc Declaration in 1974, when the definition of development was discussed, it was recognised that development is not of 'things', but of mankind. We ended up moving in the opposite direction," says power policy analyst Shankar Sharma.

The government's own data shows how planners have rampaged through ecology to achieve high growth in the last two decades, when the shackles of the license-permit raj were removed. Around 70% of India's surface water is now contaminated, just 35-40% of waste water from Indian industries is cleaned before discharge, most industries failed to score more than 50% on environment sustainability scorecard, half of the Indian cities fail to meet the government's own air pollution norms, two of the world's most polluted cities - Vapi in Gujarat and Sukinda in Orrisa - are in India and half of rural Indian homes do not have safe drinking water sources. The issue hits even closer home. The Renuka dam in Himachal Pradesh was proposed to provide drinking water to Delhi, but the government didn't make any provisions to safeguard existing resources.

India's success story in the last two decades has gone hand in hand with the exploitation of natural resources. This has had its obvious implications. The proportion of dense forests has been rapidly falling, according to latest Forest Survey of India report. As many as 89 new bird species are on the threatened list since 2001 due to habitat loss, says Asad Rahmani, director of Mumbai based Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). "The Saker Falcon and the Great Slaty Woodpecker are the latest additions," he says. "According to the National Forest Policy of 1985, at least 33% of the country needs to be under forest cover. It's less than 20% currently," says Sharma.

The stark environmental degradation indicators have had an impact on the country's health. The World Health Organisation estimates that 24% of global disease burden and 23% of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors. A study of US Based Health Effects Institute said that at least 3,000 people in Delhi die every year due to air pollution linked causes. "In developing countries such as India, an estimated 42% of acute lower respiratory infections are caused by environmental factors," a WHO official says, adding that the majority of victims are poor.

Indian industry, however, claims that it's doing its bit to protect the environment and that the country's per capita ecological footprint has shrunk by 12% in the last two decades when the GDP grew by 190%. Industry also claims it is one of the most energy efficient in the world even though around 450 million Indians don't have a regular power connection. "Every ATM has two ACs that run 24/7. Calculate the number of ATMs in the country and one gets an idea of the extent of electricity consumption," points out an environment expert.

"The larger enterprises have adopted global best practices in sustainability," says S Gopalakrishanan, president designate of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and co-founder of Infosys, while admitting that the 11 million medium and small scale industries (which contribute 40% of industrial GDP) were a problem.

Civil society bodies such as Kalpavariksh and South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has blamed the government and industry collusion for failing strike to balance between growth and industry. Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP says unless economic growth is democratic and participatory, protecting the environment will be difficult. Ashish Kothari of Kapavariksh is of the view that unless the government puts the interest of the people before industry, balance can't be achieved. The solution, according to Sharma, lies in cost versus benefit. "We need to change the paradigm from looking at the project developers' side to looking at society. Whether its Singur (West Bengal), Posco (Orissa) or Mundra (Gujarat), we're failing to see the cost to people and resources."

Gopalakrishanan agrees that achieving the balance is important considering India's rising population and limited natural resources and suggests a two-pronged approach. First, industry should adopt green norms such as renewable energy sources, the reuse of waste and adoption of cleaner technologies and second, the government should drive sustainable development by simplifying procedures and providing incentives. The practical way forward, according to environment experts, is to take a rational view of the country's development needs - how much electricity does a child need to read or how best can drinking water be provided to every household in the country - as well as decreasing inequality in resources usage.

Noted environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta feels the concept of sustainable development hinges on justice, democratic participation and good governance. "Currently, its the classic case of hiding behind the poor. First you say projects are needed for them. When the poor protest, you violently crush them." When the Uttranchal dams were sanctioned in 2005, there was little information on how the project would impact people and resources. Yet it went ahead says Dutta. "In 2009-10, when the rivers started drying up, the government had to scrap the project despite having invested R600 crore. So much could've been avoided if public consultation had taken place earlier."

Achieving what civil society and industry is saying is possible by tweaking existing provisions. The Forest Rights Act provides for informed consent of locals for new industrial and developmental projects and a similar rule can be extended to non-forest areas. Rules under Environment Protection Act provide for recycling of waste and faster approval to industries adopting cleaner technologies. "Its implementation in letter and spirit is required," says a senior Planning Commission functionary.

Foresight is crucial. The recent approval suspension for projects such as Andhra Pradesh's thermal power plant, Tamil Nadu's IL&FS or the Renuka dam in the last year, owing to the lack of legal compliances, are some cases in point. "It's better to be suspended at the planning stage than face people's anger later, like what happened in Singur. Business in India is thriving because people opt for shortcuts thinking it'll save costs," says Dutta.

First Published: Jul 01, 2012 00:12 IST