For India Inc, nature conservation needs to be a priority

Published on Sep 01, 2022 05:40 PM IST

The article has been authored by Ramnath Vaidyanathan, an associate vice-president and head, Environmental Sustainability, Godrej Industries Ltd and Associated Companies.

Nature conservation is concerned with the protection of nature and its resources that are vital for the survival of the planet and all its inhabitants. But India has a poor record on that front. The country barely achieved 2.8% of its plantation target under the government’s 10-year afforestation scheme, the Green India Mission (GIM), according to the Economic Survey 2020-21.
Nature conservation is concerned with the protection of nature and its resources that are vital for the survival of the planet and all its inhabitants. But India has a poor record on that front. The country barely achieved 2.8% of its plantation target under the government’s 10-year afforestation scheme, the Green India Mission (GIM), according to the Economic Survey 2020-21.
ByHindustan Times

Corporate India is increasingly waking up to the fact that building successful businesses isn’t just about selling high-quality products or providing class-leading services. Today consumers expect a lot more from a business. They expect brands to display a social conscience, care for the environment, a commitment to sustainability, a certain ethical standard and transparent corporate governance.

These altruistic business practices in boardrooms around the world have come to be known collectively as ESG, or Environmental Social and Governance practices. They are a measure of just how ‘good’ a company’s business is.

How an organisation treats its employees, its processes, policies, and the care it takes to minimise the impact of its operations on the environment and local communities can all directly influence its profitability.

This is because a company’s goodness, as gleaned from transparent disclosures of its ESG strategy in annual reports and therefore its exposure to risks from environmental and social factors, influences everything from a consumer’s purchase decision to access to credit.

A Global Private Equity Survey conducted by Ernst & Young this year found that private equity (PE) firms now look for ESG initiatives as one of the top three priorities besides talent management and product/strategy expansion.

To put it simply consumers won’t buy from companies that aren’t perceived as being good, lenders won’t lend to them and investors won’t invest in them. Even potential employees may choose not to work for them.

Strong ESG principles are no longer just good to have but a must have for modern businesses to survive and thrive and India Inc is engaged in a whole host of ESG initiatives in fields ranging from education to waste management as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

But one area they have fallen short in is the environment.

Covid-19 provided a stark wake-up call and prompted each of us on a governmental, corporate and individual level to reflect on our relationship with nature.

But a study conducted by CRISIL in May 2022 revealed that out of 586 public companies across 53 sectors in India, only one-fifth had published a sustainability report.

One area in particular that is particularly lacking in attention and is need of urgent intervention is nature conservation.

Nature conservation is concerned with the protection of nature and its resources that are vital for the survival of the planet and all its inhabitants.

But India has a poor record on that front. The country barely achieved 2.8% of its plantation target under the government’s 10-year afforestation scheme, the Green India Mission (GIM), according to the Economic Survey 2020-21. Similarly, the afforestation that was achieved under the GIM was done so without taking into account soil and weather conditions, the survey revealed. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg - nature conservation and clearly corporates need to step in to support the government in achieving its conservation aims.

At companies like Godrej, nature conservation has been an area of top focus. In 2019, we began work on a six-year watershed development programme in partnership with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in drought-prone areas like Magadi in Karnataka, Barwani in Madhya Pradesh, Beed in Maharashtra, and Siddipet in Telangana.

The aim was to enable farming communities in semi-arid areas to become less vulnerable by adopting efficient use of land and water resources.

Watershed development involves restructuring of a valley to capture rainfall and allow it to percolate into the soil. This helps in increasing the water table and availability of water for irrigation and domestic purposes. In regions dependent on agriculture, a higher water table ensures year-round cropping.

Though the primary target was to recharge groundwater, what we realised was that when the target was achieved it had secondary and tertiary benefits such as an increase in green cover and improvements in soil nutrition resulted in improved agricultural productivity, which in turn led to increased farmer livelihoods. In the long-term, this would make farming a much more profitable profession and reverse migration from cities as local employment goes up. This could also lead to a positive impact on off-farm activities such as dairy and poultry farming.

However, the challenge with nature loss and biodiversity is that there is no globally accepted standard for biodiversity measurement and baselining. When you look at the other areas interconnected with nature conservation—for instance, emissions, carbon waste, pollution, plastic usage—there are defined criteria. But there is no single parameter for measuring biodiversity. Biodiversity is linked to every other issue plaguing the planet. Hence, any such target or program will have to be highly localised and bespoke to the location of the site.

India Inc has a major role to help establish this conservation baseline. Imagine, with all our resources combined, the difference we could make. The time has never been more ripe for a concerted, focussed strategy. As I mentioned above, ESG is becoming increasingly indispensable to doing business today. Equally, the corporate sector is not just talking the talk but also walking the walk, and has shown a genuine will to engage in ESG initiatives. It’s no longer just a box-ticking exercise. Corporates today are willing to be held accountable against their commitments.

In this context, the first step for India Inc to take would be to become cognizant of their footprint and start measuring this impact in tangible terms. The next step would be to transparently disclose the impact, the targets and timelines for reduction and periodically report on progress. Last, we all need to work together to devise a universal action plan to maximise the positive impact we can have. If we work in isolation our efforts will not be enough to move the needle.

There are many challenges to nature conservation. Among them are:

Lack of reliable data: At present, there is no reliable data on the subject. Whatever is available is dated and inaccurate. Granular and relevant data is critical, be it with regard to nature, water and climate.

Working in silos: Nature conservation is not just the concern of either the government or the corporates or NGOs or any other collective. It cannot be addressed in silos. It impacts all who live on this planet and so everyone needs to get on a common platform. Each one can must do their share.

Lack of indigenous thought: How can we focus on going green in a rapid manner in terms of sustainability? The indigenous people have known the secret and live without disturbing the ecological balance. It is imperative we listen to ancient wisdom and learn from them.

The biggest challenge we face is crossing the threshold where the damage already done to the environment becomes irreparable. In many facets such as the extinction of species, loss of ozone cover and the eutrophication of water bodies, among others, we have already crossed that threshold. We do not have the luxury of time on our side.

The solution may lie in going back to a simpler, more traditional way of living which was more sustainable. We in India are adept at it—think ‘reuse’. We have a tradition of reusing a plastic water bottle to store oil or re-purposing old clothes to create bags. We don’t throw last night’s food but - it appears in a different form as breakfast. These are just a few examples. Thankfully, sustainable living is becoming fashionable again. The current generation of youth is much more conscious of making sustainable lifestyle choices and are, on the whole, much more in tune with their responsibility towards the planet. Things may not be as bleak and gloomy as they appear. However, time is of the essence and we cannot afford to lose much more of it if we want to conserve what’s left of a rapidly depleting natural planet.

The article has been authored by Ramnath Vaidyanathan, an associate vice-president and head, Environmental Sustainability, Godrej Industries Ltd and Associated Companies.

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