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Environment vs development: India’s policy dilemmas?

Jun 07, 2013

Compared to developed nations, India is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their low capacity to adapt and their disproportionate dependency on natural resources for welfare, writes Dr Antony Gnanamuthu.

The environment /climate change crisis and development needs of the India’s poor require us to acknowledge the necessity and urgency for both continued growth at the current pace, and rapid greening of this growth strategy. The threat of human-induced climate change poses a serious question to humanity: how can India achieve an all-rounded human development in the future without degrading our environment But are the aims of growth and environmental protection irredeemably incompatible? Thus serious environmental problems such as ecosystem disturbance, climate change, water and air pollution, and rising sea levels can be seen as the unintended consequences of the development process. The recent history of Indian economic growth has largely been achieved at the expense of the environment?

India and many developing countries actually suffer “a double injustice”: environmental degradation and climate change will impinge on the poor countries hardest, but at the same time, they are required to be “part of the solution” by cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the expense of their economic development. Environmental degradation can only intensify these existing development problems. For example, increased maximum temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are already exerting negative impacts on the agriculture and food security of many low-income communities, while several coastal states in India are suffering from damage to our ocean - fauna and flora brought on by ocean acidification due to rapid industrial pollution. However, an economic slowdown in India can jeopardize their ability to address pressing problems such as poverty, lack of adequate health care, high unemployment and gender inequality. If growth continues on what has been called the “business as usual” development path, it is likely to exaggerate existing development problems and compromise the well-being of present and future generations.

Growth enables human development that includes non-income dimensions such as education, health, gender equality and freedom of expression, which are essential for human well-being.  Compared to developed nations, India is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their low capacity to adapt and their disproportionate dependency on natural resources for welfare. At first glance, it looks like whichever path India chooses it will not be able to attain over all development goals taken-up in our India’s 11th five year plan (2008 – 2013). The resource-intensive model of growth of the past fails not only because of the lack of cheap raw materials, but also because of the earth’s limited capacity to absorb carbon emissions and waste. Since environmental degradation will harm human productivity and welfare, the traditional economic growth pattern cannot be sustainable, and will eventually be self-defeating.

We can argue that the main direct contributions of environmental protection, understood as natural capital, to development and green (economic) growth is through increased inputs of natural resources which lead to a greater economic return. Contrary to conventional intuition, economic growth and environmental conservation are not necessarily conflicting goals, and can even be seen as complementary aims. Green growth aiming to achieve a harmony between economic growth and environmental sustainability is just what the world needs to obtain long-term and all rounded human development. The ever-worsening environmental crisis has sent out a serious alert to the Indian communities as to the urgency of embarking on the green growth development path.

With sound protection and management, natural capital can actually yield considerable economic dividends for India as well — especially due to its dependent on agricultural production, which is in turn highly dependent on natural resources for the livelihoods of producers. Green growth can be defined as “fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies”. Alternatively, economic development can provide a solid material foundation for environmental protection efforts, enabling Indian government to take a better care of their ecosystems, and equip them financially and technologically for the fight against climate change / environment. It is about growing cleaner and greener, but not slower.

By maximizing the synergies between economic development and environmental protection, the concept of green growth emphasizes that strategic environmental policies can not only foster environmental sustainability at a low cost, but also have the potential to sustain long-term economic growth. Alternatively strategic climate/ environment policies should not be framed as a choice between the environment and economic development, but rather as a choice between effective measures to achieve balance between the two dimensions.

(The author is member, Expert Appraisal Committee (Industries), Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The committee is responsible for Environmental Impact Assessment.)

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