India has maintained a very respectable average GDP growth rate of more than 7.5% since 2007, in spite of the recession in 2008 and slowdown in 2011. However, the growth story cannot stop here. The challenge is to further improve it and sustain.
The bigger challenge is to achieve it ensuring environmental sustainability or in other words achieve green economic growth.
With growing manufacturing sector, increasing mining, expanding infrastructure and scaling up power production, along with increasing responsibility to be pro-environment, India is at a really curious stage where its emissions could explode upwards or it could move heavily down the ‘green’ route.
Unfortunately, what’s worrisome in the recent times is that the challenges seem to be getting worse by the day as the efforts to achieve green growth is translating into a green versus growth issue.
According to a recent report published by McKinsey & Company, it is expected that India will grow at such a fast pace over the next 20 years that it could build about 80% of the physical assets such as infrastructure and industrial capacity that will constitute the India of 2030.
This magnitude of development can potentially lead to overwhelming degree of carbon emissions. At a time when there is growing acceptance of climate change and an insurmountable pressure from the world communities to reduce the carbon footprint, India cannot afford to act in oblivion.
Therefore, it is imperative for India to focus on integrating sustainability in the growth process that leads to a low carbon economic growth or ‘green growth’ as some would like to put it.
However, while efforts are being made by the designated green authorities to protect the environment, many from India Inc. as well as several union ministries have repeatedly complained that environmental laws and clearances are becoming an impediment in country’s growth story whereas Ministry of Environment & Forest claims that they are just discharging the duty diligently of protecting the environment.
At a time when various ministries need to work in tandem towards the bigger goal of nation’s development, they seem to be going through the phase of disagreements leading to indecision and delays. The most contentious of all has been the debate over the fast tracking of project clearances.
Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan wrote to the Prime Minister, strongly objecting to Finance Minister Chidambaram’s proposal of setting up a National Investment Board or NIB, a three-minister panel to fast-track mega infrastructure projects. The NIB would ensure that clearances required for major projects would be granted by the relevant ministries without delays, otherwise the board will have the power to take the final call.
In her letter to Prime Minister, Ms. Natarajan has mentioned that the manner in which changes have been sought on the issue of granting project approvals was disturbing and she wondered why NIB should step in when decisions like green clearances have to be given by her Ministry.
Some claim that the environment ministry is functioning in its own rhythm and is high on the exposure and importance it is getting on international and domestic climate change platforms. From India’s perspective the focus should be on green growth instead of blatant paint-it-green approach.
A popular Indian magazine even went to the extent of calling Ms. Natarajan a ‘Green Terrorist’, claiming that the outdated environmental laws and inflexible minister is turning out to be detrimental to the economic growth. According to Coal India’s annual report for the year 2011-12, as many as 179 coal blocks were awaiting clearances.
Forestry clearances for diverting 28,771 hectares of land were yet to be granted, delaying government’s power generation plans. The difficulty in getting green signal for the commissioning of projects has been pretty much the same across other projects those for roads, iron & steel and defence, making it impossible for India to achieve its target of attracting an investment of $1 trillion in infrastructure between 2012 and 2017.
Much to the worry of many, Natrajan is also seeking expansion of ministry’s purview, demanding it be allowed to grant biodiversity clearances well.
On another note and quite absurdly so, Natrajan has also given clearance to some of the projects that had oppositions from many environmental groups.
For instance, in spite of Forest Advisory Committee and the Wildlife Institute of India recommending that the 300 MW Alaknanda hydro-electric project to be constructed on the main tributary of the Ganga by GMR be rejected because of high ecological importance of the area, the project already has a go-ahead from the ministry.
In a similar instance, the Lower Demwe hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh has got the clearance, even though the construction of dam will involve felling of over 50,000 trees along with serious threat to the habitat of wild animals like the dolphin, the wild buffalo and the Bengal Florican.
Given such a chaotic scenario at home, it is not surprising if other nations question India’s commitment to trudge the green path if the ministry throws allegations at other developed countries. In the Rio+20 summit, Natrajan had expressed disappointment over the weak political will in developed countries to provide enhanced means of implementation to developing countries.
Thus we see that the government of India is facing tremendous pressures from all sides.
First, it has the challenge of ensuring that the growing demands of people for commodities and energy are met. Two, rise in production cannot be at the cost of environment, and so government has to make the most optimal trade-off decisions and focus increasingly on integrating sustainability with the overall policies.
Finally, with Indian minister assuming leadership role at the levels such as COP to CBD, government bears a greater responsibility of portraying India as a model nation in terms of environmental protection.
Whether or not Ms Natrajan is a green terrorist, Ministry of Environment and Forest is but only a part of the ruling government at the center. It’s high time that the Government of India takes a firmer stand, decides its priority and ensures that endogenous forces are not acting in opposite direction and losing focus.
According to the Wall Street Journal, India has made it into the A-list of global investors in renewable energy, but the challenge will be to translate this into real investment which may be difficult if the domestic chaos continues.
Alok Gupta is a Delhi-based analyst focused on environmental and sustainability economics. He is the founder of ENVECOLOGIC, an organization that focuses on sustainability training, research and advisory. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @envecologic
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