By Rajendra M. Shende
May 26, 2014 could prove to be the day of ‘turning a page’ in the history of the relation between India and its South Asian neighbours. Frenzied media across the South Asian continent never expected that heads of all the Indian neighbours would arrive in New Delhi at such short notice for the swearing in ceremony of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India. Most in the region are hoping that the occasion of swearing-in ceremony could be the beginning of preventing border skirmishes, the extermination of terrorism and easing of thorny racial issues. The promotion of trade, rise in investment, growth, development and uplifting of the poor is in the air.
At least on this day people would forget the air pollution in New Delhi, declared as worst polluted city in the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the serious threats arising due to melting glaciers in Bhutan and Nepal, sea level rise in Maldives and Bangladesh, reducing fishery stocks along the coast lines of Sri Lanka and food security fears due to flash floods in Pakistan.
The air in this continent, instead, is full of hope that ‘Acche din aane wale hai’ (good days are ahead). Is it dreamy optimism and a creeping sense of complacency? Would they overlook the fact that development, trade and growth directly depend on the state of the fast degrading ecosystems and looming threat of climate change that is called as the defining challenge of this century?
Each of the SAARC leaders has extraordinary experience and expertise in dealing with the cobwebs of the most complex political issues. Would they leverage that potential to embark on addressing the equally complex subject of sustainable development for the well-being of the poor and eradication of poverty? Policy governance which forms the backbone of development should not only be simply ‘growth’ oriented, but must comprehensively include ‘inclusive and sustainable growth’ so that we give meaning to the rhetoric ‘Achhe din aane wale hai’.
There is a popular belief that sustainable development means a return to some sort of pre-industrial lifestyle and that it is an additional burden and barrier to growth and development. The debate in India on project and mining clearances vis-a-vis environmental degradation it would cause is central to India’s reduced GDP growth rate. However, sustainable development is and should be about getting a better quality of life, not worse, by efficiently and sustainably deploying natural resources and caring for the ecosystem which is the ultimate source of our livelihood.
The key is to use technology, and not to shun it, by ensuring optimum resource efficiency and doing more with less. “The current global development trajectory is undermining the environmental preconditions for humans flourishing and failing to address adequately the urgent development needs of the world’s poor. Sustainable development is above all a governance challenge. It is about reforming institutions and social practices to ensure a more environmentally sound and equitable development trajectory.”
“Poverty,” then prime minister Indira Gandhi told the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, “is the worst form of pollution.” Today, most of the assessment reports by United Nations agencies indicate that environmental poverty i.e. irreversible degradation of nearly 60% of Earth’s ecosystems is the worst form of growth and development. There are a number of examples that are documented by the United Nations Environment Programme on policies that have led in practical ways to sustainable living.
India in its 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) as well as other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries have emphasized low carbon growth to get rid of the shackles of fossil fuel. Heavy imports contribute to growth but also widen the national deficit, which spirals into inflation which in turn affects the poor most. Indeed, experts and planners in the South Asia region have emphatically stated that taking the low carbon route is the way to more resource efficient and sustainable living. Low carbon approaches, like use of renewable energy and enhancing efficiency, provide many other advantages like mitigating climate change and reducing air pollution.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) formulated and accepted by 192 nations including those in SAARC have their end date in 2015. There have been mixed results on meeting the targets under MDGs. Fifteen years since the MDGs were launched, the world might have inched towards sustainable development. There has been some progress in increasing access to water and sanitation, providing educational access to more number of girl students and raising the livelihoods of people. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would come into effect when MDGs end their life, will surely go a long way towards addressing the gaps left by MDGs.
A glance at the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party that has come into power in India would reveal that the word ‘inclusive’ is omnipresent. Inclusiveness is mostly tied with the words sustainable development. While ‘inclusiveness’ appears across all the sectors indicated in the manifesto, the same is not true for ‘sustainable development’, except the section on environment where ‘sustainability at the centre of all thoughts and actions’. This is a good note to start with, firstly because inclusiveness is closely related to taking the poor strata to the mainstream of development. Second, sustainability addresses the issue of efficient and sustainable use of ecosystems. That links poverty to environmental degradation in meaningful way.
In case of energy production and use, India has shown extraordinary leadership by setting transparent policies that have institutionalized the programme designed by Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) on energy star rating of home appliances. This and sectoral industry wise 'Perform, Achieve and Trade' (PAT) scheme are good examples of policy governance for sustainability. It is a good example of innovation in action for enhancing efficiency and getting more from less.
To move towards sustainability, novel accountability mechanisms are needed that would include mandatory transparent disclosure of accessible, comprehensible and comparable data about government and corporate performance. All departments of the government and corporates should make public their ‘report cards’ in user friendly way and not just through annual reports on progress to mainstream sustainable development.
A programme on ‘Sustainable Procurement’ in all the ministries, government departments and Public Sector Units can prove to be ‘leading by example’. It would imbibe the culture of buying more sustainable and efficient products and engaging with its supply chain to reduce the impact on environment and still be competitive. United Nations has provided appropriate overall guidelines and the UK government is updating ‘Government Buying Standards’ to set minimum mandatory specifications for government buyers and promoting higher voluntary best practice standards in production processes, thus setting an example.
On the occasion of the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, Pakistan and Sri Lanka released hundreds of fishermen who had supposedly crossed the international sea borders. As per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, globally the fish stock is dwindling at an alarming rate due to adverse changes in the ocean food chain on which fish thrive. The ocean food chain in turn, is getting affected due to climate change and ocean pollution.
In the Western and Eastern Indian Ocean around which SAARC countries do fishing, the fish stock for the important species is overexploited or depleted. Fisherman are compelled to go deeper in the seas to fetch fish and cross the national sea borders. Thus environmental degradation has become the root cause of political conflicts in South Asia. SAARC countries which house most of the poor in the world who mainly depend on fish as their source of protein are in danger of collapse of food security. Policies related to nature conservation and sustainable fisheries can be set by the SAARC countries to ensure food security by preserving the ecosystems.
Nature conservation and ecological restoration through sustainable policy governance by supporting grassroot communities is the priority of South Asia. Governance to achieve sustainability holds great significance for SAARC countries. India can play a catalytic role, taking advantage of the spark of good will generated at the swearing-in ceremony.
The real diplomacy to be exercised by the SAARC countries is not only for restoration of the national borders and preventing the migration of people. We need environmental diplomacy to build capacity for sustainable use of natural resources and to create new green jobs and ultimately achieve inclusive and green growth.
The most appropriate next step for the South Asian region is to organize another swearing-in ceremony where all the prime ministers and presidents of the region’s countries would swear by ‘Green Growth and Environmental Governance’.
(Rajendra M. Shende is chairman, TERRE and former Director at UNEP. He can be contacted at email@example.com