Thursday, February 6, 2014

Environmentalism in India

For a couple of years when I was attending the University of Minnesota, I had neighbors from India.  All of them were studying computer science (don't laugh, in those heady days of Control Data, Honeywell, and Cray, the UM had visions of being a global computer center.)  When I demonstrated my interest in economic development and especially the conditions that led to it, I got to sit in on a bunch of their informal bull sessions.  Several came from important families and held the view that they were going to be in the room when important decisions would be made about India's future.  I haven't kept track but I am sure some of them have been.

Essentially there were three givens in their discussions.
  • India was industrially backwards because that is how Great Britain wanted them to be, and they called the shots for a LONG time.
  • India was already overpopulated by 1850.  There are so many people fighting over scraps that a well-paid industrial middle class was economically highly unlikely.
  • India has two sources of energy—nuclear power and dung (1970-72)
Occasionally, they would also mention a cultural predisposition toward corruption, the lack of religious prohibitions against usury, and a nasty class (caste) system that provided a sort of legitimacy for a society with crazy levels of income disparities.

Forty years later, most of these assumptions are still true—except the population now exceeds a billion folks and they have figured out how to import large piles of coal.  A billion people with upward aspirations with still-historical levels of poverty.  Unfortunately this means that whatever gets built by way of economic development gets built on the cheap.  It is obvious that it will be a long time, if ever, that India is as organized to deal with her environmental dilemmas as say, Växjö Sweden.

Industrializing India struggles with sustainability
Author Katja Keppner / gd

India's capital is set to host the fourteenth Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in the coming days. DW takes a look at the role the concept of sustainability plays in the rapidly industrializing South Asian nation.

Cardboard boxes and cable pile up in the confined spaces of Rustam Sengupta's office located in the south of New Delhi. They contain solar modules of all types that are "Made in India," he says proudly, while arranging the boxes to be sent to Indian villages.

The solar lamps and panels are believed to make a difference. The 33-year-old businessman says the name of his company is "Boond," which means "drop" in Hindi, and "every drop makes a difference." Boond provides training to so-called micro-entrepreneurs in rural India such as 28-year-old Balchand, who hails from the western state of Rajasthan.

He is one of the eleven farmers, who have completed the training successfully at Boond and learned how to calculate power requirements and fill bank documents. The farmers have also acquired technical know-how. Meanwhile, Balchand has been selling around 20 solar-powered products in his area every month.

He makes sure that they are all technically maintained and helps his customers get loans from local banks. Boond, in turn, has previously engaged with the banks and tried to promote bankers' confidence in the borrowers. Depending on how much Balchand sells, he receives between 50 and 80 euros per month from Boond. There are enough customers in India. After all, more than 400 million people in the country have no access to electricity.

There have been numerous attempts to change the situation on the ground through solar-powered systems, but they have all failed so far, according to Boond-founder Sengupta. "There wasn't enough money to buy the products. There were also difficulties in imparting technical know-how and problems related to equipment maintenance."

Small steps

In rural areas, people were given solar systems, but no one felt responsible for them, he says. But now he wanted to change that with his business model. Boond has tried to contribute to India's sustainable development. But the idea behind this development has played almost no role in the South Asian nation. For instance, although the government established a new ministry for Renewable Energy in 2006, it still is largely unknown.

Hardly any of the political parties have issues related to environmental protection or renewable energy on their agenda. Not even the new political party, the Aam Admi Party, which recently formed the government in Delhi vowing to fight against the widespread corruption in the country, has environmental protection on its priorities list. "People are not making any environmental demands from the government and the government is not offering anything," environmentalist Vimlendu Jha explains the situation.

But India aims to increase its investments in solar energy and expand the generation capacity to around 20 gigawatts by 2022 under its National Solar Mission plan. Individual projects, such as the world's largest solar power plant - recently inaugurated in the western state of Maharastra, are a source of optimism.

A thousand new cars daily

Germany is providing technological support for India's shift towards renewable energy. But the rapid economic growth has been the government's top priority until now. India is already paying the price for it today. Although there are now modern metro train services in several cities, auto rickshaws and buses are run on gas instead of petrol and diesel. It's hard to get people to rethink.

According to the Indian government, a thousand new cars are being added every day to Delhi's already crowded streets. A car is a new status symbol and at the same time it's the number one cause for cities turning stinky, according to the New-Delhi based Center for Science and Environment (CSE).

Recent reports stating the air pollution in the Indian capital is higher than that in the Chinese capital Beijing have become the subject of discussions, but they have failed to trigger a proper political debate.

No demands

For years, the activist has been fighting to improve the Yamuna river's water quality in Delhi. In fact, Yamuna has become a sewer. 18 channels dump raw sewage into the river. Some places along the shore are used as crematoria and others as garbage dumps from which methane bubbles rise high into the atmosphere.

The stench of the river is sometimes barely tolerable, even from hundreds of meters away. "In industrializing countries such as India, more and more people are making the leap into the middle class, which results in an ecological footprint in the form of high costs to the environment, be it forests, rivers or lakes," Jha told DW, adding that the 22 kilometers of the Yamuna river flowing through the capital are responsible for 80 percent of the river's entire pollution.

Voice is being heard

Environment and ecology are at the bottom of the priority list of the new middle classes, who mostly live in the country's big cities. In the workshops organized in schools by his non-governmental organization, Jha often finds himself having to explain to students that the tap water does not come from tanks on the roofs of houses, but originates from a river, which is severely poisoned, said the activist.

In the meantime, Rustam Sengupta stands in front of the glued cardboard cartons delivered to his office. In the coming days, he plans to head back to villages to identify potential new trainees for Boond. Although this is still only a small step, he says, it could make a difference in the long run.

"Ten years ago, no one would have been interested in social enterprises such as Boond, but today our voice is being slowly heard. Politicians, too, now have to answer tough questions and be accountable." This motivates him to keep going. more


  1. All of the givens you pointed remain true and are worsening. The new middle class will happily ignore environmental and ecological issues in favour of a chance to grab the brass ring of ponzi prosperity. The idea of obtaining wealth at the expense of others --the zero sum game of corruption, graft, and outright theft-- remains a viable means for people to climbe the social hierarchy. The act of laundering --turning 'black' money into something legitimate-- is a critical cog in the nation's economy.

    As Jayati Ghosh stated in Spiegel last year: (Source: )
    Ghosh: We can't manage the simplest things, because our starting point was completely different. When China began its reform process at the end of the 1970s, almost everybody there already had enough to eat. There were roads in almost every village, and there was medical care. In China, society was by and large equal. In contrast, a third of Indians still don't have electricity. We fight against the legacy of a caste system which condones inequality and discrimination. India's elites put up with conditions which are extremely damaging.

    SPIEGEL: So you wouldn't blame democracy for India's problems? In a democracy, you can't simply order progress to happen as you can in communist China.

    Ghosh: The problem is the nature of our democracy, which developed on the basis of a strictly hierarchical society. We actually need more democracy. Only democracy can create the necessary social pressure to eliminate crass injustices.

    I was born an Indian but am happy to call myself Canadian: no nation state is perfect but some have much further to go in order to create the just society that every resident and citizen deserves so that they can live in dignity.

    1. Thank you for this. I am happy to know that during those fascinating conversations with my brilliant Indian neighbors back in the early 1970s, I heard correctly.

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