Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Musings on India

The MushyPea is lucky enough to be back on the Indian subcontinent at the moment, and while there are many wonderful things about the region, it also serves as sobering reminder of the sheer scale of environmental, economic and social problems which the world faces.

Despite its recent development, most of India is incredibly poor. Even to people who have visited many other emerging countries it is hard to describe the sheer squalor, pollution and filth endured by the nation's urban poor, and the isolation and powerlessness of the rural masses. 50 million Indians may have gotten rich, but many of the other billion still struggle to survive.

At the same time, India needs to preserve its environment. This is not just some middle-class academic pursuit. The sheer scale and density of human population in India places incredible strains on its natural resources, ecosystems and habitats. Increasingly it feels as though those who can afford it in India isolate themselves in bubbles of affluence, while dumping their waste on those less fortunate - shuttling themselves from A to B through an increasingly poisoned land (this is much the same attitude taken by most rich nations to the world in general!).

Just today the Prime Minister announced a cabinet reshuffle in which the energetic and largely green Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was moved to another post. The satellite TV and business news here are delighted. For days they have been describing him as a roadblock to development, highlighting a number of large projects opposed by him on environmental grounds, or because they lacked such trifles as legal permissions or sufficient safeguards for human rights. India's oligarchs are increasingly omnipotent and industrialists are regarded as rock stars - they are powerful enemies.

But in a country that needs development, was it not right to remove a man who they claim was more interested in trees than people? No - for the simple reason that this is a totally false premise. As an example, only 4% of India is protected forest land (the areas were most of the conflicts occurred). That means that 96% of the nation is already open for development in some form or another. What makes us think that this last 4% will make all the difference? At the same time poor Indian's depend on the environment for their livelihoods, their water and their food. More important than all of this though is the simple fact that with 1.1 billion people,more than Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia combined, India cannot develop on traditional, environmentally catastrophic lines. It simply cannot be done. Like China there is not enough of anything to allow this to happen. A few people will get very rich (and of course that is the point), but the country as a whole may be doomed to an increasingly toxic poverty.

Like the rest of the world India needs to develop a greener model of economic growth, and with speed, because one of that country's most powerful environmental champions has been moved aside.

The good news is that India is a land with a deep streak of environmentalism at its heart. It's respect for wildlife is legend - there are many problems, but mere fact that people can co-exist in such crowded conditions with so many wonderful and dangerous creatures would be unthinkable in much of the world. It is also a hugely innovative and creative country, capable of world changing inventions and concepts. We can only hope that these attributes can be combined with the best ideas from the rest of the world to create a greener vision of prosperity, before it is too late.