Getting our act together: India's growing challenges need to be addressed with a more enlightened approach

The whole issue of natural resources and their exploitation has been very much in the news in recent months. Often extreme views are expressed depending on who is voicing them. Those in business and industry take the position that environmental concerns which block, for instance, the implementation of coal mining projects are against the interest of the country. On the other hand civil society activists express a sense of outrage at the damage being done to the environment. The problem gets exacerbated with examples of illegal mining and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources.

In Haryana, for instance, quarrying of stones has led to major devastation in the Aravalli hills to a point when the courts had to step in to arrest the growing crisis. More recently, we have seen the devastation that has taken place in the region of Bellary in Karnataka with what has been reported as illegal mining of iron ore. Civil society has been increasingly vocal and proactive in highlighting these problems, but much of this confrontation is due to business being largely negligent of its responsibility to society.

It is important to provide a balanced perspective on this issue. At one level the pattern of economic growth in India has essentially emulated the example of the developed countries. Indeed, in the early years after independence, given the abysmal level of poverty in the country and the huge inadequacy of modern forms of energy, our decision makers had no choice but to follow the western path of development. There was really no attempt to intelligently interpret Mahatma Gandhi's words of wisdom which have been epitomised by one anecdote. Gandhi was once asked if he expected India to attain the same standard of living as Britain. He replied, "It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!?"

Even after the first oil price shock of 1973-74 even though the government set up a series of committees to articulate a forward looking and proactive energy policy, in essence, nothing tangible was introduced to reflect concerns on the security of energy supply with growing dependence on imports of fossil fuels. There was no meaningful effort to explore means by which a far more energy efficient and resource conserving pattern of development could be structured. Nor was there a serious effort to tap renewable sources of energy and invest in focused research and development by which the abundance of India's resources in this area could be harnessed economically for the benefit of society. The result has been growing dependence on fossil fuels, inflexibly proportionate to economic growth. This represents a major failure of policy and lack of vision that should incorporate the scarcity of fossil fuels that India would face in the future.

At the level of business and industry, there has been a neglect of efforts to conserve natural resources and protect the environment, which were often seen as a dispensable nuisance rather than an important element of business policy and corporate social responsibility. As a result, environmental protection which should be an inherent part of the design of every project, is often an add-on and an end of pipe solution. Additionally, even when, along with the environmental impact assessment (EIA), an environmental management plan (EMP) is prepared, submitted and approved, the implementation of the plan is generally tossed out of the window. Our enforcement and monitoring institutions are so weak that neglect of these plans is never highlighted. Once the project has been approved, it is only the financial objectives that get the attention of the promoters of the project, with total neglect of the environmental implications and mitigation actions.

As a result of these realities India has growing challenges, which need to be addressed through a far more enlightened approach than has been in evidence in the past. Firstly, far beyond our five year plans, the country has to come up with a 20-year plan that envisages much lower intensity of fossil fuels and natural resource use. The measures and instruments to bring these about should be an inherent part of the plan itself. Secondly, we need far more effective institutions for carrying out assessment of environmental impacts and monitoring of mitigation measures. We need a far more proactive and forward looking civil society, which should not only act as a whistle blower in the case of violations but also as creators of public awareness, such that the reputational damage to a business organisation which violates norms and regulations becomes a liability for it.

The problem is serious enough for a new strategy and approach to be articulated by which the country achieves high rates of economic growth, but is able to do so while using our natural resources efficiently and on a sustainable basis.

Tags: natural resources, Illegal mining, fossil fuels, business responsibility