Be the change you want to see in the world

The concept of sustainable development was popularized almost a quarter century ago largely through the publication and dissemination of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, generally referred to as the Brundtland Commission. In simple terms, the definition of sustainable development embraces a pattern of development which helps meet the needs of the present generation without compromising on the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

From this definition, it becomes apparent that while protecting and preserving the environment and the earth's natural resources are important elements in safeguarding the interests of future generations, a much larger set of conditions has to be met if a particular path of development can be considered truly sustainable. For instance, any society requires varied skills and adequate human capital to generate a healthy rate of economic growth, and the absence of these cannot ensure sustainability of growth and development. Similarly, a society which has deficiencies in institutional capacity required for effective governance and proper functioning of systems to provide various services for meeting the needs of this generation can hardly provide an adequate level of services to future generations.

Another aspect, which seldom receives attention from development planners in a tangible form, is the quality of resilience. The future of human society would be burdened with the appearance of serious risks, some of which we have not encountered before. Hence, society at large and some vulnerable communities in particular would need to acquire a level of resilience which would enable them to minimize the risks from future threats.

Against this background, it is imperative that India after 65 years of existence as an independent nation sets about pioneering a set of novel initiatives which usher in a society that the world can look up to as a model of sustainable development. It is hoped that in this beginning of a new millennium we can see the emergence of a world where military power and economic muscle in a conventional sense will be replaced by the universal primacy of "soft power." Measures and metrics used today for assessing progress could then be replaced by concepts and computations, which include factors far beyond those which are conventionally used for arriving at the measure of GDP of a country. Already, the Human Development Report brought out by the United Nations Development Programme, the intellectual underpinnings of which have been provided by distinguished economists like the late Mahbubul Huq and Amartya Sen, has set some refreshingly new directions. India has a responsibility not only to its own people but to the whole world to establish a path of development which will at least help protect the eco-systems of this planet and the bounty of nature without which future generations cannot retain the ability to meet even their most basic needs. It is necessary to recall that Gandhiji urged Indians to "Be the change you want to see in the world".

We are seeing increasingly all around us the destruction and degradation of natural resources and the encroachment of human activities on the global common. As a result the air that we breathe and the water that flows in our rivers and that which was widely accessible in our many lakes and village ponds are being affected adversely. Human activities have resulted in acidification of the oceans even as their vast expanse has absorbed the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide that human society has been responsible for emitting into the earth's atmosphere since the beginning of industrialization. The rich biodiversity which existed across our terrestrial space in relative stability is now being threatened by the cutting down of forests and the plunder of wildlife, sadly epitomized in this country by the rapid decline of the population of tigers. It is this complex set of impacts of human activities which led Garrett Hardin to come up with what he aptly described as far back as 1968 as "The Tragedy of the Commons." He also saw the dynamic nature of the problem, which is becoming ever more serious with the growth of production and consumption of goods and services, which is leading to an increasing level and extent of what in economic terms is labeled as negative externalities. However, our knowledge of some of these issues is also increasing rapidly, and Hardin rightly said, "Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed."

India, as a country of 1.2 billion people, cannot possibly ignore the "tragedy of the commons", because not only would this go against the interests of generations yet to come but also those who are living today. The well-being of our livelihoods is so deeply dependent on the maintenance of ecosystem services, and yet we systematically choose to discount them. Gandhiji saw the wisdom of adopting a system of development which was sustainable and at variance with that established by the countries of the West. When he was once asked whether he would not like India to reach the same level of prosperity as Britain, his response was, "It took Britain to use half the resources of this planet to reach its level of prosperity. How many planets would India require?" In the 20th century a profound economic reality that is so relevant to policies and strategies for growth has come on the one hand from a biologist like Garrett Hardin and a lawyer who turned an ascetic like Mahatma Gandhi. But sustainable development is not a form of ascetic behavior or lifestyles. It is entirely possible to derive the benefits of modern living while at the same time ensuring sustainable conditions. Ignoring this reality on the other hand particularly for a country like India with a large number of people in poverty could only diminish their prospects for sustained economic well-being.

If we take the challenge of climate change, for instance, our responses would have to be embedded within a strategy of sustainability. While the impact of climate change is being seen on a range of sectors and systems as brought in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it would be useful to focus specifically on one set of impacts, namely those related to extreme events and disasters. Global weather and climate-related disaster losses reported over the last few decades reflect mainly monetized direct damages to assets, and are unequally distributed. Estimates of annual losses have ranged since 1980 from a few US$ billion to above200 billion (in 2010 dollars), with the highest value for 2005 (the year of Hurricane Katrina). Loss estimates are lower bound estimates because many outcomes, such as loss of human lives, cultural heritage, and ecosystem services, are difficult to value and monetise, and thus they are poorly reflected in estimates of losses. Impact on the informal or undocumented economy as well as indirect economic effects can be very important in some areas and sectors, but are generally not counted in reported estimates of losses. During the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95 per cent of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Middle-income countries with rapidly expanding asset bases have borne the largest burden. During the period from 2001 to 2006, losses amounted to about 1 per cent of GDP for middle income countries, while this ratio has been about 0.3 per cent of GDP for low-income countries and less than 0.1 per cent of GDP for high-income countries, based on limited evidence. In small exposed countries, particularly small island developing states, losses expressed as a percentage of GDP have been particularly high, exceeding 1 per cent in many cases and 8 per cent in the most extreme cases, averaged over both disaster and non-disaster years for the period from 1970 to 2010.

In our country, suicides by farmers who are unable to repay their debts on account of poor agricultural yields resulting from recurrent droughts is a painful reality, which needs a response in the form of new policies and initiatives. Easy access to crop insurance would certainly enhance the resilience of vulnerable farmers, but globally a case can be made for mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases, so that the climate of the earth can be stabilized. Impact of climate change will vary regionally. Aggregated and discounted to the present, they are very likely to impose net annual costs, which will increase over time as global temperatures increase. Hence, the impact of climate change would impose a cost on society which would impair its capacity to attain a satisfactory level of growth and development particularly for the poorest of the poor. We must, however, accept that many impacts can be avoided, reduced or delayed by mitigation. At the same time communities will have to create the capacity to adapt to the impact of climate change, since even with the most stringent mitigation some impact would be inevitable in the coming decades. Measures that provide benefits under current climate and a range of future climate change scenarios, called low regrets measures, are available starting points for addressing projected trends in exposure, vulnerability and climate extremes. They have the potential to offer benefits now and lay the foundation for addressing projected changes. Sustainable development can reduce vulnerability to climate change, and climate change could impede nations' abilities to achieve sustainable development pathways.

In conclusion, therefore, it can be said that India needs to pioneer the articulation and implementation of a pattern of development that allows coming generations to lead a life of dignity, human well-being and adequacy of means to fulfill their very basic needs. Such a pattern would need to be moored in available scientific knowledge, which would require to be "constantly refreshed", as stated by Hardin. India must become a pioneer as the ultimate knowledge society of the 21st century.

Tags: India, natural resources, sustainable development, eco system, Mahatma Gandhi