In this article, Biba Jasmine says it is clear that a country can only progress if it develops and grows in all possible areas, especially poverty, hunger, education, and environment. India has shown the rest of the world that it is possible to improve human development and the environment on a global scale while helping millions of marginalized people through development efforts. It has also been recognized and accepted that sustainable development requires protection of the environment on all fronts, especially irreplaceable natural resources and fragile ecosystems.
The concept of sustainable development has attracted the attention of the whole world and is increasingly becoming the guiding principle of development planning. Today, the preservation of the environment is taken as the basis for actions aimed at long-term development. Prior to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the focus was on development issues without considering the impact on the environment. The Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development coined the term “sustainable development” in 1987. The importance of sustainability was first underscored at the ‘Rio Earth Summit’ in 1992. There, it was recognized that the current development path is insufficient to meet current needs and seriously threatens future prospects.
It has also been recognized and accepted that sustainable development requires protection of the environment on all fronts, especially irreplaceable natural resources and fragile ecosystems. As a result, the world was confronted with restructuring harmful pathways in harmony with nature and the environment. India vigorously met this challenge and, as a developing country, pushed for greater integration of economic plans and programmes for natural resource and environment management.
Indian Scenario Through Sustainability Lens
India has shown the rest of the world that it is possible to improve human development and the environment on a global scale while helping millions of marginalized people through development efforts. Andhra Pradesh, for example, which has one of India’s highest economic growth rates at 11.61 per cent, is rapidly embracing solar energy and converting its agriculture to natural farming. This case is an optimistic example of how to go green quickly and develop at the same time. India has proven this time and again by providing the largest and safest habitats for its wildlife while developing next-generation facilities at a rapid pace. India’s green growth techniques are evident in the increase in forest cover from 6778 sq. km in 2019 compared to 2015 estimates, protected areas from 692 to 860 in 2019, and community reserves from 43 in 2014 to more than 100 currently. In 2019, the Indian Prime Minister unveiled the All India Tiger Estimation Report, pointing out that progress need not come at the expense of natural resources. According to the report, India has become one of the largest and healthiest tiger habitats in the world, with tiger populations increasing from 1400 in 2014 to 2977 in 2019. A clear example that environment and growth can go hand in hand.
Building on Conservation Value
With a population of 1.21 billion, 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, 6 per cent of the world’s primary energy, and one of the world’s largest cattle populations, India also has four global biodiversity hotspots, 7–8 per cent of all recorded species, the world’s largest Asian elephant populations (apart from tigers), 10 biogeographical zones, 15 agro-climatic zones, and 37 UNESCO world heritage sites. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Report on environment accounting, natural capital increased by more than 5 per cent in three states between 2005 and 2015, while it decreased in 11 states. On the one hand, the Report provides an understanding of the work that needs to be done at the state level to increase the stock of forests, food, clean air, water, land, minerals, etc. On the other hand, it advocates replicating models of states such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Odisha that show an increase in parameters such as conversion of fallow land to arable land, expansion of forest cover, increase in carbon stock, and new sources of minerals.
Forest Lessons from the Past
Colonial forestry policies in India, primarily aimed at extracting forest resources for commercial purposes, had a devastating impact on the entire ecosystem and tribal populations. According to the literature, the colonial government’s policies did not aim to conserve forest resources and neglected the environment because it was concerned about the commercialization of forest resources, especially in southern India during the early nineteenth century. According to Ravikanth et al. (2000), the country’s forest cover increased after independence, while it decreased linearly from 24 to 19 per cent before independence. In the post-independence period, forest loss in India remained relatively stable due to the country’s strict forest conservation policy. After independence, India experienced an upsurge in forest conservation movements, particularly the well-known Chipko movement, which successfully stopped large-scale deforestation. The prohibition of tree cutting by forest departments in some states during the last few decades may also have contributed to the country’s ability to preserve 1 per cent of its forest cover. However, thanks to technological advances and innovations, nations today have the ability to grow in a cleaner, greener, and safer way that does not destroy their land, water, and air while enhancing their natural resources and growing sustainably. And that is what India is striving to do.
At a time when the rest of the world is losing forests, India is gradually but steadily gaining some. A total of 15 states and territories have a forest cover of more than 33 per cent. India has the lowest deforestation rate per capita in the world. In addition, India’s National Forest Policy of 1988, currently under revision, provides for forest and tree cover of about 33 per cent of the total geographic area. Forests account for over 80 per cent of the country’s terrestrial biodiversity. Forests provide 40 per cent of energy and 30 per cent of fodder needs, and more than 300 million people depend largely on forest-based livelihoods. Forests and trees are more than carbon sinks for India; they determine the livelihoods, lives, and overall well-being of millions of Indians.
To meet rising demand, India would increase its annual food production to 333 million tonne by 2050 from the current 252 million tonne. According to a study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the increasing demand can be met with less land than we currently use for agriculture. Shifting crops within agricultural zones to where they thrive best can minimize water demand and increase yields while minimizing water stress and pollution and preserving food systems (a country’s ability to produce food in the same way it does now). In addition, investing in soil health can increase agricultural production while removing more carbon from the atmosphere and promoting biodiversity. In addition, the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change, includes programmatic activities such as the Soil Health Map, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, Mission Organic Value Chain Development for the North Eastern Region, Rainfed Area Development, National Bamboo Mission, Sub-Mission on Agro Forestry, and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana—Per Drop More Crop—are there for maintaining both the natural and economic viability of agricultural systems.
The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) 2020 sets the strategy and roadmap for the rapid adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and their manufacturing in the country. This plan focuses on improving national fuel security, providing a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable means of transportation, and positioning India’s automotive sector as a global leader. The Ministry of Heavy Industries formulated the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME India) Scheme in 2015 as part of NEMMP 2020 to promote the adoption of electric/hybrid vehicles (xEVs) in India with four focus areas: technology development, demand generation, pilot projects, and charging infrastructure components. The government notified Phase II of the FAME India Scheme for a five-year period, based on the results and lessons learned from Phase I. The scheme is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. The goal is to support 7090 eBuses, 5 lakh e3-wheelers, 55,000 e4-wheeler passenger cars, and 10 lakh e2-wheelers through demand-side subsidies. This initiative can be seen as one of the ways to transform mobility to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and decarbonization, and ultimately achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Amplification and Magnification of Climate Actions
India underscored its commitment at the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, United Kingdom, by pledging to add 500 GW of non-fossil energy capacity by 2030, reduce total projected carbon emissions by one billion metric tonnes by 2030, and achieve net-zero emissions by 2070.
Despite having no binding mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC in the pre-2020 timeframe, India reduced its emission intensity to GDP ratio by 21 per cent by 2014 as per the voluntary declaration—a result of its proactive and consistent climate change initiatives. India is on track to meet its commitments under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Including Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF), net national GHG emissions in 2016 were 2,531,069 GgCO2-equivalent (about 2.531 billion tonnes of CO2). While the share of coal for power generation is growing almost as fast as electricity consumption globally, India has increased its power generation from non-fossil sources from 30.5 per cent in March 2015 to 37 per cent in June 2019 and has also retired a total of 170 old thermal generation units by March 2018. India is making progress in this area, particularly through a smart mix of solar, wind, and nuclear power. In doing so, India is recognizing the carbon budget as an important national resource and is striving to use coal responsibly. This was also highlighted by the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change at the recently held HT Environment Conclave. India is clearly addressing climate by building in natural solutions to climate, such as conservation and land management measures that maximize the carbon storage potential of our landscapes and coasts and give us the time we need to make a low-carbon transition.
Beyond the Promise of Conservation and Development
Due to India’s long history and culture of peaceful coexistence between man and nature, balanced growth is conceivable from both economic and environmental perspectives. The country’s inherent philosophy includes a strong emphasis on environmental awareness. We are a nation that calls our planet Mother Earth. India is one of the few ancient civilizations and cultures with uninterrupted yet dynamic roots in many dimensions. Nature has shown us all how circular ecological processes have endured over time. As the fight against climate change intensifies, India has pledged to reduce emissions intensity per unit of economic output by 33–35 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This is part of its climate pledge under the Paris Agreement, and one of its nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
India Walking the Talk
At the very least, collaboration is an absolute necessity to make economic decisions about natural resources more optimistic and informative. If we break out of our traditional trajectories in conservation, health, development, economics, and all the other sectors where we generally feel so constrained, we will be forced to make the necessary adjustments. Similarly, India’s efforts to save tigers and their habitat are the result of successful collaboration and liaison between different sectors and stakeholders. India hosts more than 70 per cent of the world’s wild tigers, even as the human population grows to over 1.2 billion. In full recognition of these challenges, India is committed to the conservation of its tigers and their habitats. Project Tiger is not only a unique pioneering effort that has demonstrated how a mega-species can be used to advocate for the protection of diverse and representative ecosystems, including aquatic, terrestrial, faunal, floral, and wildlife biodiversity, but it is also a commitment to more than one billion people to protect and conserve important ecosystem services for individual livelihoods.
India speaks from a position of authority on the world stage because of its international and national obligations and its effective management and conservation strategies. India leads by example for the rest of the world to follow. The country has already surpassed the global Aichi biodiversity target of conserving 17 per cent of its land area. India’s development experience to date has shown that growth can be ecologically sound and need not come at the expense of green values. We must ensure that our values of environmental protection are incorporated into our development methods as our economy continues to grow and pressures on natural ecosystems increase. To achieve this, environmental and social tools with a variety of potential and undiscovered prospects should be used to enhance research and development projects. And as the Prime Minister rightly noted, striking a “healthy balance between development and the environment” requires a rethinking of the debate on environmental protection in macroeconomic policy.
It is worth noting that the government’s ambitious measures to address the environmental crisis are mentioned and occupy space at relevant forums. From water to air and climate change to agriculture, every possible effort is being made at the national level to launch a series of ambitious, comprehensive, measurable, and effectively implemented policies and programmes. The 21st edition of the World Sustainable Development Summit (WSDS) 2022 by TERI restated across thematic areas urgent need for action on climate change and development through knowledge, dialogue and capacity building across all thematic areas. Dignitaries from around the world spoke with one voice to incorporate the SDGs into their respective national programmes, policies, policy dialogues, and management development programmes.
It is clear that a country can only progress if it develops and grows in all possible areas, especially poverty, hunger, education, and environment. Only then can the future be shaped in the true sense of the word, leaving no one behind and creating a just world for present and future generations.
Biba Jasmine is a Nehru-Fulbright scholar with a major in sustainable development and conservation biology from the University of Maryland, College Park, United States. She was also awarded the Policy Leader Fellowship at the School of Transnational Governace, European University Institute, Florence. The fellowship was co-funded by the European Union’s Erasmus programme. The views expressed are personal.
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