Why is it that we find NGOs in India constantly fighting the government asking it to choose between development projects and the environment?
Wearing environmentalism on the sleeve is a new urban pastime. People, usually, those who have returned to India, after a stint in the US, are found to be more and more spending their free time in fighting for the cause of the environment. Most of the time, this environmentalism is not only misplaced, but it is also downright wrong and myopic. It is just wrong and unfair when we make our government choose between building infrastructure and environmental conservation.
Typically, every nation, state and city undergo a cycle of development. As economic opportunities open up, people shift to a higher consumption lifestyle. Higher consumption leads to higher demand for goods and services, including roads, water, sanitation, health and so on. As this demand rises, governments have to step up and provide these services to the aspiring middle-class population.
The aspirations vary but are typically found to be wanting good schools, colleges, hospitals, better road connectivity, regular electricity and water supply etc. In order to cater to this new population and also service the earlier ones efficiently, governments have to augment existing infrastructure. Good and efficient infrastructure further fuels economic opportunities and the cycle thus continues. This, in itself, is a self-feeding mechanism that nations have used to bring out a multitude of people out of poverty. This same process is seen in emerging economies like China and South Korea in the past 2-3 decades. They have done a concerted superfast phase of infrastructure development which has increased their per capita income, reduced poverty and brought development.
In India, the pace of adding this infrastructure is dismally low and delayed. The delays are due to many causes, including democratic processes, that tend to slow down decision making. However, one of the most disturbing causes of this delay is environmental activism. The already existing urban middle and higher income groups are driving this environmental movement from a very misplaced ideological perspective.
This elite urban middle and upper-middle class has been at the forefront of the cycle of development, having made their economic fortunes in the early part of the country’s economic development. Most of this urban elite live in areas that were forests about 50 years ago, have built factories in areas that were considered pristine and they have already enjoyed the aspirational needs such as good education, good healthcare services etc. Now, under the garb of environmentalism, this urban elite class, in a systematic manner, is keeping the rest of India’s aspiring population away from making their fortunes and enjoying a lifestyle that is by any standards basic and decent, today. In the name of environmental conservation, this elite class is, probably, unintentionally, ensuring that many people are excluded from the development cycle.
Environmental activism has caught on because people love its emotional argument. But, often, people fail to link their actions and decisions to environmental degradation. Hence, when infrastructure threatens to cut hundreds of trees, people protest against the infrastructure – the most visible villain. However, most of the times, people don’t realise that they are directly degrading the environment by choices and lifestyles that they lead every day. The number of kilometres of use of car is more damaging to the environment than saving a tree from getting cut. Treated water consumption for cleaning of cars and not treating our wastewater is more harmful to the environment over a long period of time than the short term impacts on the environment due to the construction of powerplant for energy.
Environmental conservation is a multifaceted goal. Generally, environmental experts who work in this sector will agree that it is not just difficult, but often impossible to have any human activity that does not directly or indirectly impact the environment. Environmental conservation, often, looks at balancing the impacts with the benefits to society. In no case, can an environmental expert expect to have no impact on the environment.
When infrastructure is provided and is adequate, it offers environmental services to reach more number of people. Without it, more people will remain outside the access to basic services like water supply, sanitation, education, healthcare and mobility. Even in cities that are relatively well developed, the addition of roads, public utility lines etc. adds value to the citizens’ lives. When more infrastructure is added to cities, more people have the potential to access a city’s economic opportunity and thereby economic well being of a nation improves. And conversely, every time a citizen stops or delays a public infrastructure, there is a considerable loss to the economy as a whole.
The tough choice
The pace of infrastructure addition will change according to a particular nation’s stage of development. For a developing country, the pace has to be fast and cost-efficient. It is with this background that we can now appreciate Minister Nitin Gadkari’s comment in the Parliament, where he puts forth an important question for us as a country – “Environment or Economy?”
It is also important to know that all nations in their respective development stages have chosen ‘Economy’. As they moved forward from this stage that ‘Environment’ gained priority. Considering that India may not have the privilege of considering ‘environment’ later, India is doing tremendous efforts in environmental compensation. Afforestation lists high in the government’s priority today. Investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, low carbon technologies, green buildings are all compensatory efforts of the government towards environmental conservation. However, when it comes to infrastructure development, these are often not linked, while ecological impacts are highlighted to show the potential of degradation.
‘No Action’ scenario
‘No Action’ is often considered as one of the most impacting human action. Delays in building infrastructure leads to a ‘no action’ scenario and often ends up causing more harm to the environment. Take the example of a road. A new road promises to cut down travel distance, increase speed of travel and provide access to more people. All these aspects directly benefit economic well being. A road will cause environmental impact such as cutting down of trees, cutting of land etc. But these will be over a short term and can be mitigated through a well operationalized Environmental Management Plan. The benefits to the environment, in the long term, are lower fuel consumption per capita, less air pollution and higher access to services. These are often unaccounted for, while the cutting of trees, as an impact gets highlighted amongst people and the media. Delay in road capacity augmentation leads to the existing road being congested, causing tremendous air pollution, loss of human productivity and lesser economic opportunities.
We have to stop saying no to infrastructure projects in India. We admire the early efforts of developed countries in setting up their infrastructure. We admire the way their cities function. We admire the state of the transport facilities that they offer. Yet, In India, we question the need for infrastructure. We have to change our approach towards building infrastructure. Infrastructure should be built when it is not needed. Infrastructure, necessarily, should be aimed at the future needs of our population.
India needs to develop its infrastructure for a focused period of 20 years to be able to fill the gap that has been caused since Independence. Governments need to invest and people need to support this infrastructure-building spree in the country, till the last person gets access to a basic, decent life. While doing this, we have to be conscious of environmental impacts, have processes to mitigate them, invest in environmental compensation efforts and rejuvenation as well. But the more delay we cause in this basic infrastructure building stage, more and more environmental degradation will be caused. And in the long run, it will cause irreparable damage to India’s economic opportunities potential. The question of ‘Environment or Economy’ will loom even larger if the Economy takes a backseat during this crucial period for India.
About the author: Anagha is an Architect and Environmental Planner, with a practice in Pune. She designs Green Buildings and consults projects on Environmental Assessments, Environmental Planning & Management. Anagha writes a blog www.mazepune.com which regularly highlights urban environmental issues.