Is India Bad for the Environment?

The celebration of World Environment Day was, as it is every year, the occasion for living high-mindedly, for making resolutions that never endure and for pledging penance for sins of carbon and consumption.

The celebration of World Environment Day, on June 5, was, as it is every year, the occasion for living high-mindedly, for making resolutions that never endure and for pledging penance for sins of carbon and consumption.

For the past 40 years, the United Nations Environment Program has diligently found a "theme" for June 5 every year to focus global awareness on the environment. These phrases vary in their scope and in imperative intensity. Sometimes they're just plain nouns (human settlements, 1975; desertification, 1984). More recently, they've incorporated a call to action: "Our Earth -- Our Future -- Just Save It!" (1999), "Kick The Habit -- Towards A Low Carbon Economy" (2008) and, my favorite, "Your Planet Needs You -- UNite to Combat Climate Change" (2010). That's the story of the UN right there: fantastically good intentions UNdone by self-congratulation and rhetorical excess.

This year's theme is especially hortatory, beginning with four consecutive verbs before settling on an object: "Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint." The UNEP website explains:

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted. This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.

Given this enormous imbalance in lifestyles and the resultant devastating effects on the environment, this year's theme -- Think.Eat.Save -- encourages you to become more aware of the environmental impact of the food choices you make and empowers you to make informed decisions....

If food is wasted, it means that all the resources and inputs used in the production of all the food are also lost. For example, it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk and about 16,000 litres goes into a cow's food to make a hamburger. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions from the cows themselves, and throughout the food supply chain, all end up in vain when we waste food.

There isn't a very logical argument in these sentences, with their implication that reducing food wastage would result in hungry people getting the food they need or the absence of distinctions between different situations that might seem to constitute wastage. There's a world of difference between the meal left unfinished at the restaurant table and the produce that spoils on an Indian farm for want of adequate cold-storage facilities.

A much better elaboration of the nuances of this theme was provided by the Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain on the website of the Indian environmental magazine Down To Earth. In a piece called "Eating right to save the planet," Narain looked at the theme from the point of view of the developing world:

Today, the US, Europe, Japan and all who preach good farming practice pay obscene amounts as subsidy to underwrite the costs of growing food. The European Union spends close to half its massive annual budget on direct payment to farmers. Its sugar farmers—whose produce our government imports often—are paid four times the world market price. The situation in the corporate-run US farms is similar. Farmers in poor India or poor Africa are asked to compete with this heavily distorted market. They lose.

The ultimate loser is the environment: where prices are depressed, natural resources are discounted—water and land is over-extracted and depleted....

Think. Eat. Save. This motto will mean fixing the anti-farmer politics of food, eating local and saving the culture of food and so the future of our only one planet.

Narain's views reflect the decentralizing ethos of Indian environmentalism, a set of diverse schools whose origins and concerns make for a narrative very different from the environmentalism of the West over the last four decades. Good overviews of the trajectory of the Indian movement can be found both in Narain's 2002 essay "Changing environmentalism" and the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha's "The Rise and Fall of Indian Environmentalism." Environmentalisms across the world all stress ecological consciousness, sustainability and conservation of scarce natural resources, but as Guha explains:

Unlike in the West, where modern environmentalism was given birth to by scientists, in India it began through the protests of rural communities....

Where in the West the green movement was motivated by the desire to keep beautiful places unpolluted to walk through, in India environmentalism was driven not by leisure but by survival. There was an unequal competition over resources such as forests, fish, water, and pasture. On one side were local communities who depended on these resources for subsistence; on the other, urban and industrial interests who appropriated them for profit. State policies had tended to favour the latter, leading to protests that called for a fairer and more sustainable use of the gifts of nature.

If in the 1970s they struggled to be heard, in the 1980s Indian greens began receiving massive (and mostly positive) media attention....With this surge of media attention came a welcome if belated response from the government. In 1980 a new Department of the Environment was established. This was upgraded five years later into a full-fledged Ministry of Environment and Forests. State Governments followed by setting up environment ministries of their own.

To begin with, peasants had protested; then, journalists sympathetically reported on these protests. Now commenced a third phase, which we may term 'professionalization'. Scientists and social scientists began to systematically analyse the roots of environmental conflicts.

To get a sense of the range of modern Indian environmentalism and its contributions, you might start with Mahatma Gandhi's prescient (if austere) thinking about industrialism, agrarianism and ethical consumption. There also is the work of Anil Agarwal, Madhav Gadgil, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Vandana Shiva, Amita Baviskar, Darryl D'Monte and Mahesh Rangarajan. (A single go-to book might be Guha's overview from 2006, "How Much Should a Person Consume?")

The ideas of many of these thinkers animated the debates at a small seminar in central New Delhi on World Environment Day. A group of environmentalists was brought together by a local organization, Green Circle of Delhi, to offer a vision of the year 2025. One thinker drew attention to the city's prolonged mismanagement of its river, the Yamuna. Another outlined the problems with the failed experiment in 2008 with a bus rapid transit system. A third drew attention to the establishment in the last decade of two large biodiversity parks and pointed to trade-offs forced by rapid urbanization and migration. A fourth asked if the municipal corporation's beautification drives, combined with the eviction of the poor from unauthorized settlements, didn't amount to a kind of bourgeois environmentalism. These thoughts seemed more grounded and more cogent than those advanced by UNEP's 2013 campaign.

If "India is a macrocosm, and may be the world's default setting for the future," as the writer Patrick French claims in his recent book "India: A Portrait," then the local debates might be extrapolated to other environmental movements, particularly in the developing world. As Gunnel Cederlof and Mahesh Rangarajan write in a recent issue of the journal Conservation & Society:

The very numbers of people in India and China, nearly 2.5 billion together, and their late start of industrialisation as well as their geographical location in monsoonal Asia make these processes different in socio-ecological terms from Europe, North America and Japan. The political leaderships of India and China for all their differences will not settle for second place....Yet there are polluted cityscapes, contaminated groundwater, dying water bodies and threatened coastal estuaries -- all looking like a price too high to pay.

Now there's a theme for a future World Environment Day: "India and China: UNpleasant environmental questions."

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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