Mainstream development best for rising India

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India Climate Dialogue, Kolkata, India

As India stands on the crossroad of choosing its development path, it is time to question the past experiments in the confused search for an alternative growth path, from the point of view of both efficiency and justice   

A construction site in India

A construction site in India (Image by R Barraez D’ Lucca)

Many a times I hear a debate on how should India rise in next two and half decades as by then population growth will be peaking. Should India reinvent the wheel of progress or should India try to catch up? 30% of human settlements in India have already followed the path of progress that has been proven successful in improving individual quality of life and are on the way of adopting solutions for betterment of the social and environmental quality.

So the real question is about the rest of 70 % settlements where people do not have adequate access to basic necessities like energy to cook, illuminate, cool/heat, safe water to drink, sanitation and hygiene, shelter to protect from natural calamities, access to good health care service, enough skill to participate in mainstream discourse and so on.

Through hard work, knowledge, wisdom and scientific endeavour humanity on earth has progressed over the past centuries tremendously in the ability to take care of personal hygiene, health, and to protect the social and natural environment. India is already on that pathway. There is no reason why the Indian population in the poor settlements will not rise taking advantage of the proven knowledge embedded in advanced technology, infrastructure design, and energy service supply.

If we talk of equality and justice there can be no denial of progress for the rest of India given no difference in human aspiration levels. The faster we move in bridging the gap the quicker will be peace and harmony in the society that can wisely deliver environmental good.

Urban green space, urban agriculture, urban biodiversity are boosting a new service sector growth.

Alternative path not working

Political arguments as well as scientific literature with an exclusive focus on rather simplistic interdependencies like ‘Poverty as driver of environmental degradation’ or ‘indoor air pollution and rural women’s health’ have not really taken us far beyond some incremental changes over past almost three-four decades. Besides some fuel subsidy programmes, it could generate some philanthropic extensions, NGO activities with government support for improved cook stove programmes through public distribution system or some solar lantern distribution system, and now some solar based micro grid system demonstration projects. But no transformative change can be seen yet.

The debate has been rejuvenated in the context of “energy poverty and climate change”. It is time now to question the past experiments of a confused search for an alternative growth path which is not known or sometimes questionable from the point of view of both efficiency and justice.

How can India deny the most efficient knowledge of land use pattern in human settlement design where a strip of road space provides space for multiple basic service delivery infrastructure such as water supply pipelines, transport and mobility, telecommunication, drainage and sewerage, grid based electric supply, transmission and distribution network, street lighting, avenue plantation? How can we not keep options for vertical and horizontal living pattern for Indians, while the rest of the world is enjoying that and not discarding it?

Today it is not unknown how to effectively purify water for safe drinking. Still in 70% of the settlements in India people die of water borne disease. Lack of adequate power supply is the major cause for lack of safe water. How can there be any debate over the extension of grid power to all settlements? Why should there be policy or action in favour of non-extension of grid based electric supply in larger parts of India in the name of alternative developmental trajectory dream? This comes through solar lanterns, solar power based domestic lighting systems and micro grids but does not lead anywhere but back to initial state of affairs.

A question of justice

Such experiments might have satisfied some philanthropists, have enriched solar technology research outcomes but have eventually delayed the progress in quality of life of those communities by two to three decades.

Today when out of frustration social conflicts around lack of access to basic facilities and better facilities are emerging in each local community, first steps adopted is establishment of grid power connectivity. It is grossly wrong to say that Indians need three bulbs to illuminate their houses and no more given that aspiration levels are low. Do Indians have to consume less as latecomers in development while food waste is a way of life in many rich communities and countries?

These are questions of justice.

It is not hard to see that aspiration gets killed by lack of adequate infrastructure. Potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, onions, vegetables, fruits rot in many villages due to lack of cold storage facilities. Food processing industries are not coming to the point of produce due to lack of adequate power connections. So living is not going beyond subsistence level, the day ends with the sunset.

This has nothing to do with aspiration levels. Hot summer days at 40 degrees Celsius accompanied by humidity of 98% take tolls on life and labour productivity. It is not that ‘simple’ Indians do not desire air conditioned spaces. Nor can any ethical consideration be put forward to say that space cooling will mean global warming so Indians cannot aspire for it as they become affluent and can afford it. These are minimum threshold of aspirations for good living and for productive thinking.

It has been proved 50 years back how India can achieve food security using modern tools and techniques and scientific research. Today India produces no less than a dozen of top quality rice, cereal, mango and other varieties through improved irrigation facility and advanced agricultural equipment. This if strategically managed can not only feed its own population but can feed very large parts of the rest of the world.

The much talked about adverse impacts on soil quality and water depths are misrepresentation of environmental concerns: they result from a lack of investment in environmental resource management and in managing these resources. Field experiences raise hope when it is seen that orchards are replacing paddy cultivation in some of the degraded lands of Punjab, drip irrigation is replacing flooded irrigation, vegetables and horticulture is bringing in more cash and diversity in the dietary pattern.

Due to high power needs in the next 20 years, coal use will not peak in the next one decade. Even if it declines by 2050, coal capacity will continue to be at the 2012 level. If at that time the capacity needs to be decarbonised, carbon capture and storage technology needs serious consideration. Solar and wind is increasing to account for almost 40% of total electricity generation capacity in 25 years but it will be difficult to close doors for other non-carbon power sources like nuclear and hydro when total generation capacity becomes six times higher than now.

These growth rates are merely for providing universal access to decent life. They are based on a dietary pattern based on locally grown agricultural produce and low meat consumption per capita (approximately 5 kg per year, compared to 120 kg or 80 kg for US and Germany respectively).

Mainstream development best

Indian energy intensive industries are almost at par with global best technologies. Technological advancement has the promise of delivering efficiency and justice simultaneously. Efficient energy home appliances can deliver the same service level for millions more with same energy supply. All the air conditioners in India today can be with five start rating. So there is no reason why India should not take the masses through the mainstream developmental pathway. The work of universal human wellbeing delivery (better shelter, better workplace, health ambience and so on) should not only be kept up but pushed on with the greatest vigour. Now is the time or never.

The demographic dividend cannot be missed. The young people of the country need to find their path of future wellbeing using modern science. If humanity is to live in peace and harmony – the two best indicators – let us not delay India’s progress in the name of experimentation with romantic ideas of alternative development models or degrowth.

Let us update on what India has achieved so far even after following the global developmental trend. India’s total electricity generation equals that of Russia today and is at the level China was in 1994. Car ownership is for less than 10% of urban households, car sharing is a lifestyle in India, 42% still use bicycle, motorized two wheeler users are almost 35% of urban households, per capita carbon dioxide emission is less than two tonnes compared to 17 for US, 7 for EU and 6.7 for China.

India industries have been pioneering cleaner production to maintain global competitiveness. While in the decade of the 1970s industrial output growth rate was equivalent to energy demand growth rate, in the current decade technology growth has decoupled activity growth and energy demand growth to such an extent that activity growth of 20 times can be delivered by energy growth of five times, thanks to energy saving technology.

From Indian perspective growth now with adoption of more and more advanced technology means progress with justice for the masses. Search for alternative development models should and will continue given human curiosity and imagination. But experimentation with India will be equivalent to ‘development delayed is development denied’. How can we ask the poor part of India not to aspire for better food, better hygiene, better health? Who has given the right to the privileged few to deny them these options?

Joyashree Roy is ICSSR National Fellow, Professor of Economics, Coordinator – Global Change Programme, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

The arguments are exclusively of the author’s and do not reflect the institute’s position or this website’s position on the subject. This article was originally written for the September 2015 issue of the German magazine Welt-Sichten