The best tribute to Gujral, who appreciated the need for India to blend development efforts with environmental protection, will be to revisit the findings of the GREEN India 2047 project
It was last week that some events and television programmes were organised to mark the 100th birth anniversary of IK Gujral, who served as the 12th Prime Minister of India from April 1997 to March 1998. Those who have voiced their tributes and eulogies for this humane and gentlemanly leader have highlighted not only Gujral’s vision in the field of international affairs but also his qualities as a steadfast friend to those who got to know him. Gujral was not only an intellectual who knew a great deal about subjects that political leaders generally do not read about, but he was also a person who expressed his opinions without fear or favour. It is not well-known that Gujral saheb was a person who held environmental issues close to his heart and fully appreciated the need for this country to blend development efforts with environmental protection.
It was in 1995 that The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) launched a major project called GREEN India 2047 in preparation for the celebration of 50 years of India’s independence in 1997. This project, which was the effort of almost three dozen researchers working for almost two years, estimated and documented the damage that Indian society had imposed on the country’s natural resources and its environmental quality. It further projected what could happen with business as usual 50 years into the future, that is when India reaches 100 years of independence in 2047. A brief presentation on this project was made before Gujral early in August 1997 at Vigyan Bhavan, during which he also assembled a number of members of his Council of Ministers. At the end of the presentation, which provided startling facts and figures, Gujral saheb stated that this presentation “should jolt us into action.”
At that stage, the media, too, reported on the stark facts and the disturbing trends which had been in evidence during the first 50 years of India’s independence. One particular editorial in a leading newspaper carried the title as “Filthy at Fifty.” Much of the media coverage, which undoubtedly supported efforts to inform the Indian public, was clearly the result of the attention provided by the then Prime Minister to the analysis and realities presented to him.
Today it would be useful to revisit some of the findings of the GREEN India 2047 project, perhaps as a salute to Gujral’s appreciation of the fact that India cannot develop without due attention to its natural resources and ecosystems, which not only support human life but a range of biodiversity that this country is blessed with. The truth is that in a range of vital resources, there has been rapid degradation as a result of so-called development. Some important facts need reflection even as 1997 is now 22 years behind us. Even today, almost two-third of India’s population lives in rural areas and while several leaders have highlighted the growth of India’s population as one factor which imposes a larger and larger footprint on the country’s natural resources, we have really not come to grips with what would constitute a sustainable level of population growth and consumption. India’s population, which was 336 million in 1947, was estimated as 953 million in 1997. And today, we are 1.3 billion mindlessly pursuing Western consumption patterns, which impose a heavy burden on the country’s natural resources.
In this respect, the provision of infrastructure and wherewithal for universal literacy and education have been lacking. So, too, the provision of adequate healthcare facilities in several parts of the country, which would have promoted different fertility decisions. At the same time, the consumerist culture, which Gandhiji was totally against, has not only afflicted the growing urban population but has also percolated to our rural areas.
Besides, as it happens, historically, industrial development has been centered around chemicals and fertilisers, paper, cement, power generation and aluminium, which are resource-intensive and polluting.
If we look at specific elements of natural resources, water, as is universally accepted, would be heavily stressed in several parts of the country because of the impacts of climate change. It is now clear that with increased warming of temperatures, we would not only see persistent and more serious droughts but also the effects of extreme precipitation events in different parts of the country. In several cases even those areas, which are drought-prone during most of the year, would see heavy precipitation events in some seasons. These would lead to recurrent floods with loss of lives and property.
During Gujral’s intervention, after the presentation that was made before him, he stated, “Thus, we have come to a stage when there are two lifestyles. The elite in the country can drink water out of a bottle; the common man can drink municipal water; and the worst, the slum dwellers can drink untreated river water. This is the picture that is emerging. Therefore, when we look at the coming 50 years — we are now at the golden jubilee of our independence — we must ask: Is this the lifestyle we are thinking of? Is this the life that we are offering to our people? Is this the future of our children? And when I say children, I do not mean children only of the elite. The child living in the slum, the child who is walking and sleeping on the street, what future are we offering him?”
Sadly, many of the projections that were made in this project and presented to the then Prime Minister have only become more threatening. Whether it is the air quality, chemical and toxic pollution of our groundwater, dumping of waste in our rivers, thinning of forests and the huge mountains of solid waste being generated not only by our cities but by our rural areas as well, the outlook for 2047 looks grim and frightening.
While we have widespread opportunities, the inertia in our system is pushing us in the direction of business as usual. There is, therefore, a dire need for Indian society to shift gears and move towards a path of sustainable development. That would not only be a fitting tribute to Gujral but a reassurance for our children living a secure existence devoid of the growing risks from human-induced climate change and the catastrophic destruction of our natural resources.
(Writer: RK Pachauri; Courtesy: The Pioneer)