One week from Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, when World Leaders must meet and decide how they are going to 'save the planet', many countries are still wringing their hands and unsure whether they need to do anything at all. Unfortunately, India is one of them. India is a big polluter in absolute terms, but a minnow when compared on a per capita basis - because of its large population. India's professed stance, for more than two decades since we started talking about Ozone layers and climate in general, is that it will only do its bit when the developed world, primarily America, starts acting on cutting its own carbon emissions.
The logic of this stance was development. India and America are competing in many spheres, and the Indian government did not want to burden Indian producers with 'unnecessary' obligations to the environment when Americans are not doing enough to cut their emissions. The move would have been politically suicidal, it was argued, a permanent surrender, a reminder of the past subjugation and again letting the West get away. So, the 'principled' stance of the successive Indian governments was to have no stance at all, not to discuss climate at all. This was in line with India's refusal to sign Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the ban on Landmines and other conventions which needed international consensus.
Frankly, the crowd at home somewhat loved it. Everyone despises an environment tax. Besides, Indian cities get by on hugely carbon emitting old vehicles every day - the fact that they may start junking some of those 1960s machines was abhorred universally. Some of the new age initiatives, mostly forced by Supreme Court, on different local governments, went badly, mostly for botched implementation. These became a butt of joke, as did all other initiatives like anti-smoking campaigns. When Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the Governor of West Bengal [and also, grandson of the Mahatma], decided to practise voluntary conservation by switching off electricity in the sprawling Governor's House in Calcutta every day for two hours, Government ministers, leftist ministers, ridiculed him for the effort. It was all giving in to America.
Of course, it makes sense for Indian government to insist that Americans must start conservation first. As it would have made sense for Gandhi to insist that the British must first practise non-violence before he entertained the idea. But, he did not do that. Not for any moral reason, he was humble enough to say, but because he could not afford violence. Like, India can not afford a climate disaster. We must act first before we need it more than many others.
For example, and of course I am being flippant here, an average 2 degree temperature rise across the world [and this will not happen evenly] will mean that South England will get Champagne climate in about ten years time. I am serious: I have heard people talk about switching to vineyards in a few years time. The same thing may mean Maldives and some of low lying areas in India, including some of Calcutta suburbs [where I come from], being permanently submerged in water. It may mean disappearance of Bangladesh in a few years, and a lot of refugees into India. It may change the monsoon and crop cycles, and as far as I know, Indian farmers are not prepared for that. More floods in Eastern Bihar, deforestation in Central and Western India. This does not imply West will not get affected, but more to the point - India, like everyone else, can ill-afford a catastrophic, irreversible climate change. It is not a political issue any more; it is a survival issue.
If one wants more proof, look at Calcutta. The city administration and the state ministers allowed old, polluting vehicles to ply many years after all the other major cities have banned them. The logic was, funnily, development - employment of many of the people who drove those old vehicles. It was forced to take some action, only haltingly and reluctantly, after being forced by the courts. The compelling reason: Calcutta turned out to be one of the most polluted cities in India, driving away people and consequently investment, and put one in six people in Calcutta in some kind of breathing disorder. Some observers said that the most affected were those who drove the polluting three-wheelers for a living and their families, with an unusually high incidence of TB. So, yes, they had a day job and earned a little; but spent all of that on medical care and ruined their own lives. The government kept the votes, but abdicated their main responsibility - to govern and to protect.
Apart from the fact that we can not afford Climate Change, the other compelling factor is that we are competing for the future as much for the present. We know that days of fossil fuel are limited. We know that environment will be considered as an economic cost in some way. We know that our cities must be environmentally sustainable to draw investment. We know that we must innovate - and encourage such innovation through policy, therefore - to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world. We know that those innovations are a must, if our own 1 billion people need to join the world that the developed 1 billion enjoyed for so long, without sinking everyone together. So, being anti-conservation is not being pro-development, it is a necessary pre-condition for our development. It is a must for us to remain competitive.
I think we have a propensity to follow wrong models. On Climate, we follow George W Bush. We could have easily looked at Japan, which pursued an independent, conservationist policy without having to be pushed by anyone. I continue to look at various energy efficient innovations coming out at various countries - converters which can create water out of air, solar panels which can satisfy industrial level requirements, LED lighting that does not generate heat - and know that we are getting left so far behind that by the time we wake up, we would have lost our competitive advantage.
We are at what I shall call a Klatu moment. I obviously liked the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, whose new version has been realigned with climate risk. The message was - the human civilization must be destroyed to save the Earth, because otherwise both will be destroyed. But, then, there is another redeeming message that we should take into heart - we do change at the precipice. We are at the precipice. India must wake up.
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