India stands on the brink of an ecological swaraj. Will Modi deliver?

The PM is a proud national, yet his model of development is surprisingly colonial.

 |  4-minute read |   22-02-2016
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I am a half-daughter of India. I have watched the South Asian nation develop since I first visited Madras as a young girl, my Indian father bringing his fair-skinned American wife and my brother and me from America on multiple trips to visit dozens of relatives along the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

In the forty years since that first visit, the country has undergone a whole-scale transformation. Never have there been so many humans with so much elemental need for healthy food, clean water, and dependable energy systems. How will India bring these basics to her citizenry?

In recent years, I have visited as an environmental journalist and Fulbright scholar to seek out the answer to this question, investigating the state of India's natural world and exploring how the elements - earth, water, fire, air and ether - are faring. I found a subcontinent in crisis, but I also found individuals and organisations reinventing their landscapes and lives.

Whether they will receive support from the government remains to be seen. With India's infrastructure still under development, now is the critical moment for Prime Minister Modi to help push India towards a new model of sustainable development that could avoid repeating the mistakes of the environmentally destructive path of the past.

"They want to ride in two boats at the same time," Dr Vinod Bhatt, director of Navdanya, an NGO that promotes organic agriculture across India, told me in Dehradun. We were sitting together discussing the contradiction between parts of India's government that declare a commitment to organics while others deepen ties to the petro-chemical companies of Western agribusiness that brought India the Green Revolution, and the accompanying water and soil degradation. "Maybe if they have a good balance, they can do it," Dr Bhatt said, "but otherwise it is not easy."

In the year-and-a-half since the prime minister's inauguration, he has been leaping between boats. He has said that environmental protection "is in our DNA," but his cabinet set up a committee recommending evisceration of environmental protections in the name of economic development.

He expanded the ministry of environment and forests to include climate change, then eviscerated its funding by 25 per cent, and presented a fairly weak plan at COP21 in Paris. He frequently invokes the word sustainable, while ramping up coal mining and fast-track power plants, even as the capital New Delhi and other Indian cities top the World Health Organization's list of most polluted places in the world.

Mr Modi is a proud national, yet he is developing India with the mindset of a colonialist instead of guiding her down a new path. He likes to think big, but macro is the way of the past - and the West. India could follow this well-worn road of the big, wrenching every last resource from rich ecosystems. It takes little imagination to envision such a future.

Overhead will be the blackened skies of England in the mid-nineteenth century, or Beijing yesterday, or New Delhi today. This addiction to the big will results in more dead zones where the rivers meet the seas, like the ones caused from agricultural runoff and pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea. It will result in more citizens dying from air pollution, poor sanitation, and unclean water. It will result in accelerating climate change, setting the stage for crop failures and water shortages.

There is another direction India could embrace. As I traveled across the country, I heard citizens speak in hushed tones of the development miracle Modi claims to have brought to his home state of Gujarat and promised to bring to the nation, but the miracles I witnessed in my travels were the results of the hard work and ingenuity of ordinary people.

Organic farmers bringing their soil back to life after decades of agro-chemical onslaught. Villagers in Rajasthan collecting rainwater in small dams of their own making. Conservationists in West Bengal saving vanishing vultures across a subcontinent. A girl educating a village armed with new knowledge - basic and revolutionary - about her body.

These people have both feet in one boat. But it is the head of government that dips his oar into the water to help define the direction that the boat shall travel down the river. Mr Modi can continue to seize every last natural resource from India's landscape under the banner of development, or he can embrace a new method of sustainable development for the 21st Century, embracing renewable energy, public transport systems, sustainable agriculture and restoration of landscape-level water management. Call it Eco Swaraj.

If Narendra Modi listens to the extraordinary people I met who are pursuing local solutions to India's environmental problems, he can deliver on his promise of economic development and provide a radical new model for the world - from drought-stricken California to electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa.

If he reins in environmental destruction, India wins back the 5.7 per cent of its GDP that the World Bank estimates it squanders in the costs of environmental devastation.

Now is the moment when Mr Modi has the chance to put both feet in one boat.

Choose the right boat, prime minister.

Writer

Meera Subramanian Meera Subramanian @meeratweets

The writer is a US-based journalist and Fulbright-Nehru senior research fellow. Her non-fiction book Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity, has just been published by HarperCollins India.

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