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At UNGA, Modi made strong pitch about environmental issues...

...and then faltered, embarrassingly

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made some rather emphatic and significant statements on international economic and environmental policy in his UN General Assembly speech that were all but lost in the din that ensued around his staged show at Madison Square Garden.

He said, “We should be honest in shouldering our responsibilities in meeting the challenges (of achieving a sustainable world),” he said. He reminded the governments of “a beautiful balance of collective action – common but differentiated responsibilities.”

In diplomatic language that was as good as telling the developed world that it has been dishonest when it comes to issues of global environmental governance – climate change and the post-2015 development agenda.

He demanded that the developed world come through on their commitment to transfer resources and technologies to make the world a more sustainable habitat. Almost berated them. He drove the argument deeper, reminding that the developed world needs to change its high-consumption lifestyle. His words implied that a sustainable world cannot be achieved by merely asking India and China to grow differently but it also requires the rich world to reduce its energy consumption levels – vacate the ecological space for the developing world to grow.

Nothing new, some may think. It’s been the Indian position for a long while on the shaping of global environmental governance in the post-2015 era. The difference is, it’s been a while since the Indian government took such a position with half as much unambiguousness. It must be read along with the speech the Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar gave at the UN climate summit recently. He noted how the average per capita energy consumption levels in India are much lower than that of the developed world at present. Again an explicit demand that the international community must work to reduce the energy inequity between nations and that an energy-apartheid should not be legitimised through the post-2015 global development agenda.

“The eradication of poverty must remain at the core of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and command our fullest attention,” the Prime Minister asserted, adding, “We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well-being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption.”

He hinged India to doing more on sustainable development and climate change; doing so domestically, voluntarily and somewhat out of its own domestic resources. But he linked the larger global agreements on the developed world ‘honestly’ living up to its commitments on trade, on climate change, and on creating a sustainable planet.

And, then he faltered. Embarrassingly so. In a way that threatens to become his signature practice of confusing civic and individual habits with responsibilities and duties of a state and its elected government. He suggested that practicing Yoga could be a way to change lifestyles and that it would help fight climate change. Just as he had earlier termed climate change a perception issue, of people learning to love nature again and suggested inculcating energy saving ethics by making children run a thread through a needle in the dark.

After March 2015, India shall owe the world a clearer picture of what the country is willing to contribute as part of the new global agreement on climate change. If the PM did want to talk of the way forward for the world, he could have teased the gathering with hints on what his government was mulling. Just as China did some days ago. Or, if the Indian government is yet to formulate a general vision on its post-2015 international contributions – and this is the case, really – then he could have just stopped there and spread the message of Yoga to the frenetic NRIs gathered at the Madison Square Garden next day instead.

Thankfully, these are just verbal faux pas. Modi and NDA government’s actual actions on environment, either in the domestic arena or internationally, are only beginning to be scrutinised. Yoga won’t help the government escape the responsibility on this count.

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First Published: Mon, September 29 2014. 20:29 IST