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Barun Roy: India's growth debate

The pursuit of growth needs to be accompanied by an equally important pursuit of clean technologies and a stringent regulatory environment

Barun Roy 

Barun Roy

The recent Intelligence Bureau report on Greenpeace and its presumed environmental role has stoked the old debate on growth economy versus sustainable development, and in a way it is good that it has come at a time when India's new government is getting set to go for an ambitious economic revival agenda. It should be clear from the beginning as to what that agenda is likely to involve, so that there's no confusion halfway through the journey and unnecessary waste of economic time trying to recover lost tracks. Both sides in the debate should be aware of the stakes involved and try to reach a positive concurrence of views since the common goal is to build a strong and viable India.

There's no question that growth is what India needs right now to pick up its economic momentum and to reduce income inequalities and regional imbalances that exert a backward pull. But for growth to be possible and meaningful, there must be vast preparations on the ground. We need a spread of new industries, new and smarter urban settlements to boost demand, a radical transformation of the countryside, a wider network of roads and expressways linking up towns and villages, dedicated high-speed railways and industrial corridors, new ports and airports, new power stations and water resources, and extensive rapid-transit public transport systems in order to cleanse and decongest cities. After all, poor infrastructure is the single biggest hindrance to doing business in the country and we must act boldly to remove the feeling of "pressure" from investors' minds.

All this will require more land and resource use and at times might even entail immediate environmental costs. There has, therefore, to be widespread effort to convince people that India can't expect to revive economically without a rapid expansion of its physical infrastructure. This has to be accompanied by realistic acquisition and compensation policies in greater public interest. Apparently, there also has to be a greater involvement of the private sector since it's simply beyond the government's capacity to foot the huge bill of a rapid and large-scale infrastructural revamp on its own. And public-private partnership comes at a cost that may not be palatable to all people. Policies, such as pricing and the terms and conditions for operation, have to be determined with proper care.

But that doesn't mean we should be oblivious of the likely impact of growth on the environment and view all environmental advocacies with suspicion. Warnings on environmental dangers should be considered an essential part of the development process since otherwise, the tendency would be to go overboard with the exploitation of available resources. After all, these resources are limited. It's a fact that our forests are dwindling. Rivers are drying up and getting dirtied from poisonous industrial effluents. Groundwater levels are falling from overexploitation, creating dangers of saline and arsenic invasion of soil and drinking water. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are on the rise. Agriculture is still helpless against the monsoon.

What's needed, therefore, is a balance between the physical needs of growth and the equally urgent need to protect the environment. At the same time, we have to be clear in our thinking as to what kind of growth we should be looking for. In other words, we need foresight in our planning. Where do we want to go 20 to 30 years from now? What kind of shortcomings and imbalances should we overcome so that growth is as widespread as possible, lifting millions out of poverty without harming the environment beyond redemption?

It's also important to ensure that all growth activities are synchronous, so that lags in one area don't negate the total effort. We must be fully aware, for example, of how much electricity might be on demand in, say, 2030 or 2040; how many expressways and high-speed railways should be in place to improve nationwide connectivity; how many new urban settlements have to be there to create and sustain demand and distribute the benefits of development; what kind of linkages need to be created to integrate rural areas into the development process, and act accordingly.

Simultaneously, the pursuit of growth should be accompanied by an equally important pursuit of clean technologies and a stringent regulatory environment. Industries cannot go on degrading soil and water by following crude production processes and dumping untreated effluents. Energy needs to be efficiently used and sourced in a more balanced and benign way. Landfills can no longer be the only answer to the growing menace of urban garbage and electronic waste. There are many different ways to relieve environmental stress without impeding growth if only we get more innovative. Innovation and foresight, not business as usual, must be put at the heart of India's approach to growth if Prime Minister Narendra Modi's idea of a smarter, worthier nation is to be realised.

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First Published: Wed, June 25 2014. 21:48 IST