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Shyam Saran: The ecological deficit

India is consuming beyond its means - in terms of natural resources, that is

Shyam Saran 

Shyam Saran

Lately, Indian policy makers have been preoccupied with reducing the stubborn fiscal deficit in the country’s budget. Rightly so, since our economy’s health and prospects for growth are tied to observing fiscal prudence. What continues to escape attention is the much more alarming ecological deficit India confronts. Unless addressed with urgency, this could have far more damaging consequences for the country’s development than the fiscal deficit.

It has been evident for some time that the current production and consumption patterns across the world are no longer sustainable. They have been based on an underlying assumption of unlimited resources, which investment and technology can continue to unlock. This has been the case since the dawn of the industrial age. During a phase of history when only a small cluster of countries was industrially advanced and rich enough to have access to resources worldwide, such an assumption had validity. This is no longer possible, given that there has been an explosive growth in global population – from three billion in 1960 to seven billion in 2011 – and incomes are rising in large and populous countries such as China and India, with the consequent and expanding demand for land, water, food, energy and biodiversity.

In another four decades, global population will increase by two billion, of which India’s contribution alone will be half a billion. We are already consuming resources beyond the Earth’s regenerative capacity. It is like living off one’s capital with imminent bankruptcy, except that in this case ecological bankruptcy threatens planetary survival itself. India is particularly vulnerable because of its inability to stabilise its population and to adopt sustainable development strategies. A recent World Wildlife Fund study shows that India is already using 50 per cent more ecological resources each year than can be replenished by nature.

In our country, we have neglected to examine objectively the implications of this massive population overhang. This can be attributed to accepting the beguiling notion of a “demographic dividend”. An expanding and young population by itself is not a productive asset. The two hands that can do manual labour or the intelligent mind that can generate creative ideas are a function of healthy physical and mental growth, education and skills, and an environment that enables the transformation of human potential into realisable value. When nearly 48 per cent of all children in India are stunted physically and mentally owing to chronic malnutrition, when access to good education is still the privilege of the few, and when there is a premium on familiarity rather than on innovation, what demographic dividend can we expect?

We do have laudable schemes to address some of these challenges, but the reality is that a relentlessly expanding population ensures that we are mostly running to stay at the same place. It is time to revisit the population issue, perhaps even bring back the “hum do hamare do” (we are two and we have only two) slogan for propagating family planning , with an urgent focus on maternal and child health and banishing the scourge of persistent hunger and malnutrition. We must acknowledge that unrestrained growth of India’s population will condemn its people to an enduring low-income trap.

Even if India’s population were to stabilise earlier than mid-century, the struggle for mere survival of the vast majority would still represent an overwhelming challenge. This manifests itself most dramatically in the interlinked and often inter-penetrated domains of food, water and energy security. Each of these domains is under acute stress from growing population. The impact of climate change is exacerbating this stress. Intensive agriculture in India to feed a growing population requires ever-increasing quantities of inputs such as water, commercial power, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. More energy is needed to extract more water from surface or underground sources. The higher generation of power, in turn, often needs greater availability of water. More recently, the large-scale use of fresh water for “fracking” to unlock shale gas, or the substitution of food crops by varieties that can yield bio-diesel as an energy source, impacts food security. The three domains are bound together by powerful feedback loops that are not always apparent and yet are critical to the design of effective coping strategies. In India this resource trio is increasingly stressed and coming dangerously close to the threshold of irreversible depletion.

Let us look at water security as an example. Water tables are falling rapidly in virtually all states of India due to prolonged over-pumping of subsoil water. More powerful pumps are required to reach water deeper in the ground. This increases demand for power and higher-capacity electrical or diesel pumps. The poorer farmers are left behind because they cannot afford the more powerful drilling machines to reach deeper water sources; nor can they afford higher power tariffs or diesel prices. A downward spiral soon begins to take hold — this is already evident in several states. The World Bank has estimated that about 175 million people in India are dependent on foodgrain produced by over-pumping of subsoil water. The implication is that once these water sources dry up – as they inevitably will – there could be a major decline in foodgrain output, which will undermine food security.

It is estimated that a thousand tonnes of water is required, on an average, to produce one tonne of grains. If we calculate the additional foodgrain we will need to produce for the additional half a billion Indians who will inhabit this land in 2050, the implications for enhanced water and energy use on this count alone appear staggering. If we projected, in addition, the likely impact of climate change, the challenge would appear insurmountable. Scientists estimate that for every one degree centigrade rise in temperature, agricultural yield could fall by eight to 10 per cent in tropical areas. Therefore, to persist with a growth strategy that continues to be resource-intensive and depletes our precious ecological resources is a recipe for persistent poverty and social turmoil rather than a blueprint for prosperity.

Ecological deficit is not only an Indian phenomenon; the entire planet is ecologically challenged. India is more vulnerable because the margin of survival of its people is dangerously thin already. And yet, in various parts of this vast land, ordinary citizens, concerned scientists and environmental activists have been creating and applying models of development that are sensitive to the need for sustainable solutions. These need to become mainstream. If India were to evolve an ecologically sustainable strategy of growth, based on its own traditional respect for nature as a source of nurture, it could help bring ecological sanity back into international discourse.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is chairman, NSAB and RIS, and senior fellow at CPR, New Delhi

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First Published: Tue, February 19 2013. 21:50 IST