Sustainable development is an exhausted term. In recent years, it has been misused and abused by politicians and CEOs to such an extent that it is associated more with political and corporate spin than with any true spirit or substance.
For India, this matters. Today’s India is a land of double-digit economic growth rates, soaring city skylines and multi-bagging share prices. The national mood is confident and proud.
Unfortunately, while the country’s economic development is progressing strongly, the spirit of sustainability has yet to be invoked for three key reasons. First, economic growth remains dangerously unbalanced. India’s “middle” or “consuming” class has reached 300 million but there are still over 800 million Indians living on less than US$1 a day despite the recent economic boom.
With less than 3 per cent of the world’s land and 16 per cent of the world’s population, India is home to 40 per cent of the world’s poor. India’s income inequalities are complicated by ethnicity, caste and geography.
Second, since Indian independence, the population has increased by over 700 million. Although fertility rates have fallen dramatically in some of India’s southern states, further north, women are still having, on average, at least four children. As a result, today’s population of just over one billion is forecast to rise by another 500 million by 2050.
Third, and most controversially, there is not enough ecological room left globally for India to pursue the same resource, environment and consumption-intensive development model followed by every “developed” country to date.
According to the New Economics Foundation, for example, in 1961, Earth could have supported everyone living a UK lifestyle. Today, it would take at least three planets to support the current UK lifestyle. Even at a global level, including all the low-income countries, the world is living beyond its means and it is clear that something has to change.
For many in the developing world, it seems only fair that this change must come, at least at first, from the group of “developed” countries. Unfortunately, despite much noise (and even more hot air), no industrialised country has yet to make the structural changes necessary to shift to a more sustainable development model. India is left with a stark choice. Continue along the conventional development path until the ecological roadblock is reached or turn off now and forge a new, genuinely sustainable route that other countries, rich and poor, can follow.
Fortunately, India has some inherent advantages in choosing the latter option. Most important, the depth, richness and spirituality of her culture provide a strong source of inspiration for such a journey. At the grassroots level, among India’s vibrant communities and 1.5 million non-governmental organisations, there is growing agreement regarding the direction for a truly sustainable path. Meanwhile, India’s small neighbour to the north, Bhutan, offers a glimpse of how to proceed. Bhutan’s experiment with “gross national happiness” now dates back several decades. While it continues to evolve, its message is clear. The ultimate goal for government is to create an environment in which people can achieve happy lives for themselves. The market economy has a crucial role to play but it should never become a policy obsession to the exclusion of the environmental, social or cultural pillars of happiness. A glance at the activities of organisations such as Delhi’s inspirational Centre for Science and the Environment (www.cseindia.org) provides evidence that India is asking the right questions.
Why, for example, given the pervasive nature of India’s chronic poverty, does military expenditure continue to exceed government spending on health or primary education? It is now up to India to come up with the answers for all of us.
David Gait is senior portfolio manager of the First State Asia Pacific sustainability fund