Development vs Environment: A futile debate

The debate between the environment and development has been a persistent yet futile one. First focused at the United Nations Human Environment Conference at Stockholm (1972), concerns for the environment have gained greater relevance as the industrialised world has progressed. The debate largely pitched development and environment in opposing factions until the concept of sustainable development was devised at the Rio 20+ summit in 1992.

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A garbage bin at Elliot’s Beach

Sustainable development was defined as being comprised of social, economic and environmental progress. At the conference, it was recognised that development and environment should be symbiotic and not be treated as conflicting entities.

A concern which remained was the debate between industrialisation and environment. This was catered for by Agenda 21 which proposed the concept of ‘Green Productivity’ and aimed at pursuing economic and productivity growth while protecting the environment.

While Agenda 21 did lay down the umbrella for conservation of environment, the Indian government took greater strides to gag relentless industrial pursuits. The National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement for Environment & Development (1992), Policy Statement for Abatement of Pollution (1992) and National Forest Policy (1988) were the first of these steps influenced by the prevailing worldview.

Evidently, the government overlooked the difficulties in implementing these strategies in the framework of a transiting Indian economy. Post the delimitation of license-permit raj by Narasimha Rao’s government on July 24, 1991, the Indian economy adopted an unrelenting dash towards industrialisation. A rational move considering that 363 lakh job-seekers had already registered with employment exchanges according to the 1991 census. A number which would steadily increase with the growing population.

Hence for India, like any other major developing economy, industrial growth is and was paramount. The sustained policies towards growth and urbanisation resulted in a 9.3% increase in the GDP for the year 2010 – 2011. But it was insufficient as the unemployment rate still looms at 3.4 percent in rural areas and 5.0 percent in urban areas.

What staunch conservationists conveniently overlook is that for those of India’s 1.2 billion populace yet to be employed, the need for development surpasses all other demands. The case for supporting the environment over development is further weakened as 52.9 percent of India’s employed workforce are engaged in the primary sector (agriculture, forestry and fishing). Considerably reducing their incomes and standards of living. Not surprisingly, India’s poverty figures stand at a staggering 32.7% of the total population in 2010 and a Human Development Index ranking at 136 of the 187 countries evaluated in 2013.

When environmentalists refuse to budge from their stance, they refuse to acknowledge the Right to Development, Article 22(1) guaranteed in the United Nations Human Rights Charter. It emphasises,

“All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.”

The basic premise of all discussions in the General Assembly was to ensure that development supersedes all other needs. When the world community realises the need to grant development the status of a basic human right, it is imperative that the detrimental approach towards development is thought over again.

Intriguingly, a majority of the 367 km2 decrease in forest cover is from the North Eastern states; none of which are hailed for development. Delhi on the other hand is housed in one of the most industrialised regions of the nation has been tagged as the greenest capital on the planet. Prompting the need to revisit notions pertaining to industrialisation and degradation of the environment. For the masses, the question is not about choosing between development and environment, but about defining and achieving the balance which would be ideal for individual conditions.

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