The United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) has often received flak from developing countries for their poor ranking in its annual Human Development Reports (HDRs). This year, it has just brought out an Asia-Pacific report, titled One Planet, which has also created some ripples. In India, the Environment Ministry has taken objection to the title itself, on the ground that it implies that all countries are in the same boat, environmentally speaking. The UNDP stance, it may possibly be felt, might deviate from India's oft-repeated principle in UN climate negotiations of "common but differentiated responsibilities" between rich and poor countries.
The government has criticised UNDP for not consulting it when the report was a draft, as if this multilateral agency is in any way required to do so. It is surely over-reacting and taking offence where none was intended. The government's main problem is the report's finding that growth must be tempered by the need to minimise the impact on the consumption of natural resources.
"The world's common future will be hugely affected by the choices that are made in Asia and the Pacific on a low carbon growth path," said Ajay Chhibber, UN Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, at the launch of the report in Delhi on May 10. "The goal is clear: reduce poverty, increase prosperity but leave a smaller carbon footprint," he added.
This statement is unexceptionable. The Asia-Pacific region is home to more than half the globe's population and half the megacities (with more than 10 million people each). Particularly in South Asia , people need to raise their living standards. Production and consumption standards will have to change for this growth not to endanger the planet, whether it is rural or urban areas. There is undoubtedly a responsibility of rich countries to provide funds and technology for this to happen. However, the elites in these countries - where disparities are greater than in most other parts of the globe - have also to bear a fair share of the burden.
What has presumably upset mandarins in Delhi is the finding that India ranks 134 out of a list which ends at Afghanistan at 172. The fact that Pakistan ranks 145 and Bangladesh 146 will be of little consolation. There is no getting away from the fact that poverty levels in this country are simply not acceptable. It is estimated that in March this year, 919 million Indians or some 76 per cent of the population had cell phones, many more than those who had access to toilets. This was the second largest number in the world, almost three times the cell phone users in the US. For Asia-Pacific as a whole, the comparable figures were 2.5 billion with cell phones and very nearly 2 billion without toilets.
In 2010, the UNDP HDR for the entire globe introduced a new Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index, which is also present in this year's Asia-Pacific version. Two years ago, the global report revealed, using 2005 data, that just eight Indian states have more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries combined. The eight Indian states in question were Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, with 421 million people; the 26 African countries together numbered 410 million, so numerically, they are comparable.
Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to the current report, the government would have done better to study it in full. It is strewn with examples in India of both official and non-governmental attempts to bring about a greener pattern of growth. As in many such development documents brought out by multilateral agencies like UNDP and the World Bank, the boxes in the text are often more illuminating than the thrust of the argument (the "angel" is in the details!). Indeed, India probably figures more than any other Asian country in this document. This is due to the fact that it is more democratic and diverse than most, if not all, other countries in this huge region, but also due to its long legacy of maintaining statistics and other documentation from the time of the Raj.
In a chapter entitled Producing for the Future, for example, the report cites how India produces 16,000 tonnes of raw silk a year. The cocoons have to be boiled in water, which consumes 145,000 tonnes of fuel wood and 170,000 tonnes of other biomass fuels like farm waste every year, with correspondingly high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. In Karnataka, a major producing state, a new solar heating system has cut fuel wood use by 80 per cent and reduced emissions by 70 per cent. This is a win-win solution, because it also recovers the investment in a few years, and the government provides subsidies for the use of these renewable technologies.
UNDP calls for greening the economy, which it defines as "one which results in improved human well being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities".
Yet another innovation is the conversion of agricultural wastes to "bio-char". This is similar to charcoal, but instead of burning it, it is buried in the soil. This method was used by indigenous people in Latin America. Bio-char is made by slow-burning rice husks, corn cobs and bagasse in the near-complete absence of oxygen. Field trials in India, along with Cambodia and the Philippines, have proved encouraging and this provides enormous scope for storing carbon in the soil while improving soil productivity.
As has been well documented by activists pushing for organic agriculture, it is surprisingly spreading in an arid state like Andhra Pradesh. The report notes that a collective of 5,000 women cultivators have switched from pesticides and fertiliser in 75 villages in a drought-prone region. What is more, they do not depend on irrigation, the area being fully rain-fed. They have grown some 19 indigenous crops on degraded land, which is surely a pattern of growth to emulate in the rain shadow areas of the Deccan peninsula and other parts of the country. These crops are certified by the Organic India Council to increase their marketability.
A chapter titled Fair and Balanced Consumption states that between 1999 and 2009, the sales of cars increased by 15 per cent in India and 36 per cent in China. It is estimated that by 2050, India will have 811 million automobiles, which has serious implications as far as carbon emissions are concerned, not to mention traffic snarls. The report observes that India has gone in for the world's cheapest car - the Nano - instead of opting for public transport, which the majority of people are denied. This is the kind of growth that the country can do well without, and the Environment Ministry or any other has done precious little to rein in the burgeoning automobile industry.
UNDP does call for greening the economy, which it defines as "one which results in improved human well being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities". This actually is a weaker paraphrase of the more emphatic catchphrase, "sustainable development", which was coined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in the late 1980s, headed by former Danish Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. It served as the leitmotiv for the enormously successful and path-breaking UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Its title was Our Common Future, which is very similar to One Planet and the tome was indeed illustrated by a cover photograph of the planet from space.
The current UNDP report says that it is setting the agenda for the region for the upcoming Rio+20 meet June 20-22. It believes that the three-day event can afford opportunities for bringing back issues like poverty, equity and sustainability into the global development dialogue, "gridlocked over years over contentious positions between developed and developing countries". This seems a forlorn wish, given the hardening of positions all over. Nevertheless, the authors hope that this document will serve as a resource for the region, bringing people's concerns to the fore.
At the same time, UNDP admits that green growth could "point to potentially uncomfortable trade-offs, such as the possibility that developed countries may use environmental regulations and non-tariff barriers to restrict trade. Given the wide variations in natural endowments and development challenges, these issues will have to be faced squarely".
UNDP advocates a shift from fossil fuel-dependent production both in industry and agriculture. At present, some 85 per cent of the Asia-Pacific region's primary energy comes from fossil fuels in the form of coal, natural gas and oil; and it accounts for 37 per cent of the world's emissions from agricultural production, including through growing crops and raising livestock, land use changes and deforestation.
Here, an Environment Ministry official is quoted as pointing out that the report pits the issue of growth against environment "which is not a correct framework for analysis. It suggests that cleaning up first growing later should be the option. This puts the logic on its head."
As the very statements referred to here indicate, this is by no means UNDP's position. It stresses the need to grow, but doing so without harming the environment. On the contrary, the Environment Ministry may well be echoing the (sometimes unstated) viewpoint of the government, bureaucracy and elite that developing countries like India should be permitted to grow, even using fossil fuels, till they catch up with industrial countries' living standards and that it is the latter that should make the transition possible with funding and technology.
As powerfully argued by Praful Bidwai in his new book, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future (Orient BlackSwan, 2012), while the onus squarely falls on rich countries primarily to cut emissions, the 300 million or so middle-class in India cannot hide behind this argument for carrying on with business as usual. We owe it to ourselves to get our house in order as a social priority.
The denial of such basics as drinking water, sanitation, efficient cooking fuel, electricity and renewables (in particular biogas), more than six
decades after independence is nothing short of shocking for a country that prides itself on one of the highest growth rates in the world. If such basic
development was provided, it would enable the poor majority to attain minimal living standards, even while being kind to the planet.