The Making of Sustainable India

Second Prize, Undergraduate Category, Essay Contest 2015

February 23, 2016

Sanyam Khare

Sanyam Khare, age 20, is a third year law student in ILS Law College, Pune, India. He loves research and is passionate about India achieving sustainability.

ESSAY TOPIC: Sustainable Development Goal #11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Propose specific measures for your country (or region or city) to reach the goal’s objectives in the next 15 years.


"We cannot have an ecological movement designed to prevent violence against nature, unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethics of human culture."
—Mahatma Gandhi

The MDGs have played a key role in shifting the debate away from 'how much is being spent on development towards how much is being achieved.' But the public in India seems to have given the discussions that are happening worldwide on SDGs a miss. In other words, the buzz that should have been there around the new set of goals and targets is missing.

The Asian Development Bank has forecast that India's economic growth will outpace China's in 2015/16, thanks to the improvements in the country's political and macroeconomic conditions. PwC's latest Annual Global CEO Survey suggests that 71 percent of Indian CEOs are very confident about growth over the next three years. Indians may feel proud about overtaking China as the world's economic engine without realizing that this  number 1 position comes with a huge cost: the rapid depletion of scarce natural resources and increased pollution levels.

It has to be understood that the growth which is unmanaged and unsustained will make a country more unsustainable. The Earth's connection to time is demonstrated in how we, today, are either benefiting or suffering from the choices of our grandparents and other ancestors. Their decisions about how to farm their land continue to impact the agricultural practices of today. Looking towards the future, we should make economic choices and endorse policies which will not affect our children and grandchildren as adults. Sustainable development practices can help us to make choices efficiently.

Sustainable Development is the "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable development promotes the idea that social, environmental, and economic progress should be attained in ways that will not exhaust the Earth's finite natural resources. There are various challenges that pose a serious threat to sustainable development of India. These challenges and its consequences are clearly visible. India needs to draw and follow certain measures in order to overcome these obstacles.

One of the obstacles is 'unsustainable transport facilities.' Indian cities are urbanizing at an unprecedented scale and pace because of which existing urban transport infrastructure is over-capacity. This fact coupled with the alarmingly high rate of traffic fatalities, increasing air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and urban sprawl has created a sense of urgency to improve the quality of our transport facilities for the benefit of future generations. Therefore, a connection has to be established between sustainable urban transport systems and urban development to deal with this problem. This connection can be established by significant expansion of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Systems in cities which can be done with the right combination of political will, resource allocation, knowledge-sharing, and technical expertise. Given diverse conditions, it should be based on the idea of 'local innovation for local conditions' to be productive. Since, the spatial expansion of Indian cities is inevitable, mainstreaming concepts like Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) will be vital for ensuring this growth happens in a compact and sustainable manner. City bus services, being a cost-effective mode of public transport, constitute the primary mode of public transport for the majority. Improving its quality to make them more attractive and comfortable for users will promote public transport use over private vehicles.

The second obstacle in our way is 'inefficient and uncontrolled consumption of energy.' Despite having 17 percent  of the world's population, only 3 percent of the total energy that India consumes is generated energy.  The rest is still coming from wood, charcoal, crop waste or other solid fuels to cook food and heat homes. These  emit carbon dioxide thus contributing to the changes in the Earth's climate. Conventional sources of energy cannot power our needs beyond a few more decades. Sources like biomass and wind energy hold great promise. Bio-fuels derived from sources like Jatropha also hold great promise. Biomass plants can be set up in various regions and each plant can fulfill the needs of its respective locality. The government policies under NAP and the UNFCCC framework should incentivize such initiatives of the private sector.

The third obstacle in our way is 'shortages of drinking water.' Paradoxically, water is a renewable resource and yet millions are denied this most basic need. The problem is not of quantity, but rather of the way water is distributed and used. As the population has risen, agriculture has become more intensive and urbanization has pushed up the demand for clean water. It is estimated that millions have no clean drinking water. Despite water shortages, misuse of water is widespread. In many places, extraction is taking place at an unsustainable rate, because of which water tables are falling, which can be seen in major grain-producing areas of Punjab. The common response to the problem is sinking deeper boreholes which typically deliver only a short-lived respite. At the same time, it causes older, shallower wells to dry up. Developing countries whose demand for water exceeds the supply are faced with an impossible choice: make do with even less, or resort to using untreated water. The former leads to famine, the latter to disease.

Through better management and fairer distribution, the goal of providing every human being with access to clean water is achievable. For example, experiments with drip irrigation in Jordan demonstrated water savings of 20 to 50 percent compared with conventional spray irrigation. There is a massive market to be tapped for water purifiers, rain water harvesting systems and water-recycling systems. Like Chennai, Municipal Corporations in every Indian city should start providing rebate on house tax as an incentive for houses installing rain-water harvesting system. The private sector can also partner with local bodies, NGOs and citizen groups to plant trees, protect local water bodies and aquifers.

The fourth and the last obstacle on our way is 'low quality education' which is provided in our country. Literacy and basic education are essential for enabling the poor access the benefits offered by development initiatives and market opportunities. Basic education is therefore a precondition for sustainable development. In India, education has been reduced to a mere mark scoring exercise characterized by mugging taking precedence over learning and thereby undermining the very essence of education. As a result, our country has a very low Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 20% and Education spending of 1.1 percent and we do not produce individuals of character and this is a great liability for our country.

A major step in this regard can be providing quality educational infrastructure to our students at all levels. The socio-economic balance to improve human lives can only be achieved through sustainable education. This will also help in creating a more equitable society. This can be done by collaboration of education institutions with the private sector in research, faculty development, infrastructure creation, student scholarships, and governance. While quality is a problem, access to education is a bigger problem. Private institutes must collaborate with banks to make student loans available to deserving students at an affordable rate. The government policies in this regard would be a great enabler to achieve sustainability.

'Spreading awareness' about sustainable development is a key to achieve sustainability. Technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone cannot achieve sustainable development. Achieving sustainable development requires a fundamental change of mindsets that results in change of action. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Action Programme (GAP) integrates the content related to sustainable development into education using teaching and learning methods that help the learners to acquire skills such as critical thinking and motivating themselves to act for a better future.

By 2050, it's an estimation that the Indian population will increase by 300 million. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscores that failure to restrict the rise of surface temperature will be catastrophic for our planet in which South Asia would be worst affected and our India would be very vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Therefore, the need to switch to sustainable development paths is becoming more urgent with every passing day and if we are not able to adopt these methods, then we will need to find the equivalent of two planets to sustain us.

Sustainability for us is not a choice to be made but is a precondition for development. Sustainable development will not be easy. Yet, it is an unavoidable responsibility that is achievable with better planning, stronger policies, and effective execution. Indian companies need to demonstrate their ability to reconcile growth and sustainability and by adopting frugal innovation methods, India can show the world how to do more and better with less. The improvement of access to reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources and services, as well as the creation of national programmes for energy effectiveness, should particularly be an important task for the next 10–15 years.

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