Conservation vs Development

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Relevance: GS-III: Conservation, environmental pollution, and degradation, environmental impact assessment.


Case study: Have you heard about the landslides in Kerala? As a result of the continuous heavy rains in Kerala, a landslide has claimed many lives and left thousands homeless. Such threats are growing increasingly common in other parts of India as a result of climate change. Furthermore, the impact of climate change is not limited to landslides; it also causes severe flooding and extended dry seasons and habitat degradation.

However, the most significant causes of climate change and its implications are man-made changes and natural development for economic development. This is because it is assumed that growth policies promote economic well-being while environmental protections are perceived as limiting it.

Environmental Sustainability and Economic Factors

  • Environmental Non-Compliance: The failure to follow environmental principles is one of the main reasons why natural disasters result in a large number of needless deaths.
    • Any effort to determine the danger of natural hazards to a region scientifically is rarely carried out in the correct spirit.
    • Unrestricted quarrying and the haphazard cutting of slopes into hills raises the risk of soil erosion and, as a result, the likelihood of landslides.
  • Subsidies' Negative Effects:  The government has offered a large number of subsidies in order to help the most vulnerable members of society.
    • Subsidies also erode the government's revenue base and hinder its ability to invest in new, cleaner technology.
    • The subsidized character of services such as energy and electricity, on the other hand, leads to abuse and jeopardizes environmental sustainability.
  • Environmental Resources Have No Cost: Natural resources are freely accessible, and no single user bears the full cost of environmental damage, resulting in resource misuse.
  • Population Dynamics' Complexity: The link between underdevelopment and environmental degradation tends to be exacerbated as the world's population grows.
    • Furthermore, poverty creates strong incentives to have big families and encourages migration, making metropolitan places unsustainable from an environmental standpoint.
    • Both effects put more strain on resources, lowering environmental quality, reducing productivity, and reinforcing poverty.

Some of the debates are:

  • Taking care of poverty worldwide is a more critical issue than taking care of natural resources. Natural resources are renewable. Therefore, it is necessary to take care of the people in need. However, humans already wasted enough natural resources, so wasting more will put the Earth at risk.
  • Economic growth is needed to meet the basic needs of the growing population in developing countries. In case developing countries do not industrialize, the government has to put restrictions on population growth. Yet, population growth is one of the main reasons for environmental issues.
  • Industrialization might not put much pressure on the environment. Scientific progress can have less harmful effects on Earth. Yet, some historical accidents show that rapid industrialization might create an actual natural disaster.
  • Developing countries should not tell poorer countries to engage in conservation. Developing countries should not tell poorer countries to make conservation their priority, as it will be hypocritical from their side. However, more developed countries should look after more fragile countries.
  • “Green Revolution” helped double the amount of harvest. A more considerable amount of crop helps feed a growing population. However, the modified seeds might eventually replace the native sources.
  • Green issues hold back developing countries. They are perceived as interference in the affairs of developing countries. However, it is an economic process that will help many people.

Economic growth vs environmental sustainability

  • The country’s low rank on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index is raised often in the media and people at the highest levels of government set out to improve our ranking.
  • High-powered committees comprising top bureaucrats and industry leaders are commissioned to write reports on streamlining and speeding up regulatory approvals, especially those related to the environment and forests.
  • In the past decade and a half, there have been at least five such committees, which made recommendations to improve the climate for private investments in industry and infrastructure.
  • Contrast this with the reaction to surveys on the state of our environment. No government official comes forward and nor are any questioned by the media on what the government is planning to do to improve India’s ranking on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranked us 168 out of 178 countries in 2020. On air quality, the survey ranked India 174 out of 178.
  • In fact, it is common for the government to respond to such surveys by questioning their methodology or, worse, motives.
  • We saw this when, in May 2014, the World Health Organization declared Delhi the city with the worst air quality in the world. It was as though the common man was not aware of how polluted the city was.
  • The basis for this view is the idea that environmental quality comes only after basic needs such as food and housing are met. So, countries should focus initially on economic growth even if it comes at the expense of environmental quality.
  • As countries become richer, they can afford to clean up pollution from the past and as public demand for cleaner environment increases, governments can enact and enforce stricter pollution control regulations.
  • This is the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis and is supposed to explain why environmental quality has improved in richer countries. The argument is simple: “pollute first; clean up later”.

Criticism to EKC

  • The validity of the EKC hypothesis, however, has been seriously questioned. In a paper published in Science in 1995, a team of researchers led by Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow argues that the “pollute first; clean up later” approach is flawed.
  • First, in the case of global pollutants such as carbon dioxide, there is not enough evidence that its levels start falling after countries become richer.
  • Second, it is not clear how much damage we can cause to our ecological systems before which they start undergoing irreversible changes. Such irreversible changes can lead to changes in the earth’s life-supporting systems, with unpredictable consequences.
  • Third, the improvement in environmental quality after an income threshold may have more to do with the ability of developed nations to shift polluting industries to developing nations at low economic cost and less to do with public demand for policies that lead to a cleaner environment. The emergence of China as the world’s manufacturing hub may have a lot to do with this reasoning.

Can Economic Development and Environment Co-exist?

  • The argument today is mostly focused on the relationship between economic development, environmental protection, poverty reduction, and social progress.
  • In recent years, there has been a rising belief that addressing social and environmental problems in economic growth programmes is both viable and necessary.
  • Amartya Sen outlined his viewpoint, which perfectly summarised his economic theory: it is possible to improve the environment while also reducing poverty, reconciling these two goals with economic development, if we also consider development to include freedom, culture, human rights, democracy, and participation.
  • Economic richness, according to Amartya Sen, should be considered with other factors such as public health, medical aid, the presence of economic and social inequality, the quality of education, crime, and environmental quality.
  • As a result, the measurement of economic riches must be accompanied by an assessment of these other components of well-being. Policies on the environment and development must be coordinated and strengthened in turn.
  • It's critical that we recognize the two big challenges we're up against right now: sustainability and poverty.
  • Modern growth theory demonstrates not only that environmental sustainability can be consistent with positive economic growth, but also, and probably more crucially, that failing to attain environmental sustainability can become a barrier to long-term economic success.
  • That is, a lack of environmental sustainability may have non-monetary consequences for society- this is the effect mentioned before. This effect may also make growth impossible in countries where the economy is heavily reliant on natural resources.
  • Furthermore, even in non-resource-dependent countries, a lack of environmental sustainability may, in effect, impede future growth once economies reach key environmental thresholds.
  • This suggests that, at least in the long run, environmental sustainability is a significant goal for policymakers who exclusively use GDP growth as a measure of economic success.
  • Furthermore, there is emerging empirical evidence that the negative-social-equity impact is a symptom of environmental insufficiency.
  • Modern (sustainable) economic growth theory fully accounts for the trade-offs between them and the speed of the long run, or ‘balanced,' economic growth by integrating the effects of environmental degradation on social welfare and utility, medium-run economic growth, and the risk of approaching environmental thresholds within an optimal dynamic framework by fully accounting for the effects of environmental degradation on social welfare and utility, medium-run economic growth, and the risk of approaching environmental thresholds within an optimal dynamic framework.

The contemporary context of India

  • The promotion of policies and programmes for economic growth and social welfare has been a persistent theme in India's development goals.
  • At the same time, we have degraded our physical environment, such as soil, water, and biotic factors, on which we all rely and on which our entire agricultural and industrial development depends, as a result of a growing population and high levels of mechanization, mindless and ruthless exploitation of natural resources.
  • Most industries' manufacturing technology has put a heavy burden on the environment, particularly through intensive resource and energy use, as evidenced by natural resource depletion (fossil fuels, minerals, and timber), water, air, and land contamination, health hazards, and natural eco-system degradation.
  • Industrial sources have contributed to a relatively high part of air pollution due to a high proportion of fossil fuel as the main source of industrial energy and the growth of significant air polluting industries such as iron and steel, fertilizers, and cement.
  • The expansion of the chemical-based industry has resulted in large quantities of industrial and hazardous wastes, compounding the waste management challenge and posing major environmental health risks.
  • Transportation activities have a wide range of environmental impacts, including air pollution, noise from road traffic, and oil spills from shipping. The majority of port and harbour projects have an impact on fragile coastal ecosystems. The iron structure has varying degrees of impact on hydrology, surface water quality, fisheries, coral reefs, and mangroves.
  • Agricultural development has direct environmental implications due to farming activities that contribute to soil erosion and nutrient loss. The spread of the green revolution has been accompanied by overexploitation of land and water resources, as well as a massive increase in the usage of fertilisers and pesticides. Land degradation has also been exacerbated by shifting crops.
  • Increased demand for energy and increased transportation operations have resulted from economic growth and shifting consumption habits. In India, air, water, and noise pollution, as well as water scarcity, are the most pressing environmental concerns.

Major Environmental Movements in India

  • An environmental movement is a social or political movement aimed at preserving or improving the state of the environment. The terms “green movement” and “conservation movement” are both used to describe the same thing.
  • Environmentalists advocate for the long-term management of natural resources. The environment is frequently emphasised in the movements as a result of changes in public policy. Ecology, health, and human rights are at the heart of many movements.
  • Environmental movements range from highly structured and formally established activities to completely unorganised ones.
  • Some of the major environmental movements in India during the period 1700 to 2000 are the following.
  • Bishnoi Movement:
    • Year: 1700s
    • Place: Khejarli, Marwar region, Rajasthan state.
    • Leaders: Amrita Devi along with Bishnoi villagers in Khejarli and surrounding villages.
    • Aim: Save sacred trees from being cut down by the king’s soldiers for a new palace.
  • Chipko Movement:
    • Year: 1973
    • Place: In Chamoli district and later at Tehri-Garhwal district of Uttarakhand.
    • Leaders: Sundarlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Negi, Shamsher Singh Bisht and Ghanasyam Raturi.
    • Aim: The main objective was to protect the trees on the Himalayan slopes from the axes of contractors of the forest.
  • Save Silent Valley Movement:
    • Year: 1978
    • Place: Silent Valley, an evergreen tropical forest in the Palakkad district of Kerala, India.
    • Leaders: The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) an NGO, and the poet-activist Sughathakumari played an important role in the Silent Valley protests.
    • Aim: In order to protect the Silent Valley, the moist evergreen forest from being destroyed by a hydroelectric project.
  • Jungle Bachao Andholan:
    • Year: 1982
    • Place: Singhbhum district of Bihar
    • Leaders: The tribals of Singhbhum.
    • Aim: Against the government's decision to replace the natural sal forest with Teak.
  • Appiko Movement:
    • Year: 1983
    • Place: Uttara Kannada and Shimoga districts  of Karnataka State
    • Leaders: Appiko’s greatest strengths lie in it being neither driven by a personality nor having been formally institutionalised. However, it does have a facilitator in Pandurang Hegde. He helped launch the movement in 1983.
    • Aim: Against the felling and commercialization of natural forest and the ruin of ancient livelihood.
  • Narmada Bachao Andholan (NBA):
    • Year: 1985
    • Place: Narmada River, which flows through the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
    • Leaders: Medha Patker, Baba Amte, Adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists.
    • Aim: A social movement against a number of large dams being built across the Narmada River.
  • Tehri Dam Conflict: 
    • Year: 1990’s
    • Place: Bhagirathi River near Tehri in Uttarakhand.
    • Leaders: Sundarlal Bahuguna
    • Aim: The protest was against the displacement of town inhabitants and the environmental consequence of the weak ecosystem.

Environmental legislations

  • Effective legislation is needed in order to prevent misuse and degradation of the environment. To curb the destructive practices of unscrupulous people, forest mafia groups, poachers, polluters, and over-exploitation of environmental resources, effective legislation is necessary.
  • Pollution is an important factor and it does not observe political territories or legislative jurisdictions. Thus environmental problems are intrinsically global in nature.
  • Therefore, to prevent such problems environmental legislation is not needed only at the national level but also at the international level.
  • A whole range of environmental protection legislation including the Environment Protection Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Water and Air Pollution Act has come under fire possibly in the plea that they are major irritants in the path of India’s industrial growth.
  • The Land Acquisition Act, for instance, has been the cause for major worry for its rights-based approach and might come for heavy pruning if not the axe under the new political dispensation.

Way Forward

  • Humanity's greatest goal, as well as its biggest difficulty, is development. Despite the enormous economic and social advances accomplished over the last century, poverty, starvation, and environmental degradation continue to plague the world.
  • Furthermore, environmental degradation and climate change have begun to have irreversible consequences for the development progress gained thus far.
  • As a result, development goals must be pursued while remaining compliant with environmental standards.
  • The adoption of “win-win” policies that utilise the complementarity between poverty reduction, economic efficiency, and sound environmental management is a top priority in Agenda 21, the UNCED's roadmap for sustainable development. The following interventions can be used to put this vision into action.
  • Feminization of Development: A wide range of expenditures, such as extending educational opportunities for women and enhancing water supply and sanitation services, may yield the greatest development and environmental benefits.
    • It will also boost the number of synergies between poverty reduction and environmental conservation.
  • Prudent Economic Policies: Policies such as price subsidy rationalization, property rights clarification, and technology transfer facilitation may aid in achieving environmental sustainability.
    • Subsidies can be rationalized to save money, increase efficiency, and reduce pollution.
    • Also, unrestricted access to natural resources must be replaced with a more formalized system of use or ownership rights. Community resource ownership can lead to good environmental stewardship, especially if it is based on traditional social traditions.
  • Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge: Indigenous people's knowledge and understanding of big ecosystems can benefit regions and countries.
    • To protect nature and understand climate change, governance, including customary institutions and management systems, should include indigenous peoples and local communities.
  • Humanity's greatest goal, as well as its biggest difficulty, is development. Despite the enormous economic and social advances accomplished over the last century, poverty, starvation, and environmental degradation continue to plague the world.
  • Furthermore, environmental degradation and climate change have begun to have irreversible consequences for the development progress gained thus far. As a result, development goals must be pursued while remaining compliant with environmental standards.

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