Sustainable Development: Strategies for the long road ahead in Indian cities

Even a cursory review of plans reveal that instead of emphasising sustainable development, most fall back on capital intensive technologies for finding solutions.

The COVID pandemic has exposed our hollow development strategies aimed at achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), to which India is a signatory. This hasn’t just brought to the fore the need for revisiting our strategy to move forward for a better and equitable world harmonious with nature. At the same time, it has also thrown light on how the present processes will not help in achieving any landmark advancement in attaining close proximity to the sustainable development goals.

Instead, what we are witnessing is a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. To elucidate further, here are a few critical areas that require immediate intervention if we are to aim for holistic sustainable development:

A. Climate change

This is a topic assuming increasing importance, calling for responsible interventions across the world. The anatomy of this silent crisis vividly explains the challenges the world is faced with. Half of the world’s human made atmospheric carbon dioxide was emitted in the last 30 years and in this period, 20 companies (mainly energy and cement companies) produced 33% of world’s total emissions, even as they lobbied for subsidies for fossil fuels, etc.

Read more: What’s causing climate risks in our smaller cities and towns?

B. Biodiversity

Losses of biodiversity and of redundancy, which I call mutual living together of species, is accelerating at a rate not found in any record since the cretaceous extinction some 66 million years ago. Yet, there is one school of scientific-capitalist thought that argues that we should not worry about the loss to biodiversity. To a point raised that if the honeybees become extinct, human beings will also be lost, these scientists say: “Not to worry, even if we lose them, we can have robotic honey bees!”

C. Nitrogen

Vast excesses of nitrogen emission through fertilisers and other chemicals are polluting water bodies and the soil itself, risking anoxic extinctions (caused by an absence or deficiency of oxygen).

D. Land use patterns

Change in land use patterns for industrial growth is causing water scarcity in many parts of the country. The mainstream argument on climate change is often described as paralysed with theories of reductionism. Many parts of the complex interactive systems that overplay such a change are being negated and the solutions suggested often ignore the larger systemic issues.

Take for example the changes brought about in the Andaman and Nicobar islands for real estate development, or in the new laws promulgated in Lakshadweep island proposing changes in laws and rules to make it another Maldives. The changes brought in J&K, the redevelopment of the central vista or the changes in the Environment Impact Assessment laws all thwart the very idea of sustainable development. All these new laws push into the background environment issues, especially the complex interplays of a system, which are directly linked to climate change, that need to be taken into consideration.

The Green New Deal which is gaining ground in the US and the push for democratic control of companies in the UK led by Labour Party parliamentarians all suggest that climate change issue cannot be limited to mere reductionism. Rather a system different from the present neo-liberal capitalism based on accelerating production has to be sought.

This issue was pointed out by none other than John Closs in the UN Habitat III at Quito in 2016 stating that the laissez faire system of planning and building our world and cities is absolutely unsustainable. We must go back to the basics of planning and ensure that we build a free and equitable world.

Read more: Urbanisation comes at a price in Delhi

Why? This leads me to my second argument that there is a strong relationship between climate change, demand for climate justice and the sustainability of people, inequality and gender parity. The last four decades of unbridled neo-liberal capitalism, under which privatisation was a key driver along with commoditisation of key public use segments like health, has been a big reason for widening of inequities in the world.

Commoditising basic rights

Let me explain how. Things and utilities that were of use-value for people and society, were systematically converted into exchange value. That is to say commoditisation of such utilities were considered a public good.

Take for example water. Do we consider water a right or a need? The Washington Consensus, one of the big pushers for this line of thought, would have us believe that water is a need and anyone in the market can provide that. Jargon like 24×7 water supply became the hallmark of such campaigns and public utilities were asked, or were motivated, to abandon this important responsibility of ensuring water supply in favour of the private sector.

Likewise health, education and many other sectors and utilities that were considered to be the responsibility of the state or its apparatus were systematically handed over to private corporate giants. We find the worst effects of this policy in this pandemic crisis, reminding us that privatization of health cannot be a sustainable development model.

According to Ursula Hews, an economist, nearly 20 large TNCs shifted their portfolio from finance to utilities realising their potential for amassing wealth.

Read more: Opinion: How ‘privatisation’ and ‘PPP models’ have left Indians to die

Urban governance

The second area of phenomenal wealth generation or accumulation of capital has been the changing nature of city governance. City governance today has metamorphosised from managers to entrepreneurs, which has serious repercussions on the inequity indices in the urban world.

One major area where has happened in a big way is real estate. Instead of taxing the capital, it was allowed to make huge dividends at the cost of the public assets. Take for example the privatization of urban commons. In India it would mean open spaces, water bodies, parks, etc. We handed these over to the real estate capital at throw away prices and now we find ourselves in a housing crisis situation.

Likewise, cities were systematically asked to hand over their planning process, which even otherwise they had little control over, to large corporate consultants. They would prepare plans on city development, city mobility, city sanitation, solar city, smart city and what not. And a cursory review of these plans reveals that instead of emphasising sustainability or sustainable development, most of these plans smack of capital intensive technologies to be employed in finding solutions.

These are completely unsustainable ways of development and can in no way contribute to achieving the SDGs.

Many degrees of separation

The shape of Indian cities has changed considerably. From 75%, the informal sector has jumped to 93% of city economies. An Oxfam report stated that the gap between the top 10% asset holders and bottom 10% asset holders in rural India is 500 times, whereas in urban India it is 50,000 times!

No wonder then that the pandemic has shattered the lives and livelihoods of the informal sector where 85% of workers have no social security and nearly 90% earn less than Rs 8,500 per month. Women are the worst affected.

The pandemic has shattered the lives and livelihoods in the informal sector, where 85% of workers have no social security and nearly 90% earn less than Rs 8,500 per month. Women are the worst affected.
Representational image by Carla Antonini/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The other big divide already visible is the great digital gap. Any claim by the tech companies that digitisation of services will bridge this gap is completely erroneous. We are already witnessing this gap in access to online classes, and people applying for vaccination. In digitisation of services, the key question is how do we democratize the gains of technology. 

This leads me to the third argument on the unsustainability of urban governance as practiced today. As the underlying principle for such governance is still neo-liberal capitalism, the democratic structure of elections poses a serious threat to this strategy. Hence ways of bypassing the elected councils is being sought.

For instance, the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV) in the smart cities programme are a way to bypass the elected councils, as these vehicles decide which form of development is to be prioritised. It does not need a genius to see this increases inequity amongst regions and people and completely defeats the objectives of sustainable development.

Tall claims

On June 3rd, Niti Ayog released a report claiming India has shown significant improvement in Sustainability Deveopment Goals (SDG) in 2020, the year the pandemic’s first wave hit the world. The report highlights the gains in clean energy, urban development and health. The areas of concern identified in the report were economic growth, decent work, industry, innovation and infrastructure.

The State of India’s Environment Report 2021 revealed that India’s rank dropped two place from 115 last year. The segments where it was significantly behind: achieving food security, gender equality and promoting inclusive and sustainable development.

India in fact ranked below its neighbours, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Among states, Kerala remained at the top, followed by Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. At the bottom were Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam.

Even with its low overall score of just over 60 out of 100, some analysts have questioned the methodology used in the reports preparation.

Gender inequity

Coming finally to gender inequity, which is linked to all the above and is presently at its worst in the country. The feudal and patriarchal mindset will never allow women an equal path to economic development. No wonder that India slipped 28 places to 140th rank among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, becoming the third worst performer in South Asia.

On economic participation, this gap widened by three per cent. On political empowerment, India regressed 13.5 percentage points; even as the decrease in women’s’ labour participation rate fell from 24.8 to 22.3%. Estimated earned income of women in India is only 20 per cent of men’s, and we are at the bottom 10 globally on this indicator. Discrimination against women is also reflected in the health and survival front. India ranks in the bottom five in the world on this score.

All this data screams out that this situation cannot be changed by the present capitalist order. The Ease of Living Index further reinforced that it is capitalism that needs to be rebuilt with a human face.

The changes to present development strategy, to make it more aligned to the pursuit of the sustainable development goals, have to be in politics. That would entail creating a participatory model of governance, fighting for the commons, collectivisation, alternative planning in mobility, and decentralisation and democratisation of various processes of planning and decision making.

We can no longer afford to be smug, complacent and indifferent to this imminent threat to humankind. It is time we rectify this by looking ahead with measures to correct the collective failures that makes us look behind in shame.

This article flows from my intervention in a training programme organised by IMPRI, NIDM and on a three-day online training programme on Gender Equality, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Goals on May 29th.

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