Misconstrued dichotomies


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WE live in an age of trade-offs. In pursuit of material well-being, human societies are transforming earth’s land and water in manifold ways, in the process compromising the very natural systems that are essential for our survival. The vast sprawl of homo sapiens across the planet is causing one of the largest extinction crisis – 1000 times higher than ever in earth’s history.1 To burgeoning human numbers, add the societal imperative for economic progress and we certainly face a quandary. How do we ensure development for all people and yet safeguard vital ecological wealth and bio-diversity on this finite planet? Equity being an essential prerequisite for sustainability, what measures can ensure resource use in the most equitable manner? In a populous country like India, seeking to maintain its economic growth potential while also preserving its natural wealth, these are questions of paramount importance.

The often cited claim that environmental and forest clearances are slowing down India’s economic growth has resulted in a regrettable stand-off. There is insufficient evidence to support the claim that rejection rates of mere 3.5% have stymied business and infrastructure development.2 Also, the reason why the remaining 96.5% of projects that obtained environmental clearances are still unable to meet India’s development goals, needs a closer look. Part of the problem lies in systemic issues of inefficient resource use and planning models which needs to be addressed through improved technology and administration. But, there are some crucial aspects that merit re-evaluating our current growth paradigm on a broader knowledge base of developmental economics and sustainable growth.

Creating a space for measured debate can help reconcile alternative views on development to include multiple concerns. Environmental security and wildlife conservation is one such concern. The present stand-off that bundles apprehensions about the India’s current development model as views of self-serving elitists paid by foreign agencies to disrupt government function is a caricature. Instead, we need meaningful exchange of ideas to productively resolve the knotty issue of dealing with environmental trade-offs of economic growth. The core discussion can then focus on anticipating the fallouts of unplanned development, what institutional mechanisms and regulations are needed for environmental security, what role they play in a populous developing economy, and how the debates around these conflicting concerns can be resolved through mutual understanding.


While the Modi government has been more overt in stating its policy priorities and choices, the UPA-II also made its share of environmental compromises during its decade in power. The creation of extra-judicial bodies like the Cabinet Committee on Investment which could override decisions taken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, created significant conflicts of mandate and jurisdiction.3 Almost in continuation, in less than a year of coming to power, the new government has taken several steps to dilute existing environmental norms. The number of parameters used to determine whether a forest should be open to mining or other development was reduced.

The National Board for Wildlife cleared projects without the legally mandated number of independent members. After public pressure and a stay by the Supreme Court, the government had to reconstitute the board, but criticisms remain. The National Green Tribunal, India’s hallmark appellate authority that deals with environmental cases, is being reconsidered. Now, the government is reviewing existing conservation laws to rewrite them for ‘current requirements’. In a positive move, the High-Level Committee for this purpose has engaged civil society stakeholders and sought their opinion and feedback on the scope of conservation laws. But, without any qualification of what ‘current requirements’ mean, the motivation and goals, and therefore the directions of the proposed revamp remain unclear.


It’s a truism to say that conservation is complex. One primary reason for this complexity in India is the sheer size of our population. We will overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2028, and our population will continue to grow till 2060s.4 Improving the living standards of 363 million people living in poverty is an ineluctable imperative.5 Couple this with the pressures of our demographic base, with 62.6% of our population being in the employable age of 15-59 years and needing economic opportunities in a climate of rising material expectations and living standards. Providing food, water, and clean living spaces in resource-hungry, growing towns and cities will be challenging. This cannot be ignored as environmental degradation costs us 5.7% of our GDP each year.6 Obviously, India needs a better long-term plan to sustain its growth and maintain quality of life for her citizens.

At the same time, India is an ecological treasure trove. We harbour four global biodiversity hotspots, and our forests sustain half of the world’s tigers, 60% of all Asian elephants, and 70% of all one-horned rhinoceros.7 Further, these forests provide valuable ecosystem services such as watershed and soil protection, and livelihood options for sections of rural and tribal populations. Approximately 270 million people use forest resources as primary and supplementary income sources.8 Yet, while we have the 10th largest GDP in the world today, we ranked a lowly 100th on the Social Progress Index (2014) that assessed 132 countries for ecosystem sustainability, and 99th in biodiversity protection.9


Given this profile, the challenge of balancing economic development with conservation is no doubt immense. We acknowledge that there are numerous considerations related to the impact of economic development and land use change patterns on livelihoods and lifestyles of resident communities, their rights to access land and natural resources, and the process by which land use decisions are made. This inter-relation between biodiversity and people will create a multiplicity of interests around operationalizing terms like sustainability and conservation. However, we limit the scope of this piece to balancing ecology and wildlife conservation with economic growth when discussing sustainability.


It might be worthwhile to revisit the basic tenets of the trade-offs between environment and development, and why we have come to a seeming impasse today.10 Originally the three pillars of sustainable development were framed separately in economic, environmental and social terms. Newer ways of thinking have called for a unified framework where we view the global economy as a subset of the earth’s life-support system.11 This unified framework states that planetary must-haves that depend on earth’s functioning, such as clean air, nutrient and hydrological cycles, ecosystem services, climate stability and biodiversity, should be integrated into human well-being and development for present and future generations.

We argue, not originally, that planning for development and the environment is essentially about negotiating trade-offs around land.12 On one hand we need natural resources such as coal and minerals, and space to develop growth infrastructure for our economic needs. India’s urgency to remain on a 9% GDP growth track means that the government needs energy, heavy metals, and minerals – the lifelines of a growing economy. Industries need to establish, power generated, roads laid, real estate developed, and goods and services created and exchanged. Land is needed for nearly all of these.

On the other, land is also needed to maintain healthy ecosystems that provide for the planet’s infrastructure and support life for humans and other species. Utilizing the earth’s resources is vital for humanity, but our growing populations and over-consumptive economic models have strained available natural resources. Thus, the way we chose to use remaining resources will be critical for the equity and sustainability of social and economic development, and to contain loss of biodiversity, plants and animals, and their habitats.


However, human societal goals and challenges are usually generational, and we plan within the timescales of our lives. More realistically, policies dictated by realpolitik often play out on even shorter time frames within which decisions regarding land, water, soils, and resources need to be taken. This is the basic recipe for the mismatch we see today between environmental considerations, conservation of wildlife and habitats, and human development. In contrast with economic needs that have to be met here and now, ecologists argue for the maintenance and conservation of species, ecosystems, and processes which sometimes have lag times of decades if not millennia. While charismatic species manage to garner some attention of their endangerment, it is hard for us to empathize with the abstract idea of saving the threatened butterfly, frog, or fish, or even perceive the slow degradation of forests and oceans.

Of course, there are questions about the very premise of saving other species and the wild habitats they live in if they do not benefit humans. This stance implicitly supposes a dichotomy between human well-being and that of other species. It tacitly assumes that foregoing our natural heritage is an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of an overall betterment of human societies, and supposes that the benefits from short-term planning for societal development and economic growth far outweigh any long-term costs. Development economists have put forward an analogy that illustrates how both environmental and economic concerns need to be taken on board ‘when driving a car, a metre that added up in one single number the current speed of the vehicle and the remaining level of gasoline would not be of any help to the driver. Both pieces of information are critical and need to be displayed in distinct, clearly visible areas of the dashboard.’13


In India, the complexity and challenges of balancing economic development with conservation is usually framed as a dichotomy and not without acrimony. This detracts from important debates of social and environmental security in a nation’s planning process. There is now a need to recognize all aspects of development, not merely the economic ones.

Going back to the trade-off between ‘grow now’ versus ‘environment later’, have we implicitly accepted this idea as ubiquitous, and hence neglected to evaluate its validity in India’s specific growth situation? The relationship between per capita income and environmental degradation states that environmental degradation initially rises with increasing incomes. With growing affluence, societies will shift to less environmentally degrading activities. A trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality, therefore, is hypothesized to exist primarily in poorer countries,14 which have to rely on natural resources to fund their economic aspirations. However, the evidence from around the world that evaluated these trade-offs was based on an index of air pollution measures. Studies examining broader indices such as biodiversity persistence and its relation to rising incomes are lacking,15 and therefore render this relationship tenuous.


India has an excellent opportunity to think differently about balancing environment or economic needs, and embrace a more unified developmental framework. This could be achieved by setting comprehensive targets on environmental and biodiversity goals, with our economic development being nested within.16 Given that our societal tolerance to large mammals and bio-diversity is one of the highest in the world, advocating and setting targets for the persistence of biodiversity maybe easier than for many other western countries.

To build upon this, we present a framework of solutions to co-opt into our planning process. We highlight three positive aspects of our conservation system. First, we emphasize the existing legal framework and judicial mechanism that has done reasonably well in protecting wildlife and their habitats, and addressing environmental grievances. Next, we highlight our growing knowledge base in ecology and conservation science. Finally, we as a society in transition have an opportunity to ride multiple developmental waves and decide patterns of resource use allocation in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of our economy that enable sustainable use of natural resources.


We have a strong constitutional and legal mandate to fulfil our ecological responsibilities and protect our natural heritage. Conservation laws such as the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and Forest Conservation Act (1980) and Protected Areas have no doubt helped in saving endangered species and their habitats. Additionally, the Right to Information Act (2005) provides the civil society means to monitor forest clearances and assessments, and compile information for judicial interventions. An active judiciary has played a major role in upholding our conservation mandate and addressing environmental grievances, and in recognizing institutional lacunae in existing laws and their implementation.

The Supreme Court in its judgment on the Lafarge Umiam mining case outlined drawbacks in current legal provisions for conservation, and provided broad brush strokes for improvements. Notably, the SC issued a directive to create an independent regulatory authority to assess and monitor environmental and forest clearances, and delink environmental clearances from political biases. This judgment further directed that district-wise details of forest boundaries of core, buffer, eco-sensitive zones and corridors should be made available, using remote sensing technology to regularly monitor and update information on land diverted for non-forestry purposes. This would certainly complement existing data on distributions of endangered wildlife, but administrative action awaits.

A better understanding of natural systems is critical to predict ecological responses to natural or anthropogenic changes. While short-term, pattern based studies can document some effects of human influences, much remains to be known about long-term functioning of many species, ecosystems, and ecological processes. Discerning the underlying mechanisms of complex ecosystems takes decades of sustained research. We are slowly but surely developing a broader base of scientific expertise in India, and this needs to be furthered by supporting the pursuit of long-term ecological knowledge on a variety of topics. Here, we will do well to realize that the value of science begins in knowledge itself.

In addition, improved understanding is needed on a variety of issues on the frontiers of ecology, environment, and sustainable development. Sustainability, in its basic essence means that given our current demographic profile, we manage our consumption to leave at least as large a resource base per individual for the next generation.17 It’s therefore a legacy that is built slowly but deliberately, and has to be adaptively managed. We submit that there are many grey zones in the details of what we plan to sustain and why, and the overlaps in sustainability interests of economic growth and environmental protection are not always clear. Knowledge, once again, is critical.


Economic development today provides opportunities to create zones of overlap that are beneficial for growth and environmental protection. An analysis across 65 countries shows that improving economic growth ties closely with better educational inputs and outcomes, but natural resource abundance does not always mean better economic growth.18 This is because extractive industries such as mining may have limited a labour market relevant workforce and provide fewer external benefits to other industry, thus reinforcing the importance of investment in education and training for national economies. For example, it is estimated that for every direct job created in the software sector which is now the largest creator of jobs in India, there are three jobs created in the secondary and tertiary sectors.19 Policy forethought could steer the formal sector to promote innovation that is inclusive and better meets the needs of weaker sections of society.20 This needs research and discussion, and putting in place appropriate institutional mechanisms that can provide for a sustainable future for our environment.


The environment-development trade-off is usually framed as an ‘either-or’ situation. We have tried to move away from this dichotomy in this article. The theory of ‘grow now, environment later’ may have little relevance to the environmental, social, and economic paradigms that need to be reconciled in the Indian context. For better or worse, our growth opportunity comes at a time that allows much less leeway with environmental destruction. Low rejection rates of development projects but persistently poor environmental and social indicators show how India fares in overall development.21 Our performance on the Environmental Performance Index of 2014 in resource management, ecosystem protection, and managing health consequences of environmental degradation shows that India ranks 155th of the 178 countries evaluated.22 Pakistan (148th), Nepal (139th) and China (118th) which have less inclusive democracies are ranked higher. On this index, scores are ranked between 0-100, with 100 being the best observed value closest to established scientific thresholds, international and national policy goals. India’s score of ~31 indicates that we have a long way to go to fulfil targets that we as a nation had set out to achieve. However, in the last 10 years we have improved by over 5%. These incremental and hard won gains should be built upon.


How do we create institutions and systems that allow adaptable management of competing needs of a growing country? How do we create systems for future societies to live in clean, healthy environs? Are we leaving behind enough natural capital that allows the forthcoming generations to maintain a decent quality of life? Can we control environmental degradation and biodiversity losses and ensure space for non-human species? How is 20% of land officially designated as forest cover perceived to be an impediment to national progress? Further, much of this is under some form of human use.23 Only about 5% of India’s land is reserved as protected areas, which is far lower than the global average of 12%. These limited regions are the high quality habitats where the bulk of our endangered wildlife and threatened biodiversity remain, and are under immense pressure from development.

Answers to these undoubtedly difficult questions has to start with dialogue and a reconsideration of the time frames in which we are planning national well-being. These overarching concerns can be broken down into specific ecological and economic goals where we can attempt resolution. These should be planned for the long haul, but can be implemented in five year political cycles.


Human intelligence and enterprise is already creating frameworks for ecologically sustainable living. Whether it is through innovative infrastructure or cultural changes of people in response to environmental imperatives,24 we need technological and social enterprise that reduces our per capita consumption of non-renewable resources, while keeping a longer term view on population control.25 Indeed, even in India there is an acknowledgement of the need for more efficient systems, as highlighted in the plans to build smart cities.

Most importantly, we should refocus on the conservation mechanisms that have allowed India to remain one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. A middle ground between development and conservation is possible, but it needs the government to bring people to the discussion table and create institutional frameworks within which to create newer dimensions to resolve seemingly orthogonal concerns of economic growth and ecological sustainability. Ultimately, policies will only reflect socially sanctioned points of view, modifying which is a goal at which we need to persevere constantly.



1. S.L. Pimm, C.N. Jenkins, R. Abell, T.M. Brooks, et al., ‘The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection’, Nature 344, 2014, p. 6187.

2. S. Banerjee, ‘The Clearance Rush’, Down to Earth, 2013. Accessed on 20th October 2014. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/clearance-rush

3. Jayanthi Natarajan writes to PM against Chidambaram’s proposal: Full letter, (2012). Accessed 20 October 2014. http://www.ndtv. com/article/india/jayanthi-natarajan-writes-to-pm-against-chidambaram-s-proposal-full-letter-277651

4. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. 2012. Accessed on 20 October 2014. http://www. indiaenviron mentportal.org.in/files/file/WPP2012_%

5. Derived in 2011-2012 by C. Rangarajan where monthly household consumption expenditure is Rs 4,860 in villages and Rs 7,035 in cities for a family of five people.

6. World Bank, An Analysis of Physical and Monetary Losses of Environmental Health and Natural Resources. Vol. 1 of India – Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges, 2013, p. 82.

7. M.D. Madhusudan, ‘Living with Large Wildlife: Livestock and Crop Depredation by Large Mammals in the Interior Villages of Bhadra Tiger Reserve, Southern India’, Environmental Management 31, 2003, pp. 466-475; R. Amin, K. Thomas, R.H. Emslie, T.J. Foose and N.V. Strien, ‘An Overview of the Conservation Status of and Threats to Rhinoceros Species in the Wild’, International Zoo Yearbook 40, 2006, pp. 96-117.

8. R.J. Fisher, S. Srimongkontip and V. Cor, People and Forests in Asia and the Pacific: Situations and Prospects. Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study, 1997. Working paper APFSOS/WP/27.

9. Social Progress Index. Accessed on 20th October 2014. http://www.socialprogress imperative.org/data/spi/countries/IND

10. D. Griggs, M. Stafford-Smith, O. Gaffney and J. Rockstrom, ‘Sustainable Development Goals for People and Planet’, Nature 495, 2013, pp. 305-307.

11. Ibid.

12. J.A. Foley, R. DeFries, G.P. Asner, C. Barford, et al., ‘Global Consequences of Land Use’, Science 309, 2005, pp. 570-574.

13. Joseph Stiglitz and colleagues, Report on the Commission on the Measurement of Economic and Social Progress, 2009. http://www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais.pdf

14. C. Palmer and S. Di Falco, ‘Biodiversity, Poverty, and Development’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 28(1), 2012, pp. 48-68.

15. Ibid.

16. D. Griggs, M. Stafford-Smith, O. Gaffney and J. Rockstrom, 2013, op. cit.

17. P. Dasgupta, Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment. Oxford University Press, Oxford and NewYork, 2001.

18. T. Gylfason, ‘Natural Resources, Education, and Economic Development’, European Economic Review 45, 2001, pp. 847-859.

19. Economic Times, 26 November 2014. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/ites/software-industry-is-the-largest-creator-of-jobs-narayana-murthy/articleshow/45285961.cms

20. A Utz and C. Dahmian, ‘Promoting Inclusive Innovation in India’, in Mark A. Dutz (ed.), ‘Unleashing India’s Innovation: Toward Sustainable and Inclusive Growth’. The World Bank, 2007.

21. Social Progress Index, op. cit.; and Environmental Performance Index (2014). http://epi.yale.edu/epi/country-rankings. Accessed on 15 November, 2014.

22. Environmental Performance Index, ibid.

23. J.P. Puyravaud, P. Davidar and W.F. Laurance, ‘Cryptic Loss of India’s Native Forests’, Science 329, 2010, p. 32.

24. T. Carter, ‘Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Infrastructure’, 2013. Accessed on 24 November 2014. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20131122-smarter-cities-smarter-future

25. C. Bradshaw and B.W. Brook, ‘Human Population Reduction is not a Quick Fix for Environmental Problems’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 2014, pp. 16610-16615.