A serious dichotomy envelops the global economic circles today: the gradual enrichment of poor and developing countries. This means that there will be more parties in the not-so-distant future with coffers large enough to afford those economic luxuries that were once reserved for the elite. Inspiring as it might be from the moral vantage, the fact that cannot be ignored is that the environment is already under strain and its capacity to accommodate such large scale economic activity in the future is, at best, doubtful. Ironically, the possible solutions to this dichotomy are numerous, but the task of directing the agreements of all involved parties to one single solution is not very promising. In such a scenario, India finds herself juggling three pins: creating jobs for the unemployed and supplying food to its burgeoning population, while always keeping the horizon green for sustainable growth.
Is ecotechnology the answer?
At least, ecotechnology is not an unprecedented solution. India has quite a few cases to study where, when and how ecotechnology can be put to such effective use so as to improve growth. For once, India does not have to rely on some Western innovation. The West-centric policy-makers discuss ambitious regulations in global forums, or look to giant multinationals and well-heeled NGOs to set an example. But since most people live in the emerging world, it makes sense to look at what successful companies there are doing to make growth more sustainable. A new study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) identifies 16 emerging-market firms that they say are turning eco-consciousness into a source of competitive advantage. These highly profitable companies (which the study dubs “the new sustainability champions”) are using greenery to reduce costs, motivate workers and forge relationships. Their home-grown ideas will probably be easier for their peers to copy than anything cooked up in the West. Why, India has its firms, right in that list. Shree Cement, which has long suffered from water shortages, developed the world’s most water-efficient method for making cement, in part by using air-cooling rather than water-cooling. Jain Irrigation, an Indian maker of irrigation systems, uses dance and song to explain the benefits of drip irrigation to farmers who can’t read. So, the trick to the success of these sustainability champions is not limited to innovatively amalgamating the environmental factors and their growth; they actually work hard to reach and educate poor consumers, often sacrificing short-term profits to create future markets. And is this profit reaching the people? Of course. One only has to google Ralegan Siddhi to witness the wonders of green technology. The jog from economical backwardness to economical sustainability is not one that can easily be discredited.
Notwithstanding the above arguments for the sustainability champions, India also has to judge the degree to which it can steer its course towards the green-technologies – it cannot compromise speed by abandoning the asphalt highway for a green patch of earth. Yes, the success of these champions has resulted in growth that is both hard-earned and desirable, without hampering the future significantly. But then again, weren’t these companies started from scratch? Did they not have the luxury of shaping their infrastructure and business environment to conform to their green goals? And of course, are they not only an infinitesimally small portion of the country’s economy? Undoubtedly, the answer to all the above questions is ‘Yes’. However, one must acknowledge that they exist and they stand as examples whose feat can be repeated time and again. Their approach may not feed a billion mouths today, nor put a million people at work, but at least they are the green horizon the country’s policy makers can rely on – when natural resources are scarce and consumers are cash-strapped, greenery can be a lucrative business strategy.
Green ‘Apple’ for Green ‘Jobs’?
Can ecotechnology boost employment by marketing ‘a green future’ as its employee incentive, like a Green Apple for a Green Job?
Apparently, it can. A Brookings Institute Report on the position of ecotechnology in the United States of America argues that global demand for clean technology is growing fast, clean-economy jobs offer median wages 13% higher than the rest of the economy and generate exports at twice the rate of the average US job, and without more government action, America “currently risks failing to exploit growing world demand” and being outperformed by competitors in the space. The main reason is the failure to pass cap-and-trade or carbon-tax legislation, to develop a clean energy standard, or to move forward with necessary investment in the electrical grid and other clean infrastructure, which have created uncertainty and hamstrung demand.
The transition to a clean economy necessitates a great deal of spending and work. Paul Krugman argues that in case of a liquidity trap, regulations that force businesses to spend money, which would ordinarily be likely to cost some jobs, could instead create them. A parallel to this logic is the World War II, which generated the political will to employ previously unemployable people in the United States. This helps break a rather insidious cycle: the rise of long-term unemployment tends to make people permanently unemployable and essentially moves the entire economy to a lower equilibrium level of employment, wherein another iteration of unemployment ensues. Today, a similar urgent national project to transform India into a ‘clean economy’ through the enforcement of carbon-tax-laws may be able to generate the political will to accommodate the unemployed. One might object that it’s hard to employ a lot of people or spend a lot of money in an effort to consume fewer resources, rather than more; but this is only partly true. Adapting to a low-carbon economy involves steps like building a national smart electrical grid, building solar-power and windmill farms, increasing transport capacity, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, building out the infrastructure for recharge points for electric vehicles, spending more on a bunch of experimental low-carbon power technologies like carbon capture and storage and tidal energy, spending more on public transit and bike lanes, and on and on. If one accepts that ozone regulations could create jobs in a liquidity trap, then a major push for green jobs will, too, on a much larger scale.
Green Apple too Expensive?
Granted that the green apple may open up green jobs: but can India afford this green apple?
Let us consider the alternative. Assuming India carries forth without implementing ecotechnology in its industries, the single most challenging task for the country would be to handle the ‘waste’. Gas, water, or land does not matter; there will be plenty of waste to pollute each. And this cycle of waste dumping, without a consideration for the sustainability of these resources will land India in a position where it would have more of waste than of usable raw material. The economy will fall, as India would rely on her neighbors to help her out. She would need to ‘buy’ technology from her richer friends with the money she borrows from her other rich friends. That stage will mark a no-return point for the economy.
This extrapolation of economic trend may seem slightly hyperbolic, but nonetheless one cannot say with conviction that it will not happen. Let us try to substantiate this theory with an example. The staggering variety of wastes in today’s sewage is rendering the existing sewage treatment plants (STP’s) inadequate. Establishing such facilities is a capital-intensive as well as time-consuming process. In the developing world, where more than half of the world-population resides, developing STP’s and maintaining a particular standard efficiency of their functioning is a monumental task. STP’s require constant monitoring, and scarce or mismanaged resources, coupled with insufficient expertise create hurdles in the proper functioning of sewerage systems. Ineffective functioning of such systems is causing pollution on a ‘grand’ scale. There are about 233 Class-I cities in the 14 major river-basins of India, with a collective population of roughly 105 crores. These cities have been partially covered by their sewerage systems – 24% only. Therefore, around 76% of the untreated sewage from these cities reaches fresh-water bodies, mainly rivers and lakes. Class-II cities don’t have sewerage systems at all. Natural drains in these cities are serving as sewer lines. No doubt, the Ganges is nothing more than a large drain today! Every lake in India is, today, receiving wastes from regions upstream, the amount and nature of which is making the water unfit for any kind of use, even unfit for supporting aquatic life.
With this picture, it is not too far-fetched to predict that scarcity of resources will ultimately change to extinction of resources – a dark horizon clouds us all. So is this price worth paying? Is this price cheaper than an immediate and motivated change towards ecotechnology?
Then, why not use techniques like phytoremediation and bioremediation to treat different types of wastes including toxic wastes like phenolics, hydrocarbons and fertilizers? Many pollutants cease to be polluting if they find their way back into the bio-geo-chemical cycles, which is what is facilitated by the methods of ecotechnology. Let us consider the example of Green Bridge Technology developed by Sandeep Joshi of Shrishti Eco Research Institute (SERI), Pune. It is a low-cost horizontal filtration technique in which a small bund called the Green Bridge is built across the water channel. Cellulosic material of biological origin, like coconut coir or dried water hyacinth or aquatic grasses, is compacted and woven to form a porous wall-like structure strengthened by stones and sand. As water passes through the bridge, all floatable and suspended solids are trapped in this eco-bridge and the turbidity of flowing water is reduced. Growth of bacteria is facilitated on the stones inside the Green Bridge. These bacteria fix the pollutants into nutrients for plants. The green plants that grow on the bridge absorb these nutrients, which also include heavy metals. This technology requires zero electricity and negligible maintenance. Its economical nature may also be highlighted, with capital expenditure being just 5 to 10 % of the total for conventional mechanized aerobic and anaerobic treatment systems. Not to forget that construction of Green bridges along the main course has been instrumental in reviving the health of the river Ahar in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
On a related note, let us quote the legendary Mr. M.S. Swaminathan, “Thirty years ago, when I pointed out to Punjab farmers that the “green revolution” was becoming a “greed revolution” because of the excessive use of mineral fertilisers and the over-exploitation of ground water, they listened politely, but did not change course. Now, in a despairing mood, they are ready to change. The economics of unsustainable farming has become adverse, leading to indebtedness and occasional suicides. The climate has become opportune for farmers to take to conservation farming.” Along the lines of conservation farming, Mr. Swaminathan names the revitalisation of the conservation traditions of tribal communities in the Eastern Ghats region. Fifty years ago, the tribal communities in the Koraput region of Orissa were familiar with more than 1,000 varieties of rice, but at the turn of the century this figure had come down drastically. “Dying wisdom” became linked to vanishing crops. It became clear that the only way tribal families would once again start conserving agro-biodiversity would be by creating an economic stake in conservation. A dynamic programme of participatory conservation and breeding coupled with agronomic improvement soon led to a big spurt in the production of Kalajeera, an aromatic local variety, which is being snapped up by the market almost as soon as it is harvested. The same has started happening in Kerala with medicinal rices like Navara, used in traditional ayurvedic practice, and with under-utilised millets in the Kolli Hills region of Tamil Nadu.
Green is the new Black?
The green proposition and the logic presented above have received quite a handsome welcome from the big guns like the Tatas. Dubbed as the ‘flag bearer of the ecotechnology movement in India’, is the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre, which is part of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Established in 1996, the Centre was born of renowned agricultural scientist Mr Swaminathan’s conviction that an optimum blending of traditional wisdom and scientific endeavour that nurtures and protects the environment is the bedrock of truly sustainable development. This trend has caught up with the other industrialists and each is trying to market its ‘Go Green’ policy. And it is working wonders for them. Has the Tata Nano not captured the fancy of so many middle-class Indians?
This reveals another face of this discussion that we have not covered as yet. The entire argument for sustainable development through the use of ecotechnology rests on the assumption that green implies growth. What if this assumption is nothing more than economic myopia, or a ‘halo effect’? Maybe we are treating a temporary success of greentech as an eternal principle of development. The fact that some successful companies embraced ecotechnology does not necessarily mean that greentech made them successful. Some firms, having prospered, found it affordable to splurge on greentech, some did it for public-relation purposes and some did it just to market their products better. And for every emerging green champion, there are a thousand firms who minted money by pumping toxins into the air.
So, which is it – ‘Growth because Green’ or the other way round?
Certain economists claim that green-tech today is the luxury of the rich and the necessity of the poor. The former can remodel their factories turn by turn, without ever having to shut down more than 5% of their production line. The latter have no option but to rely on greentech to bail them out. The same cannot be said for those intermediate-turn-over firms, who have set-up big toxin-pumping factories that cannot be shut down for even a day, without incurring heavy losses. If such are the constraints, how can one claim that ecotechnology is the solution for all problems today? Clearly, it is not. Implementation is, and always will be, ecotechnology’s most serious impediment. So long as the conundrum of implementation is not cracked, the real miracles of ecotechnology will go unrealized.
Our entire discussion distills to these indisputable points: ecotechnology exists in India as an infant notion, with a promise of a growing tomorrow; ecotechnology is touching lives in the most unexpected of places; ecotechnology is running the growth race as the dark horse; and, India may not live a ‘happy tomorrow’ without a ‘green today’. The questions that remain unanswered are whether ecotechnology will fulfill its promises; whether ecotechnology will finally win this rat-race to growth; and whether India will be able to harness it to the maximum. One way or another, India’s economy is now implicitly bound with the fate of ecotechnology. Its success would cause her growth and her growth would cause its success.
Originally written for an online essay competition in the Summer of 2011