Beyond Borders:Modi-Xi & Hsüan-tsang

Beyond Borders:Modi-Xi & Hsüan-tsang

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When I visited Xi’an , in the Central China , when I was in United Nations,  I visited the statue of  Hsüan-tsang. 

It was at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. Built to house the texts that  Hsüan-tsang brought back from India, the Pagoda symbolized  a message to both great countries:”to learn from each other”. 

Hsüan-tsang, a scholarly Chinese monk in Vedic and Buddhism studies , crossed the formidable borders and travelled to India in search of original scriptures in Buddhism. Hailing from Henan province of central China, his well-known travelogue of 7th century describes India as ‘knowledge country’.

Fourteen centuries later, President Xi of China , an aggressive reformer, whose parental origin also traces to Henan Province, travelled to India in 2014 in search of political scriptures of India’s newly elected Prime Minister Modi. Never before a Chinese President travelled to India so early in the new term of Indian Prime Minister. President Xi will be hosting PM Modi when he visits China next week, in the city of Xi’an, Xi’s home turf, reciprocating what Modi did in hosting Xi in Gujarat. Such homespun-diplomacy between India and China, second and third largest economies of the world, have potential to make sea-difference in global politics provided both leaders look beyond the perennial visa-sensitivity and geographically thorny border-diplomacy.


India and China are emerging giants. They are the only two countries in the world that have their GDP growing at a pace more than 7 percent midst global financial crisis.

The vexing challenges both the countries face today are strikingly similar. Irreversible and pervasive degradation of their ecosystems is eroding the very foundation of their growth stories. Life threatening air pollution, unmanageable waste generation, and food, water and energy insecurities are the manifestation of the accelerated degradation of the ecosystems. Intertwined with these national concerns is the global issue of climate change that goes beyond the geographical borders.

As per The World Health Organization (WHO) 2012 Global Burden of Disease Study, in India, every year, nearly 1.5 to 2 million people die from indoors and outdoor air pollution. Figures in China could be similar or even more. As per WHO, New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world. Semi-permanent smog in China’s most of the large cities has prompted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to declare ‘war’ against the air pollution. The recent documentary produced by a Chinese journalist, Chai Jing, on air pollution attracted 200 million views on social media and praise from China’s officials. But when the public debate started taking noisy turn and protests, the documentary was duly banned by the government, but not before learning a hard lesson that environmental degradation could lead to social unrest in short time. India, where gags and bans could trigger democratic chaos, is even more prone to such incidences that cold destabilize its developmental plans. Worst, the air pollution due to transport, burning of agricultural residues and bio-mass for cooking and fossil fuel based industries including open manufacture of bricks causes dangerous brown clouds that could travel in the skies and affect the population of other Asian countries. Joint India-China projects to deal with air pollution could be one of the major parts of Xi and Modi’s summit. Indeed, the countries that have capability to master the skies by sending missions to Mars and Moon certainly have collective capacities to deal with air pollution.

India and China both have witnessed social unrest over the waste management issues. Recent mass protest in city of Hangzhou not far from Shanghai over location of waste incineration facility and in Delhi, Pune, Mumbai on dumping of wastes are the wake-up calls for those who consider that infrastructure development means simply enhancing electricity distribution, building more of roads, rail, air ports and sea-ports. Xi, known for his convictions for more reforms and Modi who is passionate about smart and clean cities, need to include environmental reforms to contain air pollution and deal with waste management.

Xi’s first visit to India took place in 2014, the hottest year in the recorded history, as per NASA. Modi’s first summit with Xi in China is taking place in 2015, a year that would see a new climate deal in Paris. Last week, NASA reported that the monthly average global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has crossed 400 parts per million, for the first time in last 800,000 years. Recognizing the urgency Xi and Modi have committed themselves to ensure success of the Paris meeting. They even went beyond the business-as-usual and committed bilaterally with President Obama to reduce the production and consumption of another far more (2000 times more global warming than CO2) deadly green house gases (GHGs) i.e. Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. Reducing HFCs, used extensively in room and car air-conditioning, and enhancing energy efficiency of air conditioning will get early relief from the disastrous consequences of the climate change.

India and China have not yet officially submitted their INDCs (Intended Nationally Decided Contributions) to United Nations climate secretariat, based on which Paris agreement would have to be built. India has earlier declared its contributions through reduction in energy intensity where as China recently declared the year in which it will peak its GHG emissions. Xi and Modi have timely opportunity to demonstrate climate stewardship through effective and similar approaches for the GHG reductions. Such collaborative approaches would also directly help in reducing air pollution by reducing the use of fossil fuel. Effective waste management by reducing emissions of methane –another GHGs- generated from waste dumps would also give social benefits.

President Xi’s initiative of launching Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in line with World Bank, has received overwhelming support from many of the developed and developing countries including India. PM Modi during his visit can emphasize to China that investing in the climate-smart infrastructure should be the backbone of the AIIB. The investment made in low or zero carbon infrastructures through AIIB should be the modern Indian and Chinese scriptures of inclusive development. END

By Rajendra Shende, IIT Alumni, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP .

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