May 26, 2014 could well be the new beginning in the history of the relation between India and its South Asian neighbors. Frenzied media across the South Asian continent had never expected that Heads of the State of all the Indian neighbors would keep the legacy of rumpuses aside, ‘turn the page’ and arrive in New Delhi-at short notice-for the ceremonial presence at the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, newly elected Prime Minister of India. ‘The short journeys that take long time to embark’ have been the traits for the visits of the Heads of the States in the region. Figuratively just at the ‘stones-throw’ distance away from each other but readied with arsenals that keep them at ‘missiles-strike’ distance away. Many therefore, considered that the event heralded the era of reduced tensions that would help moving towards reducing border skirmishes, thorny racial issues and controlling the deadly terrorism. The ambience smells of buoyancy, promotion of trade, rise in investment, inclusive growth, and uplifting of the poor. South Asia is crowded home for the largest number of poor in the world
At least on that day people probably overlooked the air pollution in New Delhi-the worst polluted city in the world as per World Health Organization. It was the day for forgetting the serious threats of melting of glaciers in Bhutan and Nepal, disregarding the life threatening rise in the sea level in Maldives and Bangladesh, and ignoring fast reducing fishery stocks along the cost lines of Sri Lanka and fast imperiling food security due to flash floods in Pakistan. The air in this continent, instead, was full of hope that many said in Hindi ‘Acche din aane wale hai’ (good days are ahead). That was the chanting tune or in Bollywood language ‘ item song’.
Is it a dreamy optimism? Can it turn into creeping sense of upstart-complacency and then end with status quo of acrimony? That well may be the case if South Asian countries overlook the fact that the development, trade, growth and reducing poverty directly depend on how the natural assets are managed nationally and regionally. The geo-political boundaries of the nations are recognized by United Nations but not by nature. The coastlines extend, deserts sprawl, river flow across the national boundaries. Countries in the region have to get ready to pledge and collaborate to stop, as matter of urgency, the fast degradation of common ecosystems and looming threat of climate change–a defining challenge of this century and our generation. Such pledge would also help the development agenda and poverty reduction. Each of the heads of the state in South Asia has extraordinary experience and expertise in dealing with the cobweb politically most complex regional issues. Would they leverage that potential to embark on addressing equally complex subject of sustainable development of the region and for the well being of the poor and eradicating the poverty? Policy Governance which forms the backbone of development should not only be simply ‘growth’ oriented, but must comprehensively include ‘inclusive and sustainable growth’ so that we give meaning to the rhetoric ‘ Achhe din aane wale hai’.
There is popular belief that ‘Sustainable development’ means a return to some sort of pre-industrial lifestyle and that it is additional burden and barrier to growth and the development. The debate in the region , particulalry in India on mining clearances vis-a-vis environmental degradation is the central to the GDP growth rates. However, the GDP growth rate is not the measure of better quality of life and certainly is not gurantee for the long term and the sustainable development. By efficiently and sustainably deploying natural resources and development by caring for ecosytem-which is ultimate source of our livelyhooquality of life for genrations to come. The key is to use technology, and not to shun it, by ensuring optimum resource efficiency and doing more with less. Sustainable development is above all a governance challenge. ‘Poverty’, Indira Gandhi told the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm ‘is the worst form of pollution’. Today, most of the assessment reports by United Nations agencies indicate that the environmental poverty i.e. irreversible degradation of nearly 60% of Earth’s ecosystems is the worst form of growth and development which is showing gyration down to continued economic poverty .
Strategies of SAARC countries, including India’s 12th five year plan (2012-17) have emphasized low-carbon growth to get rid of shackles of fossil fuel . Heavy imports, contribute to growth but also widens national deficit, which spirals into inflation which in turn affects the poor most. Indeed, the experts and planners in the South Asia region have emphaticaly stated that taking the low-carbon route is the opportunity leading to the more resource efficient and sustainable living. Low-carbon approaches like use of renewable energy and enhancing efficiency provide many other advantages like mitigating climate change and reducing air pollution.
It is interesting that on the occasion of the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, Pakistan and Sri Lanka released hundreds of fishermen who had supposedly crossed the international sea borders. This gesture of good-will is welcome. However the rootcause why fishermen hunt for the fish beyonf their geopolitical boders is the environmental degradation in the oceans. As per FAO report, globally the fish-stock is dwindling at alarming rate due to adverse changes in ocean food chain on which fish strive. The ocean food chain in turn, is getting affected due to climate change and ocean polllution . In the Western and Eastern Indian ocean the fish stock for the important species is overexploited or depleted. Fisherman are compelled to go deeper in the seas to fetch fish and cross the national sea-borders. Thus environmental degrdation has become the root cause political conflicts in South Asia. SAARC countries which house most of the poor in the world, mainly depend on the fish as source of protein. They are therefore in the danger of food security collapse.
Policies related to sustainable fisheries can be set by the SAARC countries to ensure future food security. Nature conservation and ecological restoration through sustainable policy governance by supporting grassroot communities must be the priority of the South Asia . Governance to achieve sustainability holds great significance for SAARC countries. India is poised to play catalytic role taking advantage of good-will generated in the swearing-in ceremony.
The real diplomacy to be exercised by the SAARC countries is not only for restorion of the national geopolitical borders and preventing migration of people. We need to set in environmental governance and environmental diplomacy to build capacity for sustainable use of natural resources and create new green jobs and ultimately achieve inclusive and green growth.
The most appropriate next step for the South Asian region is to organize yet another ‘ swearing-in’ ceremony where all the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the region’s countries would swear for the ‘ Green Growth and Environmental Governance’. END
By Rajendra M. Shende (Chairman, TERRE and former Director at UNEP)