India and the resource consumption agenda

RubbishRubbish on a street in Chennai

The population of India is around 1211 million, representing around 18% of the world’s population. Between 2000 and 2011, India’s average quarterly economic growth was 7.45%, reaching a high of 11.8% in December 2003 and a low of 1.6% in December 2002. The chart below shows the tends in GDP (Gross domestic product), between 2008 – 2012.

Despite the economy slowing in the past year, the new Narendra Modi Government has promised growth of between 7 – 8% over the next three years. It aims to achieve this growth by cutting its fiscal deficit, attracting direct foreign investment and simplifying its tax regime, amongst other measures. Services are a major source of economic growth, accounting for more than half of the country’s output. However, industry, farming and industry also make up a significant portion of the economy.

India and China alone will account for more than 62 % of Asian urban population growth and 40 % of global urban population growth from 2005 to 2025. In 1950, 17 % of India’s population lived in cities. By 2005, this rate had moved to 29 %, and is expected to rise to 38 % by 2025, with 215 million people added to its cities and to 40.76 % by 2030. According to the Indian  ratings agency Crisil, a combination of increased wages, growth in the agricultural and technological industries, and the implementation of programmes such as the Mahatma Ghandi National Rural Employment Guarantee have led to rising consumption levels in both urban and rural areas across India.

Implication of growth

Increased resource consumption

In 2006, at the launch of the report, ‘State of the World’, President of the Washington-based organisation Worldwatch, Christopher Flavin argued that:

“Rising demand for energy, food and raw materials by 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians is already having ripple effects worldwide”.

At the time it was noted that rising resource consumption in China and India had lead to increasing demands on Africa’s forests and fisheries, flourishing export markets in soybean and mineral ores from South America and Southeast Asia, and the loss of semi-skilled manufacturing jobs in Central America and Southeast Asia.

Higher income per person, more people, and moderating savings are all expected to lead to a quadrupling of India’s consumer market, a tripling of average household incomes and the country will become the world’s 5th largest consumer economy, by 2025. The effects of growth will be significant. For example, in urban India, the middle class is expected to account for ¾ of all food consumption. Housing and utilities will triple over the next two decades, sales of cars and autos will rise significantly and personal non-durables will increase 10 fold to around 1000 billion Rupees (circa £12 billion), with growth in both urban and rural areas. In the State of Tamil Nadu, the 2011 Census revealed that in the past decade, there has been a 95.5% increase in cars and a 32.8% reduction in the use of public transport. Shifts in urbanisation has resulted in severe strain on the provision of and access to services such as housing, water, waste and utilities, coupled with pollution, poor sanitation and inadequate provision of social infrastructure (e.g. schools and hospitals).

Air pollution and health problems

According to the World Bank, one of the major causes of environmental concern across India is air pollution, with a 0.1metric tonne per capita rise in CO2 emissions between 2007 – 2008, and its deleterious impacts on the health and wellbeing of the population. Key causes of the rise in air pollution have been increased industry, vehicles and indoor pollution in the poorer areas. Indoor pollution is primarily due to inefficient and poorly ventilated stoves burning biomass fuels such as wood, crop waste and dung, or coal and is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people annually across the world. In Chennai, energy and power related sources account for 75% of the CO2 emissions. In line with the national Government’s aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 – 25% of 2005 levels by 2020, the Confederation of Indian Industry launched a renewable energy strategy in March 2012, for Chennai. Also in March 2012, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announced the National Biomass Cook-stoves Initiative, a series of pilot projects that seeks to provide efficient cooking stoves for individual households in rural areas in an effort to reduce air pollution (a major contributor to climate change) and millions of premature deaths across India. Research has shown that the main cause of death amongst children in India is acute respiratory disease and the program aims to avoid 17 % of the premature deaths and disability from respiratory infections, heart disease, and bronchitis that would have occurred in 2020, saving some 55.5 million years of healthy life that would otherwise be lost from air pollution exposure.

Social unrest

The World Bank notes that the State of Tamil Nadu has one of the highest rates of urbanisation in India (43 %). Rising consumption levels have led to significant socio-economic problems. For example, due to rising electricity consumption levels, within recent months there have been daily power outages of between 2 – 14 hours across its districts. The length of these outages is expected to increase in the summer months, when there is increased demand. Protests in various districts including Guduvanchery and Urapakkam, have been staged by small traders (e.g. chocolate makers and craftsmen), who have lost significant business due to the power outages.

Going forward

Sunita Narain, the Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, notes that:

“The Western model of growth that India and China wish to emulate is intrinsically toxic. It uses huge resources — energy and materials — and generates enormous waste. The industrialised world has mitigated the adverse impacts of wealth generation by investing huge amounts of money. But… it remains many steps behind the problems it creates. India and China have no choice but to reinvent the development trajectory.”

It is evident that whilst India’s GDP will remain high, even not necessarily grow, that resource consumption at the current rate is unsustainable. Given its growing economic clout, expanding ecological footprint, and rising international political influence, it is imperative that it adopts a sustainable approach to resource consumption. However, it is also important that the models of development of all countries, especially the BRIC countries (i.e. Brazil, Russia, India and China), and the USA need to be within the limits imposed by nature. It is only in this way that security and resilience can be assured

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