Is India on the Eve of a New Development Path?

In India, since ancient times, sustainable development and economic growth ran parallel to each other. According to ancient scriptures, earth is to be respected and protected, and in many parts of India, through the ages, communities have inherited a tradition of love and reverence for nature.

However, India’s exponential growth rate is accompanied with resource scarcity, increasing urbanisation, fast infrastructure development and a growing middle class population. The speed of development has been a boon and a bane, and has caused an imbalance resulting in a society which has grown less and less mindful of environmental issues.

The country is moving away from an economic model which is traditionally ‘circular’, relying on repairing, reusing, renewing and refurbishing, to a current model of linear growth, which is based on extraction, transformation and disposal. The current growth path entails important challenges on the front of resource and energy consumption, as well as the associated negative externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, waste generation, erosion of natural capital, air and water pollution, and social unrest, all of which ultimately impact the health and wellbeing of Indians. Inaction on these fronts could alter India’s growth and long-term prosperity.

It is clear that India is at a crossroads with important choices to make that could determine India’s future development. India is the second most populous state on the planet, with a population of 1.25 billion recorded in 2013. The population of Uttar Pradesh alone, one of the 29 Indian states, is greater than that of Brazil, which is the fifth most populous nation. Table 1 depicts that between 2001 and 2021 the Indian urban population is expected to increase by 73% and between 2001 and 2041 by 200%. Furthermore, between 2015 and 2031, the pace of urbanization is likely to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of 2.1 per cent, which is estimated to be almost double China’s growth rate.

With the expected increase in population and personal incomes, there will also be an increase in per capita waste generation as well as total waste generation in urban areas. It is estimated that these 366 cities (Table 1) will generate 161 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2041, whereas total urban MSW in 2041 would be around 230 million tonnes. This increase in MSW would cause pressure on limited natural resources in the country. For instance, the current Indian policy on MSW specifies that waste should be landfilled further away from cities or habitation. Yet, an increase in waste generation poses important questions of whether there is sufficient landfill space and if such spaces are safe and leakage proof, or whether they should be part of the answer at all.

It is therefore imperative that environmentally, socially, technically and economically sound practices are established for Solid Waste Management. These should be primarily aimed at reducing waste generation through circularity and promoting secondary material markets to ensure sustainability of living spaces. Moreover, cost internalisthe ation of material use through ecological tax reforms should be considered. This would encourage more efficient material and energy use, on the one hand, and reuse, repair and recycling on other. Like in many other developing countries, circularity in India exists largely in its informal sectors, which comprise of small businesses and proprietorships. They have successfully built businesses on the collection, trade and recycling of waste, used garments, construction materials and agricultural leftovers.

The Indian e-waste sector is a good example: of the 6% of e-waste recycled in the country, 95% is supported by the informal sector’. E-waste recycling in the informal sector essentially involves collection, segregation, and dismantling. Collection directly feeds into reuse and recycling, and dismantling feeds into refurbishment and recycling. This is very beneficial for reducing waste and supporting circularity, yet the current policy on e-waste management has largely remained a paper tiger and 94% of it is still not being recycled. Similarly, in the Indian plastics sector, informal recycling is playing a crucial role by diverting 4.7 million tonnes of plastic per year from the public waste collection system, thus conserving natural capital, and identifying material and resource value. However, the circularity in the Indian informal sector even though somewhat successful, is fragmented, unorganised and exists with little or no policy support. Due to the projected increase in population and urbanization, there is a need to rethink the current approach to development.

Towards a new paradigm

As per the World Bank, Indian agriculture is currently facing three challenges such as raising agricultural productivity per unit of land, reducing rural poverty through a socially inclusive strategy that comprises both agriculture as well as non-farm employment,a and ensuring that agricultural growth responds to food security needs. In order to tackle these challenges there is a need to have a regenerative system of agricultural production. Besides, there is also a need to combine India’s smallholder structure with digital technology to address issues like farmer welfare, food security, sustainable development and climate change. It is also pertinent that through policy measures there is a need to slow down migration from rural into urban areas through agricultural reforms that go beyond subsidies. So far the government has taken several steps towards this, but they are still at a very nascent stage.

Similarly, with the high rate of urbanisation in India, the cities’ already inefficient transport systems are heavily burdened. Even though the government has invested heavily in city infrastructures such as Bus Rapid Transport Systems and Metro services, they have failed on fronts like last mile connectivity. There is a definite need for overarching intelligent mobility solutions, which optimise resource utilisation by creating a safe, comfortable and convenient transportation system in India, with drastically reduced emission intensity.

The growing pressure on urban dwellings and infrastructure has also led to increased investments in the infrastructure sector, which is pressing need. However, unsustainable infrastructure development has led to negative externalities such as dust, air pollution and suspended particulate matter, all of which have caused serious harm to the public. There are also serious challenges for creation of an appropriate and safe sewage system in cities. India requires a smart and sustainable infrastructure, coupled with the right construction techniques to make Indian cities fit to succeed in the long run.

The principle of circular economy in India could provide India with a model for long-term prosperity. This approach could help to decouple the country’s growth from the consumption of finite resources and reduce projected greenhouse gas emissions. If circularity were to be implemented in its real sense, it would have to be underpinned by effective economic policy levers such as resource taxes, deposit-refund systems and due government support to the informal collection, recovery and repair sector. These circularity examples in India could serve as a model to be replicated in countries with similar development challenges such as Brazil, China, and South Africa. A circular economic system will lead nations as a whole to a path towards broader efficiency for businesses, a better life for citizens, food security, and smart, efficient and clean cities.

Table 1: India’s Urban Population Growth with Urban Waste Generation and Future Predictions until 2041 (366 Cities). Source – ENVIS centre on Urban Municipal Solid Waste Management.