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The Urgency of Sustainability in India

Posted by Wyatt C. King

Feb 27, 2013 10:51:00 AM

To truly understand the enormity of the global sustainable development challenge, go to India. I recently returned from my second trip to the subcontinent, where I was overcome by the abundance of urgent development challenges that cry out for sustainable solutions: roads that are clogged with diesel-belching traffic; an unreliable power grid that cuts out multiple times a day, even in technologically-advanced cities like Bangalore; a water table that is dropping precipitously in many areas as farmers engage in uncontrolled pumping for agriculture; more than 600 million people without access to adequate sanitation, which leads to frequent outbreaks of preventable disease.

Although the current state of affairs already seems intolerable at times, the pressure is only likely to increase in the decades ahead. India already has 1.2 billion people, four times the population of the United States in an area less than half the size. It is on track to surpass 1.5 billion by 2030, adding the equivalent of another entire U.S. in the next 17 years. The ramifications of such rapid population growth are staggering, and they are placing severe strains on Indian institutions, infrastructure and natural resources.

Sustainable development is needed around the world, but nowhere more urgently than India. With so many people, providing everything is more difficult: food, water, power, sanitation, housing and transport. To provide these services without destroying the environment is harder still. Under such conditions, the promise embodied in sustainability—to reduce pollution and maximize resource productivity— is not just attractive, it is essential.

Thankfully, the country is moving ahead with sustainable solutions on multiple fronts. In April of last year, the world’s largest solar farm, 600 megawatts, went online in the northwestern state of Gujarat (shown). The southern state of Tamil Nadu is home to a large and growing number of wind farms. In New Delhi, diesel-powered rickshaws—a ubiquitous form of transport in Indian cities—have been replaced by cleaner versions powered by compressed natural gas. And during the two weeks I was in the country I saw several articles in prominent newspapers touting the benefits of green building. The Indian people are incredibly innovative and they have an intuitive appreciation for the value of “green” solutions.

The sheer scale of the challenges, however, demands greater action. There is a tremendous need, and opportunity, for green entrepreneurs of all stripes. And in a country where tens of millions of new young people join the labor force annually, there is an urgent need for the green jobs that come with sustainable development as well.

India’s burgeoning population and global trends like climate change are presenting the country with unprecedented challenges. Even as traditional economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, it has also created a host of new problems stemming from increased resource consumption. But India is nothing if not resilient and adaptable. It is therefore no surprise that a new wave of economic development is starting to take root, grounded in sustainability and laying the foundation for a better future.


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