National Geographic Society today stated what many traditionalists in India believed since long. We as consumers are the greenest of them all. The 17 nation survey puts India at the top and the USA at the bottom of the table with Brazil as number two and China at the third position. India has retained its paramount position for the second consecutive year. It’s a great success for the Indian way of life and also a shot in the arms for our negotiators at the climate change talks to take a moral high ground and assert our position more forcefully, especially the stand on common but differentiated responsibility in tackling the rising carbon emissions.
The survey also suggests that our society, even after relentless onslaught of consumerism, has remained largely eco-friendly. But it’s not a time to gloat as some trends in the survey as well as in the society indicate a perceptible shift in our attitude that can spell trouble in the future.
Three factors that have contributed in our green success are – use of public transport, predominance of small cars, consumption of locally grown vegetables and food items and housing that’s still less energy intensive.
However, all these factors are under stress and an objective analysis of the trends in Indian society can tell you that things are not as rosy as they are made out to be. There was a time in early 90s, economic liberalization had just begun, when there was a surge in the demand for Maruti cars. The small car was a big status symbol. I remember meeting some American analysts in late 90s who predicted that once Indians acquire Maruti 800 they would automatically graduate to bigger cars. I dismissed them with an air of superiority saying Indians are far too frugal, conservative and grounded to be driven by such unnecessary vanity. But time proved me wrong. Today mid size sedans are choking the roads of every big city and there is a sizeable rich elite in small towns possessing the same.
As far as housing is concerned, India being largely a warm country doesn’t need expensive insulation except for some Himalayan and north western states and that too in winters. But that’s no cause for jubilation. Our AC and cooler usage is on the rise and big as well as small cities have seen a widespread proliferation of these two items. TVs, refrigerators and washing machines too are being bought in phenomenal numbers. That they are not being used as frequently due to power outages is another matter.
India’s per capita carbon consumption is still the lowest in the world and stands at 1.2 tons per annum. But if we take the per capita carbon emission of an average middle class resident in four metros it comes to nearly 5 tons per annum, still less than the world average yet quite close.
It’s our large rural population that survives on small uneconomic farm land, tribals surviving on forest produce, toiling urban poor and urban lower middle class living in sub human conditions accounting for more than 80 per cent of our population that makes us the greenest people on earth.
Should we pay this price to stay at the top? I don’t think so. But we shouldn’t be disheartened to find one day that we are no more at the top. For all those who gloat at this success, there is a humbling reminder that the survey is work in progress and suggests your forced frugality, hard work and lack of economic strength may have made your life miserable but it also makes you eco-friendly. It would pay to remain sober as this is a phony success, real one will be achieved when every Indian will have the wherewithal to live a decent enough life with all the basic comforts.
India’s middle class is 300 million strong but the population is 1.2 billion. It means 900 million are not in middle class and survive in various states of poverty between BPL (below poverty line) to SPL (slightly above poverty line). Only 10 per cent of the Indians today can afford a lifestyle that can be favourably compared to a developed nation. Remaining 90 per cent are still out of the loop. Yet they nurture the same aspirations. Their will to live a life of plenty and comfort has been dormant for too long and the impatience to get it is bursting on its seams. As this 90 per cent gets hold of the proverbial good life or even an average middle class life by Indian standards, our consumption of meat, exotic food from far off places, big cars, ACs, TVs, refrigerators and washing machines would sky rocket.
When most of the Indians will be travelling long distance to their work place everyday, commuting in sedans and living in AC comforts then we would know how strong our age old values of frugality are. How much we will walk everyday or cycle or use public transport. When we will have 24×7 power supply then our resolve to switch off our ACs for sometime would be tested. When we will have enough money and yet buy a small car as it is eco-friendly and traffic-friendly too than it would be an authentic reflection on our green credo. A survey at that time will be a better judge of our green credentials.
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