January 25, 2020
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A Wet Behind The Ears Feeling

Trade winds of change have steered India’s climate priorities off-course

A Wet Behind The Ears Feeling

After all the hoopla—there aren’t too many world summits attended by over a 100 heads of state and the representatives of some 191 countries—the Rio+20 conference turned out to be a damp squib. Nations pay a great deal of lip-service to the environment. However, the 49-page, 283-para declaration was obfuscatory even by UNspeak.

Even before the start of the three-day conference, UN administrators pointed out that there were not going to be any treaties coming out of Rio. Only affirmations of political commitment. At the end, the declaration read like a wish list of green objectives—with no deadlines, much less penalties, for not abiding by regulations. In sharp contrast to the Earth Summit two decades ago, India was invisible. In recent years, as witnessed in the climate summits at Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, India has jettisoned the G77 group of developing countries, which it spoke for in 1992, and thrown in its lot with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa—BRICS.

Recall that 20 years prior to the first Earth Summit, Indira Gandhi was the only head of state, apart from her Swedish counterpart Olof Palme, who attended the first-ever meet on the environment in Stockholm. That she asserted, mistakenly in retrospect, that “poverty is the worst form of pollution”, was beside the point. India was one of the first developing countries to attach importance to protecting the environment.

Even granting that the present environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, is a novice, she outdid herself in refusing to take a stand on anything, in contrast to the ebullient Kamal Nath two decades earlier. She actually went on record to some Indian reporters about India’s satisfaction about no specific goals and targets being agreed on!

The few Indian NGOs present—a dramatic reduction since 1992, when the Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment was part of the delegation—were incensed that no one from Indian officialdom had sought to brief them on the government’s stand. The same could be applied to the much smaller number of Indian mediapersons present, despite promises by the delegation spokesperson to get in touch.

In Rio, as at Durban, Copenhagen and Cancun, India went for a jettisoning of its old G77 allies and proximity to BRICS.

In fact, virtually all the references to India in the corridors of the sprawling convention centre were critical. Led by Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh in Pune, the NGOs signed a joint statement, criticising—among several mistakes of omission and commission—the government’s resolve at the G20 summit in Mexico to cough up $10 billion to fill the coffers of the International Monetary Fund and bail out Europe’s economies. This was matched by Brazil and Russia, while China forked up $43 billion, making it $73 billion. It smacked of crass subservience, when the funding of $10 billion per year from 2010 to 2012—promised in Copenhagen in 2009 by industrial to deserving developing countries—has not materialised.

Another Indian peccadillo, which was revealed during Rio, was the astounding disclosure that India figures among the top three nations to have bought/leased land in other countries. Critics liken this to a new form of “colonial landgrab”. Between 2000 and 2012, Indian firms have acquired almost 7.4 million hectares in 129 separate deals. This puts figures to allegations first voiced by Outlook in its cover story The New East India Cos in October 2011.

Paradoxically, India was also the recipient of such investment, ranking sixth out of the world’s top ten countries, with foreign firms acquiring 4.6 million Indian hectares in the same period. Globally, most of the land acquired has been in Africa, where such investment has risen five-fold, from $100,000 million to $550,000 million from 2000 to 2010.

In an “Open Letter to the PM” on the verge of his arrival in Rio, Ashish Kothari wrote: “Our single-minded pursuit of ‘economic growth’ (as if it was a magic wand to eliminate poverty) has allowed or encouraged landgrab (not only in India, but increasingly in other countries like Ethiopia where Indian companies are being given massive lands at the cost of the local people).”

Needless to say, such exhortations fell on deaf ears as far as the Indian delegation was concerned. One wonders what the official delegates, including MPs and bureaucrats, got up to in the Atlantic coastal city notorious for its balmy beaches and even more intoxicating Caipirinhas, the cane alcohol- and lemon-based cocktails. One who did acquit himself honourably was Chandrasekhar Sahu, former minister of state in the rural development ministry. He was seen taking notes furiously during a session titled “Inequality and Sustainable Development: the BRICS Perspective”, which was addressed, among others, by Biraj Patnaik, principal advisor to the Office of the Commissioners of the Supreme Court on food security.

Another was BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, who diligently attended the World Summit of Legislators known as globe preceding the summit, also taking copious notes.

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