Although the development process is fuelled by the extraction of natural resources, environmental conservation and the development process, in particular economic development are frequently in opposition to each other. This led eventually to the Earth Summit in 1992 convened by the United Nations (UN) where the idea of sustainable development, or development that meets economic needs while conserving the environment, was promoted in the discussions. However, sustainable development in the present scenario cannot be seen as an end-all solution, and in the contemporary scenario protecting the environment frequently means opposing many development activities.
For example, there is an argument that says that dams help in better management of water, flood control, store water, provide irrigation, and generate electricity without causing too many emissions as compared to fossil fuel burning or utilizing risky nuclear power plants for example. The argument says that water is being managed and wastage is being avoided and that too many harmful emissions are not being produced. However, the construction of dams can have enormous environmental impacts. Apart from displacing local communities of people and dislocating or destroying ecosystems, dams can severely impact rivers by fragmenting river networks, disrupting natural sediment transport, creating artificial lakes, and altering seasonal variations in stream flow and water temperature (Utah State University, 2016), which altogether act to further alter the river ecology and that of the surrounding areas.
The development process frequently enters into an either/or relationship in the extraction and use of natural resources wherein nature’s equilibrium cannot usually be sufficiently achieved and at the worst some form of severe environmental degradation is initiated. The goal of sustainability is far from being realized when most of natural resource extraction taking place in the development process cannot maintain nature’s equilibrium and in many cases degrades the environment.
Environment and Economic Development
A large portion of economic growth strategies and environmental conservation are locked in a sharp and uneven conflict where in the majority of cases large scale environmental degradation has occurred. Many countries also feel a need to balance economic growth with keeping their natural resources intact. This is mostly in the form of alarm in many countries including in India that are faced with the prospect of an ecological crisis.
In India’s case it will need to balance economic growth with environmental pollution, dwindling biodiversity, decreasing forest cover being replaced mostly with agricultural land, unclean rivers and also various water sources, and excessive use of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. This problem is compounded when India also has to balance its economic growth with bulking population growth or consumption needs.
In the present perspective of India’s development process, moves to protect the environment should occur as improvisations to economic policy that offers alternatives to pre-existing policies wasteful towards the environment while generating a regime and infrastructure that meets the aims of sustainable development. An example is replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources so as to meet the targets fixed in the Paris Climate Agreement. The fact that the development process does not fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) affixed by the UN exists in stark reality in India when environmental protection results often in anti-development activities.
While social science knows of land, labour and capital generally as essential to economic growth, the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, USA focuses on 3 factors in particular as essential with respect to economic growth and the environment.
First is energy supply, which with the application of sustainable development initiatives and technologies can be made more benevolent to the environment. Second is supply of land and natural resources, dubbed as natural capital, as almost all economic activities require use of these resources, which are fixed in supply and can vary in abundance. These require judicious use and budgeting in their management. The third factor is listed as the adaptive character of the environment to waste products of economic processes. With the increase in scale of economic activity, such wastage can greatly increase and damage the environment and require binding regulation and efficient management (Tufts University, undated). Mitigating the 3 factors would in total require the development of an infrastructure wherein the practices to meet SDGs and generate economic productivity can both be achieved and requires a dedicated approach.
The problem can however, arise when many developing countries for instance have to balance measures against environmental degradation against combating poverty. Nation states can have many priorities in their development process, and environmental protection must produce win-win outcomes. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) had for example stated in its 1987 report that preventing environmental degradation requires poverty alleviation.
Having widespread poverty and environmental degradation simultaneously creates a conflict of interest in fighting each of these conditions. With low levels of education, healthcare, productivity and attractiveness to investors, a country with widespread poverty will inevitably have to choose a balance between creating jobs by engaging in production intensive on natural resources and also generating consumption as against investing in infrastructure in a vicious cycle with domestic and foreign investment. While investing in infrastructure can benefit environmental policy, with low levels of investment, this can prove to be difficult, and the country would usually prefer to engage in a development process that is resource intensive to the detriment of environmental conservation.
According to the World Bank, 1 in 5 Indians are poor, with the poor numbering 270 million (World Bank, 2016). Although India suffers from widespread poverty, there are high levels of investment in India due to its high rate of economic growth. However, this growth is not sustainable. With widespread income inequality, uneven development of sectors in the economy, lack of investment in development activities in rural India, lack of skill development, etc India is still unevenly developed in the case of infrastructure development. While some regions can boast of a robust infrastructural set-up, many other regions are largely neglected. A great amount of intra-rural inequality for instance exists across many regions in India. Investments in many neglected regions in India either occur less or the benefits are usually appropriated by a few.
The country is attracting investment, but still has not taken the initiative to fully develop a robust infrastructural set-up across the entire country. At the same time, faced with a massive population bulge, production is intensive on extracting natural resources that requires the creation of a huge amount of jobs. Investments, domestic and foreign, largely flow into privileged regions in the country or are largely not appropriated by the masses. This uneven development of infrastructure combined with great extraction of natural resources in India is limiting India’s chances of aligning environment with the development process. In such a scenario, development will look to heed market consumption before providing a framework that provides more sustainable use of the country’s resources and environmental protection.