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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

 
  by Ethan Goffman  

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India is a complex, stunningly diverse country replete with seeming contradictions. It has a strong education ethic indicated by a significant segment of the population holding advanced degrees, yet also massive poverty and illiteracy. It is the world's largest democracy, yet weak implementation of laws and corruption are widespread. Its population is largely Hindu, a faith noted for harmony, peace, care for the poor, and vegetarianism, particularly in the version espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, considered the founder of modern India. Yet India has deep social divisions, most notably in the "untouchable" caste relegated to jobs such as handling human waste. Virulent religious conflict, especially between Muslims and Hindus, also polarize its society. Currently, India is undergoing tremendous economic growth, second only to China, yet its galloping population, together with poor policy and insufficient infrastructure, threaten environmental disaster that could end this growth.

map of Indian states
India contains a large, complex, and variegated population packed into a relatively small area

With a smaller land area than China and a population over 1.1 billion-on the verge of becoming, or perhaps already, the world's most populous nation-India might be the ultimate test case of how many people one can squeeze into a given area and still provide a decent, modern lifestyle. Currently, India ranks 101 out of 146 countries on the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which ranks countries based on such measures as health, governance, technology, and international cooperation and evaluates "the likelihood that a country will be able to preserve valuable environmental resources effectively over the period of several decades" (Esty 23).
satellite image of pollution over India
Aerosol pollution over Northern India and Bangladesh
Although this is slightly better than China's ranking, India, with its soaring population, faces increasing stresses to its air and water; its future energy and resource use is uncertain, and its agricultural productivity is at risk. India is also testing the efficacy of democracy-which Winston Churchill called "the worst form of government, except for all the others"-and whether networks of individuals can provide a better watch on the environment than can an authoritarian system.

India, then, is in many ways a microcosm-albeit an extraordinarily large microcosm-of the tricky path to development that many poor and emerging countries must tread. On today's planet, development can no longer follow the traditional path of emphasizing heavy industry while paying little attention to the surrounding environment. Sustainable development is the watchword of the day, which means that care must be taken to preserve existing environmental resources for the benefit of future generations. At the risk of failure, India may also provide a shining model of how to simultaneously advance democracy, economic growth, quality of life, and environmental health.

Go To Growth in a Diverse Society

See the related Discovery Guide China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability

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