Millennium Post

In the same boat

In her acceptance speech for Indira Gandhi award, the author emphasises the need for development to be all-inclusive

We are deeply honoured, indeed humbled, to get this Prize. Thank you so much for recognising the work of the Centre for Science and Environment. My colleagues and I accept this Prize with gratitude, but also with the awareness that so much needs to be done.

All our work; all our efforts must add up – we have to make a difference in this increasing climate change-risked and insecure world. Your recognition will give us the courage to persist. But more importantly, it underscores the imperative of action. Urgent action.

This honour means a lot to my colleagues and to me because we believe that Indira Gandhi brought the environmental concern to the national stage in the 1970s. She was the only world leader who went to Stockholm in 1972 to attend the first global conference on environment and development; she brought in the water act; the air act and most environmental legislations to safeguard us.

She saw the need to address this existential crisis, before anyone else — the environment was not a buzzword for her. It was real. It was urgent. Her foresight, her wisdom is what we need today.

Today we all understand the imperative and the sheer desperation of the crisis. When every breath we take is toxic, we know that we have a crisis that needs to be fixed. We know also that climate change is not an empty threat anymore. It is real. It is happening.

The weird weather events that are hitting the world should make us sit up. In India, the monsoon is changing — I say again and again, the true finance minister of India, was not, is not, Mr Mukherjee, Doctor Saab or Nirmalaji – it is the monsoon.

Today, we are seeing extreme rain events like never before; we go from flood to drought; the intensity and frequency of cyclones have increased; the poor who did not contribute to the emissions in the atmosphere are the victims.

And remember, this is just the beginning. We are at 1 degree Celsius rise since 1880 and the speed at which the world is pumping greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere will be definitely breaching the guardrail of 1.5°C – considered the least risky by scientists. Climate change is hitting the poor today, but it will not spare the rich tomorrow.

When Mrs G said, "poverty is the greatest polluter" (there are many interpretations of her statement made in 1972), I believe she spoke about the need for inclusive development. Today we know, we cannot have sustainable development and we cannot have peace, without growth that is affordable and inclusive. Why do I say that?

Air pollution we know is the greater equaliser — the rich and the poor breathe the same air. Unlike water pollution, where the rich can move to bottled water, here there is no solution. The air purifier is not the answer.

If we want our right to clean air, we have to clean the air outside. This means that we have to recognise that the airshed is one — the emissions of the woman cooking her food on biomass; farmers burning crop residues because they are poor; or industry using dirty

fuel because it keeps them competitive and the diesel SUV of the rich all go into the same space — in the same air we breathe.

Therefore, the solutions have to be inclusive. Today, less than 20 per cent of Delhi owns a car or drives; rest take 2-wheelers or bus or cannot even afford this and walk or cycle.

But cars occupy 90 per cent of the road space; roads occupy 26 per cent of the city's land area. We are already polluted and congested.

But this is also our opportunity; If we can plan and implement a public transport system that is both affordable for the poor and convenient, safe and modern enough for the rich, we can transform mobility; fix our pollution. Inclusive, then is sustainable.

It is the same with water pollution — most of India is not connected to the underground pipeline grid of the rich. My colleagues have done flow diagrams for cities and they show that most of our cities are dependent on what we would call septic systems.

If we cannot design affordable sanitation systems for the poor, then our rivers cannot be cleaned and the cost of dirty water in a climate-risked world will be unbearable. It will make us even more water-insecure.

In an inequitable world, we must also re-think peace and security. We know that every drought, flood, cyclone takes away the development dividend that governments work so hard to build; it takes away homes; roads; livelihoods; it then costs more to rebuild; to restart from the very beginning.

It is corrosive. It means that people — however resilient — cannot cope anymore. They have no option but to leave their homes, their villages and go in search of permanent new homes, livelihood.

They join the millions of migrants to cities and to new countries. We don't know how many are in our cities today because our official counting is always 10 years out of date.

Most Indian cities today are growing in the illegal. This suggests a massive movement of people; it will make city governance more difficult.

But more importantly, this tipping of the scales of migration, means that politics of immigration will and has become even more nasty, more angry and is feeding insecurity, not just of the poor but also of the already rich.

Our interconnected world has two simultaneous jeopardies — one it transports climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from one country to the global atmosphere and two it transports global news at the speed of mobile telephony. The push and the pull will only increase in this context.

This is not the world we want our children to inherit. And this is where Anil Agarwal, CSE's founder would say: "We have a duty to hope".

We have to work our democracies; build the public opinion on the imperative of change; keep the focus on the possibility of the solution; be bold; fearless and most importantly, ensure that you keep your credibility and independence.

This is where we at CSE will keep ourselves grounded. There is much more to do. DOWN TO EARTH

The Centre for Science and Environment was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for 2018. This is the acceptance speech delivered by Director General Sunita Narain in New Delhi on November 19, 2019.

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