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The new measure of growth!

Moving past the monotonous use of GDP as a measure of a nation’s progress, supplementary use of Gross Environmental Product is more suited for changing times

The new measure of growth!

For far too long, the (Western) world's obsession with GDP as the only measure of determining the 'progress' had an unquestioned reign in the world of development economics and nations competed with each other on this measure. It took Bhutan, a small mountain country, tucked away neatly into the Himalayas to challenge the concept of GDP and propose Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a better alternative. Closer home, the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) led by the intrepid Padma Bhushan, Dr Anil Joshi filed Public Interest Litigations, first in 2011 and then in 2015 on the state of environment in Uttarakhand and by the time of the second PIL, the state decided to take a non-adversarial position on the petition. By this time, the state government had veered around to the view that Himalayan states like Uttarakhand which had substantial forest cover and a fragile eco-system could actually get recompensed for the ecological services provided by the Himalayas.

The Uttarakhand High Court had also accepted Ganga as a legal and juristic person with rights to preserve itself and its eco-system. Indian jurisprudence was finally catching up with global trends in environmental legislation. Readers may be aware of the US Supreme Court 's observations in 1975 in the famous case 'Should Trees Have a Standing' wherein Professor Christopher Stone of the University of South California had challenged the historic legal premise that as 'nature' and 'trees' were objects in the eyes of law they did not have any inherent rights.

Building this context is important to understand the background of a unique workshop held on 5th March at Dehradun to deliberate on Gross Environmental Product (GEP), an innovative measure to account for the status of 'natural resources' that may be added or depleted annually, using the concept of ecosystem services to provide empirical information on the status of forest, soil, water and air. This is not to say that the GDP will cease to exist: however, it must be tempered with the ecological costs of generating the GDP. To use a very basic illustration – if two economies had similar GDP but very different levels of air and water pollution, the health and happiness parameters would be so very different. Likewise, whenever a decision has to be taken on a range of issues, from industrial infrastructure to rural roads, it is imperative that the impact on the environment is factored, not just in the immediate but also in the very long run, for the permanent loss of a habitat or a water body has impacts which generations may have to bear!

So far so good. The courts directed that eco-system services should be factored and GEP measures should be evolved but the big questions now came up: how do you measure the different components of ecosystem services? What weights do you assign for clean water? How do you capture the 'value' of clean air? Perhaps we can give proxy indicators as we do know that contaminated water and health hazards go together. We also know the consequences of smog and pollution on the respiratory system. We also know the increasing costs of extracting groundwater but pricing water for agriculture is always contentious.

Even as the state government-appointed Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal to develop the GEP measure, a CSIR team visited HESCO and offered help in developing empirical parameters for the same. The NEERI (National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute) at Nagpur started their work and started looking at developing indices based on data which was readily available with the various central and state government institutions.

Earlier this year, the PSA, Prof Vijay Raghavan acknowledged that the measurement of GEP could indeed be a game-changer in the way civil society, the academic community, states and markets looked at this concept and together with the concurrence of the state government and the Wildlife Institute of India, an organisation under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, a brainstorming workshop was convened on 5th March to take this agenda forward. Thus yours truly found himself amidst scientific experts, economists and statisticians to understand, discuss and refine the measures to assess the changing quality of forest, water, soil and air, to begin with. Thus, the measure proposed to look at forest quality would cover the quality of 'broad leaves', especially those suited to the indigenous ecosystem, as well as biomass growth, area and coverage, the mortality of saplings planted in the last few years. The state Forest department, as well as the Forest Survey of India, could take the lead in getting the relevant data.

Likewise, for water, the quality parameters would include quality of discharge and fitness for human consumption (in case of rivers), rainwater harvesting through lakes, ponds and recharge zones based on the rated capacity of the water body and the rainfall data. Closely linked to this is the study of land, soil and agricultural practices.

This would involve measures to monitor runoff, soil depletion and erosion, fertiliser consumption and lands under organic and low external inputs. While there is enough anecdotal evidence on why paddy and sugar cane should not be grown in water-stressed areas, GEP would be able to put this evidence across for the key stakeholders on a year to year basis.

Last, but not the least is the quality of air in terms of PPM and the state pollution control board will not only look at emissions but also mitigating factors, including tree plantations, coverage under Ujwala (LPG to BPL households) as well as the profile of vehicles on the road.

Before closing, it is also important to note that this is 'work-in-progress', and it will certainly require greater rigour and wider consultation before GEP makes a headway. But a beginning has been made and it will only grow from strength to strength!

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal

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