Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands the importance of ensuring that the world moves towards an era of sustainable development, hence his agreeing to address a United Nations summit on the subject on 25 September at New York. It is certainly true that the present issues concerning climate change have mostly come about as a consequence of the disregard for the environment of the former colonial powers in the past, joined by the US. It is also obvious that taking total measures of pollution does injustice to countries such as India, where per capita emissions are insignificant when compared to those of countries which often lecture the world about climate, for example the Scandinavian nations as well as Canada and Australia. While it is important that the obligations taken on by India not be so onerous as to seriously affect the plan to ensure that the young in this country be given gainful work, nevertheless, India needs to do much more than it has in the past in harnessing sustainable energy options. Technology is assisting such a process, with solar energy, for instance, becoming cheaper by the year, now that batteries are lighter and have both longer life as well as greater storage capacity. Next door, China has emerged as a formidable producer of solar energy systems, as well as the technology needed to improve them, while India is still a laggard. Apart from the sun, wind energy and wave energy (through the ocean) are options on which much research is taking place, including in India. The wall between private and public sector in India, which was erected by Jawaharlal Nehru and strengthened by Indira Gandhi, needs to be knocked down.
Such tasks should not remain the exclusive responsibility of the government. The fact is that any measure designed to further the “green” cause will fail unless there is public support and participation. In several segments of national endeavour, progress has been insignificant because of the obstinacy of the bureaucracy, which seeks to control every aspect of the operation of agencies that are state-owned. Had, for example, the private sector been allowed to invest in defence production, the country would by now have been a net exporter of defence systems rather than emerge as the largest purchaser of weapons systems. In the field of environment, from the start there needs to be seamless cooperation between the civil service and civil society, between the public and private sectors, and certainly this must be getting the attention of Team Modi. The New York summit ought not to become yet another forum for finger pointing, with each major player accusing the others of bad faith and inadequate attention to the rescue of Planet Earth from the depredations of the human population. There needs to a plan of action that is equitable, in that there should be a burden proportionate to the ability of the country concerned to bear with equanimity. India needs to walk the extra mile by committing itself to a much more vigorous programme of replacement of conventional energy by non-conventional energy sources. Clearly, not enough has been done, including in the hugely important three-stage plan of the Atomic Energy Commission. Conceived by Homi Bhabha more than a half-century ago, the plan envisages a final stage of thorium-based energy systems, which could generate power cleanly and cheaply. PM Modi needs to ensure that the plan to make thorium the feedstock of the future needs to be revived and implemented in an effective way. India has more than 800 million people, who, by any definition, are young. They need jobs, and indeed demand them. The challenge will be in providing them in a way that ensures a green globe.