Every now and then I pen an article from my cottage in the Binsar forest sanctuary in the Kumaon hills about the conflictual tensions between economic development and ecological sustainability. I have been in Binsar for the past few weeks and am driven to write another article on the same subject because of the inconclusive deliberations at the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, and also because of a sentence that I read in Mark Carney’s book, Values — An Economist’s Guide To Everything That Matters. Carney is a former Central banker and currently the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on climate action and finance. He is also the co-chair of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) — a coalition of financial institutions that have “committed” to allocate four out of every 10 dollars that they invest towards decarbonisation. The sentence reads: “Why is Amazon rated as one of the world’s most valuable companies … but the value of the Amazon rainforest appears on no ledger until it is stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland”.
Surrounded as I am by a forest protected from deforestation by law but reminded daily by the local villagers of the “value” of timber and by real estate agents of the “value” of the cleared and, therefore, marketable land in the area, I cannot help but appreciate the profundity of this sentence.
I am an itinerant visitor to Binsar. In the late 1980s when I first visited, the absence of development was physically manifest. The road to the sanctuary was irregularly tarred and narrow — I had to walk the last half mile to my cottage, there was no grid electricity or running water and the nearest market, school or hospital was an hour’s drive away. And there was a palpable lack of economic activity.
I, however, loved the place because of the verdant greenery of oak and pine forests, the majesty of the Himalayas, the pure air and because it took me away from the cacophony and detritus of urban life. I noted, however, that my sentiments were not shared by the resident villagers. They wanted electricity, water, education, healthcare facilities, and jobs. They were frustrated and at times, their frustration spilled over into acts of seeming irrationality. They started forest fires to draw attention to their demands.
Today many of these demands have been met. All the villages are electrified. There are few more beautiful sights (and, in my view, powerful manifestations of sustainable development) than the pinpricks of lights from the villages in the valley below set off against the twinkling of stars in the clear night sky above. All homes have LPG, the stress of searching for firewood has been hugely alleviated, mobile phones and internet connectivity has reached the heart of the sanctuary, and jobs have increased with the rise of ecotourism and the hospitality industry.
But the underlying economic and social stresses remain. Healthcare and educational facilities are limited and the quality of what exists is poor. The roads are potholed and test the hardiest of car springs. And the jobs that have been created are temporary, uncertain, and badly paid. People want jobs in government and/or pensionable employment in industry, IT or hospitality and above all a secure, income stream. None of this is adequately available and the gap between aspiration and reality widens by the day.
My “values” are different from those held by the villagers. I want to preserve the pristine beauty of Binsar. I want to barricade it from development — at least of the kind that is evident on the drive to the sanctuary. The villagers love nature as much as I do. Of that there is no doubt. But they have different priorities. They need to eke out a existence. I cannot put a “value” to my “values”. But the villagers can put a value to their material priority. It is determined by the government calculated “circle price” of land and the savings generated from “exploiting” the produce of the forest, including timber. Were they so skilled they could create a ledger tabulating these prices as also the opportunity cost of living outside the orbit of development.
Whose values should predominate? This is a matter of judgement but what is clear (at least to me) is that so long as there is such a divergence of “values”, the tension between ecological sustainability and economic development will remain unresolved. In fact to leap from the narrow perch of Binsar to Sharm El-Sheikh, it is my view the reason COP27 failed to do more than agree to establish a compensatory fund for the poor countries impacted by global warming (and on that too they could not decide on who should contribute, how much and the governance structure for the fund) is because the multiple stakeholders at the conference were not aligned on “values” and therefore the “value” of the various action plans presented by them.
Anyway, whether seen through the microscopic lens of Binsar or the larger prism of multilateral summitry, my point is that “values” have to be brought into convergence before the tension between development and ecology can be sustainably resolved.
So, what then needs to be done? Is there a pathway through which one can bring about such a convergence?
I reflected on these questions during my stay in the hills and it struck me that in the context of Binsar at least (but maybe if suitably adapted, relevant for global deliberations), the Gandhian principles of economics offer useful guideposts. His emphasis on decentralised interventions, that leverage local talent, crafts and the environment, makes a lot of sense when the objective is to create income generating opportunities and secure jobs without disturbing the natural ecology. Rather than follow a path defined by the centre, the guide would be to look for a route that start with local initiatives but gain momentum, scale and market access through the support of government and collaborative linkages with corporates, NGOs and specialists. Gandhiji believed small steps can be precursors to big solutions.
The writer is chairman and distinguished fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress