One hundred & ten years ago, Mahatma Gandhi wrote his magnum opus ‘Hind Swaraj’ on his journey from London to South Africa. While it contained his arguments for Swaraj, Sarvodaya, Satyagraha and Ahimsa, it also contained a crucial chapter on the absolute need for sustainable development. 110 years later, the journey that began on SS Kildonan Castle (the ship that Gandhiji travelled by) came a full circle at the Red Fort in the Prime Minister’s Independence Day address.
For the first time in the history of independent India, a Prime Minister opened with the aftereffects of climate change, the urgency for sustainable development, and the paramount relevance of Bapu to Indian society. The speech delved into Modiji’s vision for India’s future and could possibly be a watershed moment in our history. And this time, it might just bring about a significant change in our socio-political narrative.
Devastating floods, heatwaves, unpredictable monsoons, melting glaciers, receding groundwater and various climatic catastrophes have left a lasting impression on the political establishment. Climate change cannot be ignored nor denied anymore. Increasing awareness is beginning to develop across India on the urgent need to address it.
Environmentalism will and should be the major theme of the next decade, and the prime minister rightfully dedicated much of his speech to sustainable development. Just like his introduction of the immense ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission in 2014, the ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’ was launched with a massive allocation of 3.5 lakh crore rupees. Water occupied a large part of the ‘Ek Bharat, Shreshth Bharat’ motif, with a focus on drinking as well as agriculture. The Prime Minister was right in pointing out that the government alone will not be able to bring drinking water to every village. There needs to be a cultural shift in society if we are to achieve this goal and conservation should become part of our lifestyle, should become a part of our psyche. The mission should be less of a government initiative and more of a mass movement.
It must have taken immense courage to mention overpopulation. Ever since the days of the Emergency and forced sterilisations, talk of population control has become taboo, to the ludicrous point that we’ve started calling our exponentially increasing population a ‘demographic dividend’ rather than a ‘population explosion’. It is imperative we start focusing our energies on controlling the total fertility rate because it is one of the major factors on our finite resources. Prime Minister implored the citizenry to become conscious of the rising population, but this will not be enough. We will need reform in policy if the change needs to be ushered in.
The Prime Minister brought about the welcome change in the policy of banning single-use plastic, and the speech was followed by the announcement of the Indian Railways ceasing its use. This enormous transformation will not only save the environment from destruction but also save lives, not just of human beings but of animals. The shift towards recyclable plastic is admirable, but it needs to translate into everyday life as well; that’s probably why PM Modi beseeched Indians to participate to be worthwhile.
But where do we go from here?
Yes, this is a landmark speech, and yes, we’re on the right path. The first step to solving every problem is recognising there is one. The fact that the environment occupies a large chunk of the annual Independence Day speech is enough recognition. But we need more. More than just recognition and awareness, we need change - a massive mind altering change; we need to wake up from our stupour, we need to shake ourselves back into life again. We need a paradigm shift in policy, systemic restructuring, deconstructions, disruptions, and a purge of our practices. Because, if not now, when? There will be nothing left for posterity to cherish or enjoy if we don’t.
When I see India, I see the dichotomy. The people of Chennai and Bengaluru will claw, fight, cry and revolt for their over-depleted drinking water. But they will also not care if a tap is overflowing or if a pump is leaking. The people of Assam, Maharashtra and Kerala will defy, survive and stay resilient during floods but will not object to naked deforestation or water basin mismanagement or the slaughter of their wildlife and trees. Al Gore commends our efforts in generation of renewable energy (we’ve seen a 370% increase in solar capacity and windmills now generate 10% of our total electricity) but we also rank 177th in the Environmental Performance Index out of 180 countries. The people of Delhi will complain about their hazardous air quality but will not stop buying multiple cars and bikes. When I see India, I see a dichotomy.
Maybe, it’s time we stopped calling for common but differentiated responsibility. Perhaps, it’s time we stopped being the 4th largest emitters of carbon on the planet and instead become world leaders in generating renewable energy. Maybe, it’s time we stop whining and complaining about drinking water, food insecurity and pollution, and actually, start contributing and partnering with the government in reforms.
It’s not rocket science. It’s not complicated. It’s simple. It’s elementary. ‘Hind Swaraj’ spends four pages on simple living. Don’t overuse water while bathing, don’t pollute, don’t over-reproduce, don’t be greedy, don’t be materialistic and don’t kill plants and animals. It’s that simple. It’s about discipline, it’s about tradition, and it’s about habits. We need another ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ today, a total social transformation like the one Loknayak imagined. Except that instead of countering economic corruption, we need to annihilate the moral corruption within us. Environmentalism needs to become our morality. The Prime Minister is right. If any of his programmes have to become successful, society has to participate, has to lead from the forefront. We need to have an ‘Atma Manthan’, we need to introspect and analyse. Because if not now, when?
Prime Minister and his cabinet need to do much more. The changes he’s recommended are the first steps. But climate change is not going to wait for further decisiveness and political courage. The government needs to endorse massive reforms and radical policy changes. They need larger investment in renewable sources; and not just wind and solar but also geothermal, bio-fuels and oceanic. Coal and fuel need to be phased out slowly. Afforestation needs to be promoted vigorously, national parks and biosphere reserves have to be left untouched and unclaimed, ecological architecture needs to be adopted unanimously, sustainable agriculture needs to be promoted, polluters need to be held accountable, failing river cleanup projects need to be revitalised, the NAPCC needs to be rejuvenated. It’s the time for shaking foundations and not just superficial change. The government needs a ‘total revolution’. Because, if not now, when?
Prime Minister’s energy, therefore, must be directed at the dichotomy that is India. Not only should he challenge and triumph over climate change through the government’s action plan but also set about bringing a change in the inner spirit of India that doesn’t consider environmentalism an issue. It’s a tough task at hand. But I believe, like 130 crore other Indians, that he’s the right man for the job. If anyone can do it, it’s him. Because, if not now, when?
It’s time for India to “arise, awake and stop until the task is complete”
(The writer is Delhi-based columnist)