“The problem with India is that it is developing in an imitative manner”

Kartikeya Sarabhai is Founder Director, Centre for Environment Education (CEE). He has served on many committees set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Ministry of Human Resource Development, primarily focusing on the greening of India’s formal education system and initiatives in biodiversity education.

He is a member of the Earth Charter International Council.  Sarabhai also led the first international conference on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) and is a member of the UNESCO Reference Group for DESD. He is also the editor of the Journal of Education for Sustainable Development published by the CEE.He was awarded the Padama Shri for his efforts in promoting environmental education in Ahmedabad in 2005. Excerpts.

Sustainable development is a very nascent concept in India. What is the future of sustainable development in the country and can it be at par with that in the Europe and the US?

What is happening in the US and the UK is that they have to retrofit everything because they have already invested in an infrastructure or in a type of development that was not sustainable. They have to change it to make it normal. We have the advantage of doing something anew. If you take what urban India will look like in 2050, 70 percent of what we need would not have been built yet. So we can build it in the right manner from scratch—like the new power plants, road and transport systems or housing.

If we just follow what other people have done and then we decide to copy things that are already outdated elsewhere, we will always be followers. So I think the most important thing for India right now is to have the ability to evaluate best options from around the world and choose the right ones by imitating someone, but also by learning from the experiences of others. India needs people who can evaluate and take decisions rather than someone who can just go and copy something.

The question India needs to ask itself is whether it can leapfrog and not go through that same carbon-intensive development pattern. India needs to avoid building the wrong things if we want to develop in the right manner, and this requires us to take prompt and smart decisions.

India is a developing nation, but is it developing in a very unsustainable manner? What is it that India needs to do so that future generations can live better?

The problem with India is that it is developing in an imitative manner. The paradigm of development which exists is unsustainable. It is not as if we are developing unsustainably, we are developing by copying a model that is unsustainable.

A lot of thought needs to go into investing and creating a sustainable system. If we want people to have mobility the way people in the US and the UK will have in 2030, then we can go there without having to first do what they are doing now. We did that with mobile phones. India went into the mobile phone mode without having to first do all the terrestrial. We didn’t put everyone on the terrestrial link and then went mobile. For 80 percent of the people, the first phone they ever got was a mobile. But we’re not doing the same in transport, housing or shopping. So there are exceptions where India seems to have gone into the leapfrog mode but not in so many sectors.

You have always advocated education as a solution for changing attitudes towards the environment. But this surely is a long and slow process. Do we have that much time to spare?

Well, the thing is that you have to work at two levels. One is at the decision making level, where you need to immediately ensure that the decision is taken in a sustainable way. Therefore, the decision makers do need to be sensitized very fast, and giving them the type of technology that will enable them to make those decisions is important. But before we do any kind of decision making, we need to scan what the available options in the world are, and what people are doing.We need to be intelligent in our planning and that can only come through education. What we need is an education that will help one make choices so that one can create a more sustainable future.

We need to look at the West and have a dialogue about development, and use that dialogue to learn what we can do differently to avoid getting into the problems they face. Sometimes that will mean thinking of solutions not necessarily discovered yet. We should not be seeking to find out how to build a flyover, for instance, but how to build public transport to avoid pollution and congestion. Though this might take time, if we have the will to do so, anything is possible

Corporates are also looking at sustainable development as being economically viable. How can sustainable development go beyond being just a social cause or a CSR project? How can they integrate it as a part of their profits and dividends?

There are different forces that are acting upon corporates besides being enlightened, which is not good enough. Corporates who wish to undertake sustainable development and amalgamate it with their core principles need to do it well. If you do it well, it does make economic sense.But it makes economic sense only if there are no short cuts. And none of this is possible without the support of laws that show people what the alternatives are—soft loans to change a technology or having enough technical consultants who are capable enough to help the industry change.

In order to promote sustainability among corporates, we have taken the initiative to highlight some successful case studies and have these companies share their experience with others. This will be much more convincing than someone who lectures them from outside the industry. Corporates need to look at sustainable development differently and innovatively.

For instance, we approached the problem of pollution by talking about waste recovery and not using the pollution word at all. When you look at what comes out of a pipe, it is pollution. When you look at it from inside, it is something going out of your campus. So you can talk about it as waste recovery and show people how much potential or profit they could make if they could sell it in a different way rather than just use terms like pollution. This is why awareness through education is every important. Awareness comesat three levels: awareness among decision makers, awareness among consumers, and getting the message across schools.

You have been interested in preserving traditional knowledge. What are the tools you use to preserve this knowledge?

If you see where the solutions for the future come, India, though not developed, has been living in several sustainable ways for over 5,000 years. This happens because there is knowledge which is enshrined in what we do. If we look at how much protein we absorb when we consume dal or something else, then it is not that much. But if you eat it with rice or cook it with rice, then it increases. Now that knowledge increases the protein intake by a tremendous amount.

We therefore have to value it in order to put money into it. There are a number of traditional practices in our agriculture or fisheries. The farmers will let the cattle or maggots enter the field in order to fertilize the field by eating the stubs. So there are a number of traditions in India which other countries are now implementing. Water harvesting has been practiced for centuries. Every village has this tanka(water tank) underneath the main courtyard and it saves water. 

We at CEE have actually put together a catalog of culture and which we co-relate with sustainability. It is interesting to know how the entire world is actually emulating some of these practices. The US is promoting the use of cloth bags for shopping; however, in India we were always carrying cloth bags.Then we decided that we want to stay on par with the US, so we switched to plastic bags. And now because the US is propagating sustainability, we have moved back to using cloth bags. The surprising thing is that we view this as a new movement that the US started and is now being adopted in India.

Even our lifestyles are very conducive to nature. We have food habits that are not wasteful. In Gujarat, for instance, people will generally not eat mangoes after the monsoon starts. Eating during the right season means that you do not have to refrigerate everything. In the US they are organizing campaigns in order to inform people the necessity of eating in right season. We shouldn’t follow traditions just because someone abroad is doing it. We should figure out and know that our traditions were valuable in the first place.

The CEE has been promoting environmental education in a big way. What are the other activities that the CEE is undertaking apart from education?

Education at CEE does not have just one meaning to it. We look at education very broadly. So for example, last year, we were debating whether or not to introduce Bt Brinjal. And on behalf of the government, we undertook consultations and then came up with a report which is now widely used across India.

We were also asked to do consultations with fishermen and people connected with coastline development. So one of the things we do is that we look at policies on behalf of the government, and undertake consultations. This is done so that when you come up with a policy, it is converted by the CEE into a more sustainable policy. We work with decision makers, industries and corporates. We are also trying to move towards a situation where we can look at many areas and call them Sustainable Development Zones. We are working with mining and agricultural areas to make them sustainable development zones. All this work that we are carrying out is in addition to all our school- and college-level programs.


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