If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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I think I’m burned out on Rio+20 already

The giant, carnivalesque global environmental summit Rio+20 started rolling this weekend and the official, high-level talks start tomorrow.

Unless you’re really following environmental affairs, this grand meeting may not even hit on your radar. And, to be honest, it probably shouldn’t.

It seems much of the environmental community has low expectations for this year’s conference. Environmental problems are as intractable as ever. Nations continue to struggle with economic matters.

As the name implies, Rio+20 is part-anniversary, part-debrief, part-”let’s find a way forward” from the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit officially known as the the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. Certainly in the last 20 years there have been successes, particularly at the local and national level, but on the international stage, collective action on the environment has largely been ineffective (and I’m being kind).

Though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t have much faith in the international system. Certainly I think attempts to workout problems collectively are necessary and applaud people who will spin their wheels and beat their heads against walls. But I see fundamental flaws as well. The system is broken and it seems to like it that way.

So Rio+20 will likely be all show with a rather weak finish. Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Environment and Science, has a salient commentary in the centre’s magazine Down to Earth.

But, truth be told, I’m already burnt out on trying to monitor Rio+20 from India. My own thoughts are below:

Continue reading this entry » » »

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Semester research: India’s engagement with the global economy

India is one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. After the past two decades, that’s something of an old story.

Yet such a blanket statement also washes over questions about what that growth rate actually means for issues of sustainable development, broadly define. India certainly has something to be proud of, yet it also faces serious hurdles in supporting its claim to a narrative of newfound power and prosperity.

My third large semester research project involved analyzing India’s link’s with the global economy, a phenomenon that really only began in the early 1990s when India shed its autarkic ways. Though “liberalization” started with steps taken almost a decade earlier, it was the serious risk of debt service default that spurred policy makers in 1991 to adopt austerity measures, devalue the rupee and begin a steady if slow process of external economic opening.

The paper looked at four core areas of engagement — trade, investment, debt and aid — and examined implications for sustainable development. A final section offers several policy recommendations for the future.

The ultimate conclusion is that while India has liberalized its economy it has also continued to protect key sectors, producers and businesses when it sees fit. India is far from a free-market economy but it has opened doors when in the name of national interest, which has both positive and negative implications for sustainable development. Its enviable growth rate will only continue to be a valid goal if policy makers also begin to consider measures to ameliorate some of the severe negatives that come with this capitalist economic development.

UPDATE: A trimmed down version of this paper was published by the Journal of International Service in the Spring of 2013. My submitted draft can be read here. The full issue can be found here.

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Seafood tonight? Don’t order the grouper

What I believe is a blacktip grouper off the coast of North Seymour, Galapagos. Though this fish might earn a reprieve from heavy fishing because it lives in national park waters, groupers the world over are under threat from catches. They’re valued as a tasty meal leading to over-fishing and habitat destruction.

Source your seafood, people. Yes, fishing is a livelihood for coastal people in developing and developed countries a like, but we need better measures to conserve fish and, more importantly, their ocean ecosystem. That’s a major reason why I’m applying even now to marine conservation and sustainable development graduate school programs.

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