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If you don’t make sustainability a mission, innovation can never take place

Sustainability Outlook spoke to Suresh P Prabhu, former Union Cabinet, Govt. of India about why and how India needs to transition into a green economy

Do you think that environmental considerations are playing a part in the development discourse of India or are they still being looked at basically as a barrier to growth?

Momentary benefits are what concern everyone but long term decisions do not feature in most people’s thinking. Sadly enough, the reality is that environmental considerations are basically looked at as a barrier. As it stands today, all of the ministries only realize at the fag end of the project development that they need permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to execute those projects. Going to the MoEF is seen by most ministries as an obligation because one is compelled by law to take their permission. Occasionally, when such projects don’t get the go-ahead, the MoEF is then blamed and called a stumbling block to development and growth. 

The only way to change this kind of discourse is by integrating environmental issues into the entire decision making process. If you don’t merge the ecological angle with mainstream thinking, then it becomes an end of the pipe issue. Having been the Minister for Environment as well as holding six other portfolios, I can say that I have seen the world from both sides. However, it is not enough to just say that we need to mainstream such thinking: we need to make some tangible structural changes to ensure it. 

In my opinion, every ministry should have an Ecological Advisor attached to it. Similar to the system in India where we have a Financial Advisor representing the Ministry of Finance in every Ministry, an ecological envoy should represent the MoEF in all other departments as well. When building an environmental perspective of the feasibility of a project, there needs to be a person physically present at the time policies are being made. However, this Advisor needs to be there in the capacity of a colleague and not in an adversarial or preaching capacity. These Advisors wouldn’t hamper the growth ideas but work with the ministries to come up with a more informed and practical solution which would be beneficial to all. We always tend to do damage control once the war has already begun. We need to move out of this kind of thinking and prevent the conflict in the first place. 

Another important thing to bear in mind is that the MoEF cannot be oblivious to the realities of the world we live in and has to bear in mind that it is a part of the Government of India. The MoEF needs to understand that it is not an NGO working in the government. It needs to recognize its obligation to help in the development agenda of India, which obviously needs to be undertaken in a sustainable manner. There has been so much altercation between the Ministry and the rest of the government which has given a lot of fodder to the media but has not actually resulted into something concrete. We need some urgent structural changes in the form that I suggested.

Where does the role of the National Investment Board (NIB) fit in with the idea of sustainable development?

Let us leave aside what the NIB could do to thwart environmental concerns and focus on the institution itself. The NIB, even without what it means for the environment, is an eye wash to create one more institution. It’s like saying there is a big drinking problem in India, so we will appoint an anti-drinking panel. Can this ever be the solution? If there is a slow-down in investment in India, we need to look at the root cause of it and not focus energies on forming panels. Another important thing is that it is only the Cabinet Ministers who are going to be on the Board. Is this a way of saying that the NIB will be more efficient than the Cabinet, and belittle the institution of which you are part of? If at all we need an Investment Board, we should have it at a district level where there is a problem; where there are huge conflicts between land, water, people, economic and ecological forces and this is where we need to bring in everyone on a common platform. Again, I find it hard to believe that investment has been waiting for a Board to come up. Not only is it misleading and confusing but also belittles the entire edifice of the government which is the Cabinet of India.

Energy security is one of the biggest problems in India. On the one hand we as a country are struggling with the current account deficit, which is largely because of unsustainable fuel subsidies. On the other hand, we are trying hard to increase our reliance on, as yet, expensive renewable sources of energy. How far do you think we can actually tear away from fossil fuels without jeopardizing easy access to energy?

Energy mix is a very important issue. It has implications on India’s energy security as well as India’s economic security. If 90% of oil is going to be imported, it will be disastrous for India. The Government of India should have an energy policy which would reduce the external dependence on energy. India has a lot of resources which can make the country self-sufficient. Utilizing solar, wind and proper biomass gasification can go a long way in solving these issues. Even if we look at harnessing ocean energy, India has a huge potential with a coastline of 7800 kms. Converting all of the waste generated by 1.2 billion people into energy again has tremendous scope.  If we can do all of this it will be tremendously beneficial for the country. There will not only be environmental benefits, which would be huge, but also economic and social benefits. Being so dependent on the Middle East for energy is a huge political risk. It will be disastrous if for some reason this supply gets disrupted. The concept of defense now is not about armies, it’s about policies.

Heavy industries use tremendous amounts of coal. Is there a long term action plan or a vision to phase out fossil fuel use?

Coal is not going to be available in India at the level in which we will need it. India at this point imports 100 million tons of coal which is mind-boggling. The projection for the next 5 years is that India will need to import 200 million tons and this figure will go up to 500 million tons in the next fifteen years. These numbers actually have no real meaning because if 90% of oil and 60% of coal need to be imported, India will be completely bankrupt and will have no way of paying this money. I repeat again, renewable energy is our only option because we cannot afford to buy coal anymore. 

Everybody keeps talking about the need to green the economy. However, this begs the question as to where this money is going to come from. Also, to what extent is the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) going to support R&D for green innovation?

The role of the NCEF is not very well defined but the idea of taxing coal is good. Once the coal prices go up, automatically renewables will become more attractive. We need to make a life cycle assessment of coal and price it accordingly. The NCEF money should be utilized in R&D. I think India needs to put in at least 2-3% of its GDP into developing and innovating new sources of sustainable energy; an area  in which we currently don’t even put in a rupee. 

What do you think needs to be done to encourage more green investments among financial institutions in India?

We need to accord priority sector lending status to renewable energy projects. Doing this alone will attract a lot of money into the sector. Secondly, banks need to be sensitized about financing renewable energy projects. Banking institutions are not energy experts and they need to be informed appropriately. Thirdly, the government should make a different financial instrument for the RE sector. 

The government has been making interventions for driving sustainability, with schemes like PAT. Do you see initiatives like the PAT serving as a model for similar kind of interventions in other industries?

PAT is a good idea but not the ultimate solution. We need to put in a more severe cap on emissions. The system that we need is to be more ambitious and stringent in implementation. Innovation can only take place when you put strict enough restrictions which then propel innovation. If you don’t make sustainability a mission, innovation can never take place. Think about sustainability as a mission, what will flow from that are new ideas and new inventions will spring to reach that mission. 

You have stated before that there should be a kind of solar club with representatives from different countries for knowledge and technology sharing, on the lines of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Could you tell us something more about this initiative and what the plan is for its roll out?

The idea is to get together all the countries which have a good solar harnessing potential. We are trying to bring together the 50-60 countries which get 300 days of sunshine. These countries will then commit themselves to produce a specified amount of solar energy. One of the main reasons why solar energy is expensive is because it’s not scaled up. Mobile phones are so cheap because they are used by 2-3 billion people in the world. We need renewable energy to reach that stage where more and more people use it, so that the price comes down because of market forces.  Beyond commitment, countries like Germany, Japan, US would serve as the technology providers to the rest of the countries. My belief is that India should and has the potential to become the hub for solar energy in the world.

Suresh P Prabhu is the former Union Cabinet Minister of Industry, Energy, Environment and Forests, Chemicals and Fertilizers, Heavy Industry & Public Enterprises. As a member of Parliament he is actively involved in the international sphere, and is a member of various Committees and Task Forces relating to Environment, Climate Change and Energy issues. 

This interview was conducted by Anindita Chakraborty, a member of the Sustainability Outlook team.

Author: Anindita Chakraborty
Calais Document Category: Politics Technology