"India is Great" But is it Sustainable? A Call for Environmental Democracy at Rio+20

Annual meeting of women’s cooperatives near Jaipur, India (Photo: Alisa Zomer)

Boldly painted on the sides and rears of many TATA trucks and tractors are the words “INDIA IS GREAT.” Alongside an open lotus flower, symbolizing purity, these words hold true on a number of levels.

First, India is great in terms of the country’s size and diversity of natural resources. India is the world’s largest democracy, has one of the fastest growing economies, and is home to over one-seventh of the world’s population. India is also great in terms of its rich history and culture, as well as the country’s current position as a leader in world politics, especially in the Global South.

These elements that contribute to India’s greatness also contribute to the country’s biggest challenges: How to achieve a higher standard of living—with equitable access to water, land and energy—while competing for limited natural resources?

During my time as an AJWS volunteer in India this dilemma was always in the back of my mind. I was placed with a development NGO in Jaipur, Rajasthan for three months to work on the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20) which takes place June 2012 in Brazil.

My task was to support the NGO’s activities and contributions to the international policy debate on sustainable development in preparation for Rio+20. This task was complicated by the urgency of local priorities and grassroots campaigns that advocated for basic rights to food security, land and education.

In the end, how does India, or any country, reconcile urgent realities on the ground with the exigencies of the international arena? How do you get high-level politicians to listen to problems of small farmers and understand how global policy decisions directly affect their lives and livelihoods?

During my volunteer experience, I had the opportunity to go on several field visits to rural villages. I sat in on a monthly village development committee meeting and learned how community members address local concerns. I joined a women’s self-help group and saw women educated on financial management and community-based micro-loans. I celebrated with over one thousand women at the annual meeting of community cooperatives.

I experienced firsthand the long-term efforts of local NGOs in organizing communities and promoting ways that people can take development into their own hands. With the support of local NGOs, these community-based groups have successfully led long-term sustainable initiatives, such as developing rural water catchment systems, securing land rights for tribal groups and rallying farmers to protect native seed varieties.

It was humbling to see how engaged and eager people are when given the opportunity to improve their own lives. In addition, the bright saris, songs and dances that accompanied these meetings made these visits extraordinarily and uniquely Indian.

Prior to AJWS, I worked in Washington, DC for an international environmental think tank that promoted transparency, participation and accountability in decisions on the environment. In India, I was able to witness how these proven tenets of environmental democracy and good governance take shape and can improve life on the ground.  But there is still much work to be done to make sure people have the right and ability to participate.

Experience shows that decisions about development and the environment are best made when everyone has a say. For that to happen, people must have legal rights to participate meaningfully in these decisions, starting with access to information. Right to information laws exist in over 100 countries worldwide, including India, but implementation is spotty, at best.

Rio+20 is an opportunity to renew country commitments at the international level to include their citizens in these important decisions that directly affect their lives. However, in order for Rio+20 to be a success, the experiences of small-scale farmers and community cooperatives must be heard and civil society must play an important role in bringing their voices to the conference. Access to information, public participation, and access to justice must be championed as central components of sustainable development and social justice.

Will India take a leadership role to promote the rights of its 1.2 billion people? The current status of negotiations suggests that India is shying away from making a hard commitment to access rights. This is disappointing in the short-term and worrisome in the long run.

India is, indeed, great and the tension between human development and sustainable consumption is a complex conundrum demanding equally complex solutions. There is no single or simple solution. What I know is that everyone needs a say to make sure all needs and options are considered. In order for India to develop in a way that is sustainable and equitable, the country must lead not only in giving voice to its most vulnerable citizens, but in listening to them, too.

Alisa Zomer volunteered through AJWS Volunteer Corps at CECOEDECON in Jaipur, India during the spring of 2012. Prior to AJWS, she worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC. She will be pursuing her Masters in Environmental Management at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in the fall.