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Indian industry's wake-up call on environmental sustainability

Environmentalists have always warned that India is living well beyond its means. Now Indian industry has released a report saying that India consumes twice as much natural resources as it possesses. Ashish Kothari analyses India’s Ecological Footprint: A Business Perspective, produced by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Global Footprint Network

Ecological Footprint

India is living well beyond its means. Environmentalists have for years been warning about this, but in a just-released report, even industrialists seem to be agreeing. And they have some rather interesting figures to back them up. Here’s one: India today consumes or uses twice as much natural resources as it has. 

India’s Ecological Footprint: A Business Perspective, produced by the Global Footprint Network (GFN) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), reports on assessments of how much pressure India’s citizens are putting on the earth’s resources, and whether we could sustain our levels of natural resource use if we had access to only what is available within our borders. The facts are not pretty: 

• India has the world’s 3rd largest ecological footprint (see box on what this means), after the USA and China.

• Indians are using almost two times the natural resources within the country that it can sustain (or twice its ‘biocapacity’, see box).

• The capacity of nature to sustain Indians has declined sharply by almost half, in the last four decades or so.

In the foreword to the report, the Chairman of the CII Green Business Centre, Jamshyd Godrej, has the following to say: “This report…shows that India is depleting its ecological assets in support of its current economic boom and the growth of its population.” Words that would have sounded like old hat coming from the mouth of an ecological activist, but which are a major surprise from an industrialist. 

Sponsors of the report include, apart from CII, a mix of corporations, donors, and NGOs: ICICI Bank, Tata Power, ONGC, USAID, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, and WWF–India. It was released in mid-October at the Green Business Summit 2008, organised by CII in New Delhi. 

Ecological footprint (EF) and biocapacity: What are they? 

Over the last few years ‘ecological footprint’ has become a widely used measure to figure how much of the earth’s resources are being used by a person, a community/country, or an activity (see This takes into account the amount of land and water area that would be required to produce the resources needed, and to absorb the wastes that are generated. In such a calculation the prevalent technologies and management options are considered, not possible future ones. It is estimated that each person can use upto about 1.8 global hectares (which is a hectare with a world average ability to produce resources and absorb wastes) without depleting the earth’s bioresources. This is by no means a perfect measure of humanity’s impact on the planet, eg it leaves out activities such as freshwater use; and significantly, it does not take into account the resources/space required by other species. But it is a good approximation, and therefore has gained widespread usage. 

A person or community’s EF has to be measured against the capacity of the land/water area that is being used. This capacity is called ‘biocapacity’. 

The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (see has demonstrated that human beings have overshot the earth’s biocapacity, using about 25% more than what is available. In other words, we are already well past what is sustainable, resulting in severe depletion of various natural resources and of the ecosystems that sustain us (and all other life forms). 

The report has some other interesting observations to make. While overall the EF of the country is very high, per capita it is still extremely low, ranking 125th amongst 152 countries. Clearly this is because its high population lowers the average. But what is surprising is that the per capita EF has actually fallen over the last half-century. The report ascribes this to the rapid rise in population, but also to the reality that “while the standard of living has improved for some, the majority are making due (sic) with less”. 

Other than EF, the study has also looked at India’s water footprint (WF), or the water usage that is involved not only in direct consumption for drinking, irrigation, and industries, but also in the making of products that Indians consume (including those imported from outside). It appears that we have the highest WF in the world, accounting for 13% of total global usage, given that we have 17% of the world’s population. Again, however, the average WF per capita is lower than that of many other countries. The report does not tell us whether we are living beyond our hydrological means, but it does point to the inefficiency of water use in our agriculture, and the fear of serious crisis if we try to significantly expand crop production without reducing this inefficiency. 

Living beyond one’s biocapacity means one or all of three things:

importing resources/products from other countries, allowing the progressive degradation of the resource base, or allowing the pile-up of wastes. All available indications are that India is indulging in all three. As it tries to protect its forests, for instance, it has increased its imports of timber from south-east Asia, leading to deforestation there. Within its own borders, most of its major waterbodies are badly polluted, or drained out. And its burgeoning cities can simply not cope with the enormous garbage produced. 

Based on the above results and analysis, the report contains a number of prescriptions for Indian industry, and provides case studies of some sectors like construction and transport. It promotes the adoption of ‘wedges’, or combinations of various solutions to reduce the overall demand for resources by industry. This includes greater energy and water efficiency through appropriate technologies, and the use of alternative energy sources. It also points to some more basic solutions, such as mass transit systems to reduce the dependence on the individual vehicle.  

One of the most surprising recommendations, coming as it does from an industrial sector that thrives on private consumption, is that “it is important to combine better fuel economy with measures to reduce the overall social demand for driving”. Indeed the report even points to the need for going beyond industry actions to government promotion of solutions, “community engagement”, and “investing in women”. 

Unfortunately a number of the most progressive conclusions and recommendations remain only teasers in the report. Much more attention is given to technological solutions than to more fundamental changes that are needed in the way society treats nature and natural resources, or indeed in the way some sections of society treat other sections. 

For instance let’s look at one of the conclusions of the report, that a declining per capita EF over the last few decades points to the fact that very many people in India are at very low standards of living. It is increasingly becoming clear that the path of development adopted in the country over the last few decades, and especially in the current phase of globalisation, has done little to tackle severe inequities in access to resources. Indeed it may have made these inequities worse, especially by dispossessing those most dependent on natural resources and small land-holdings, and channelising these resources towards the urban or rich consumer. Large dams, mining, expressways, large industries, and other such ‘development’ processes have displaced tens of millions of people, and snatched away resources from many more tens of millions. Even the modernisation of agriculture in areas like Punjab and Haryana, has created greater inequities in landholding and access to resources. Ironically, the world’s biggest environmental challenge, climate change, also a product of modern ‘development’ processes that benefit the rich and powerful, will most adversely affect the poor and underprivileged. The blind pursuit of economic growth has become a cancer on the earth, and calls for a fundamental shift in human endeavour. This is as true for India as for any other country. Yet this report does not point to the need for such a shift. 

Another crucial issue is consumerism. Per capita figures are notorious in that they hide inequalities between various sections of the population. Some months ago Greenpeace India produced a report on climate change issues in India, showing that a tiny percentage of India’s population was responsible for an inordinate amount of carbon emissions, but this was hidden by the fact that a huge number of low-emission Indians reduced the per capita figures ( The same could be said about any form of consumption: minerals, food, water, industrial products. As also for polluting outputs, such as solid and liquid wastes. Only in one part of the GFN/CII report, a figure showing the various factors that determine whether EF is higher than biocapacity, do the authors point to the need for “more affluent people” to reduce consumption so that those living below subsistence level can increase their consumption. This is actually a crucial aspect, one that usually gets swept under the carpet in discussions on ecological sustainability. The report would have done well to bring out policy and educational measures that are needed to curb the obscene consumption patterns of India’s richest citizens. 

The report is also all too brief on the need to make space for other species. To do this, each of us needs to take up even less than the 1.8 global hectares that we would be entitled to if only humans were to be sustained on earth (see box). The implications for this are significant: for instance (as the report points out), many kinds of biofuel promotion oriented at reducing fossil fuel uses may be detrimental to biodiversity. Clear recommendations from this are however not brought out in the report. 

Finally, and on this the report is totally silent, any move towards sustainability requires much greater empowerment of citizens. Political governance is a key issue, but again often missing from environmental debates. As long as centralised government bureaucracies and private sector corporations remain heavily dominant in the decision-making process, as is currently the case with India, there will not be a sufficiently strong push for basic economic and social changes.

Notwithstanding the few shining exceptions of industries that are trying to achieve sustainability within their production systems, the sector as a whole is totally out of sync with ecological and social needs. So too is the government, judging by its continued emphasis on dirty energy sources, its vigorous promotion of destructive forms of ‘development’, and its systematic dismantling of environmental safeguards and standards. 

Will the Indian government take the implications of the report seriously? If trends in the last few years are anything to go by, the answer is no. A few years ago when a nationwide participatory exercise to produce a national biodiversity action plan pointed to the fact that “India’s development model is inherently unsustainable”, the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected this contention as being untenable. All efforts at pointing out the ecological lunacy of current growth patterns have so far been ignored by the powerful coterie of World Bank-tutored economists that sits at the helm of India. Even the threat of climate change has not pushed them towards any fundamental rethinking. 

This will only change if the people most dependent on nature, and others who care for the earth and all its beings, are empowered to be part of the decision-making process. Democracy needs to go much deeper in India for environmental sustainability and social justice to be achieved. 

India’s Ecological Footprint is a wake-up call, and a pleasant surprise coming from an organisation such as the CII. One only wishes that the wake-up could have been followed by a better breakfast of analysis and strategies pointing to the basic changes we so desperately need. 

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008