The Poverty Of The Rich

GOING BY the peaks reached by the Sensex every time there is a natural calamity, the Indian stock market is in for exciting times, it seems. Echoing the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a recent report titled Hiding Behind the Poor by the environmental group Greenpeace states: “Changing rainfall patterns will result in intense flooding and severe droughts, melting glaciers will aggravate the problem of fresh water shortage. The intensity and frequency of cyclones… will increase, vector borne diseases will spread and rising sea-levels will eventually drown coastal low lying mega cities like Mumbai and Kolkata.”

The prognosis for North America is bad but not as dire. In fact, the IPCC predicts increased “aggregate yields of rain-fed agriculture by 5-20 percent.” This is ironical. North America, the largest contributor to global warming, is less severely affected than poorer nations in South Asia whose emissions are less than a tenth of the United States. There is a perverse consistency in this irony, though. Even within poorer nations, it is the poorest of the poor that will pay heavily for the excesses of the well-to-do.

Hiding Behind the Poor documents precisely this, basing its arguments on a survey of energy consumption and transportation in 819 households from a range of metros, small and large towns and villages. The inequity in emissions across classes is stark. The study shows that the 800-plus million people surviving on a monthly income of less than Rs 5,000 emit between 335 and 465 kg carbon dioxide per capita annually. Meanwhile, better off Indians, who earn more than Rs 5,000 per month, release two to 4.5 times more carbon dioxide.

India’s average annual per capita emissions is lower than two tonnes, well below the sustainable global average target of 2.5 tonnes per capita needed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. But this semblance of India’s sustainable emissions hides a story of gross inequity. The four highest income classes, earning more than Rs 8,000 per month, account for about 150 million Indians. Their carbon footprint is above the global sustainable average, with the richest class — those earning over Rs 30,000 per month — emitting nearly twice the figure required to be reached to avert certain climate catastrophe.

The study spotlights lighting as one of the critical areas for intervention. With poorer classes ill-placed to afford the expensive, but more energy-efficient Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) or tubelights, and the low rate of penetration of CFLs even among those who can afford it, Greenpeace argues that a shift to CFLs will constitute the most logical and simple measure to drastically cut emissions. A total switch, the report stresses, will lop 95 million tonnes or five percent of India’s emissions.

This may seem commendable, but CFLs and fluorescents use mercury — a potent neurotoxin — that can be released into the home environment upon breakage. Research on mercury-free CFLs is under way. Till then, CFL promotion needs to go in hand with an aggressive effort to prevent the dumping of used CFLs.

Another no-brainer would be to overhaul our pathetically wasteful thermal power plants and inefficient transmission and distribution networks, a recommendation that has been doing the rounds at least since the anti-Enron struggle in the 1990s.

GREENPEACE’S REPORT also fails to address the planetary ills caused by conspicuous consumption. In a bid to reassure “the burgeoning middle-class” that it can retain its “new-found upward mobility” and that the wealthy need not stop consuming, Greenpeace delegitimises its own excellent diagnosis.Overconsumption of the planet’s resources — not just carbon — by the elites is what lies at the core of environmental malaise.

The central point of the report is not the recommendations, though. Rather, Greenpeace argues that India should practice what it preaches in international fora. India has lobbied for developed countries to create the carbon space to allow poorer nations some flexibility while they strike out towards better standards and quality of life for their citizens. In other words, rich countries must reduce their emissions to a level that not only stabilises the changing climate, but also cuts it to an extent that allows poorer, developing countries more emissions.

Applying the same principle of common but differentiated responsibility then, India would need to reduce emissions of the 150 million rich to well below 2.5 tonnes, even while improving the living standards of the poor. The latter improvement becomes all the more important because the poor are devoid of any mechanisms to adapt to the devastating, unpredictable and inevitable effects of climate change.

Planning Commission vice-chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia recently condemned the UNDP’s Human Development Report because it dared to prescribe emission cuts for India. “It makes no acknowledgement of the principle of equity. Its recommendations look egalitarian but they are not,” he said. India has been claiming the moral high ground at international negotiations by pretending as if the entire nation is poor.

In keeping with this, Ahluwalia’s Eleventh Five Year Plan — despite knowing about fossil fuel’s role in exacerbating climate change — plans to add more than 78,577 MW, of which 58,644 MW will be fossil-fuel (read coal) based. That is nearly half the current installed capacity in new coal-fired thermal power plants.

Power projects — most of which cater to energy-intensive industries and a wasteful elite — are coming up on lands owned by or supporting marginalised communities. IT and ITenabled services will add 150 million square feet of air-conditioned climate-changing floorspace to India’s landscape. Mines and mineral processing units are coming up in the densely forested adivasi regions of central and eastern India. Such mines raze millions of acres of highly biodiverse carbon sinks. The ecological refugees left in the wake of such projects will be unable to cope with the unpredictable vagaries of a climate change crazed nature.

If there is a racism inherent in the expectation of industrialised countries, India’s own intra-national policies are no less racist. At a time when we should be focusing on public transport, India is willing to lend a gun and its police muscle to back industrialists who want to make cars more affordable.

make cars more affordable. If India wishes to absolve itself of the allegations of racism, it should demonstrate that it is willing to tax the rich, even demand sacrifices of them. Given the predominance of marginalised communities — SCs, STs and OBCs — among the poor, India’s current economic policies and growth plans merely legitimise a modern form of untouchability and discrimination.


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