“Apoor country must decide how far it can go in spending public money to protect environment and balance out development needs.” This was Union highways and transport minister Nitin Gadkari in Parliament last month, while speaking on the cost of underpasses to save wildlife from the perils of National Highway 7 running through the Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra. 

Coming from a minister whose essential brief is roads and infrastructure connecting the remotest regions to one another it sounds as if the government is resorting to the old binary of development versus environment. That would be a mistake. We know now that the two are compatible and, given the critical fact of human-driven climate change, care for the environment is a categorical imperative. Indeed it is a way of ensuring that any development project is sustainable in the long term. One simple argument should make this point effectively. 

In February, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development said, “Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush Himalayas across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century.” In other words, climate change could change the country’s perennial rivers into monsoonal streams and tear the heart out of the agriculture sector. Now global warming, the government agrees, is real and caused by human activity. It is also committed to mitigation through a series of policy measures. 

Everybody accepts that development (however defined) is both desirable and inevitable. We live or die by it, we are defined by it. But until recently hardly anyone asked what it would do to the environment. It was only in the 1960s that studies were undertaken to understand the equation. The answer was disturbing. Civilisation, and modern living in particular, was taxing the planet’s resources and placing increasing burdens upon the environment. A slew of man-made chemicals (they do not exist in nature) and a dramatic rise in the use of hydrocarbons for industry and transport was leading to galloping global warming, with potentially dire consequences for life on the planet. 

The warnings from the scientific community are sinking in, but slowly. The important news, however, is that this is not a zero sum game. A balance is not only possible but some of the tools to ensure it already exist. We’ve known about and harnessed hydel and wind power for centuries. Solar cell technology to harness the sun is moving ahead exponentially and tens of billions of dollars have been sunk into projects to produce non-polluting automobiles. The point is that every day, in a hundred different ways, the minister is being proved wrong and it is high time we gave up this seductive binary. It serves no purpose other than perpetuating the myth that we’re helpless to do anything about the mess we have made.

New processes for producing carbon-neutral power and cleaning up the environment could open up new fields for research and manufacture, creating a myriad new skill sets, technologies, lakhs of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues.

One of the main issues here is obviously the cost of mitigation. The minister claimed that the government was forced to spend ₹1,300 crore on underpasses on a 7km stretch of the road through Pench. There is some debate over the figure but his unspoken contention is that a lot more road could have been built with that money. He is, in short, pleading for a free pass. The real answer to this “either or” debate is that the bookkeeping tells only half the story. 

Every development, big or small, brings benefits in terms of jobs, infrastructure and revenue, which is always measured. It also imposes a cost in terms of pollution and degradation, short- or long-term, which is also measurable, but rarely  finds mention. A coal power plant, for instance, produces electricity to power industry and homes. But its emissions gases contribute to global warming and cause respiratory diseases. Including this cost in the accounting will make it clear why the law protects wilderness, demands clean air or sewage treatment plants. Its exclusion is the major reason why a simplistic argument—that is not only useless but also delays the search for creative alternatives—gets such traction.

Apart from everything else, new processes for producing carbon-neutral power and cleaning up the environment could open up new fields for research and manufacture, creating a myriad new skill sets, technologies, lakhs of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues. It is time ministers got their heads out of the sand and recognised the potential of greening the environment as a central driver in the quest for a five-trillion-dollar economy.