Out of India

Out of India

It is difficult to describe India without resorting to clichés and ironies. It is a country of great beauty and unspeakable poverty, of tragically crowded cities and breathtakingly vast natural wonders, of immeasurable fortitude amid hopelessness.

I had the privilege of traveling India in early 2000 -- a short but eye-opening speaking tour on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai (the former Bombay), and elsewhere, I met with companies and business groups as well as NGOs, politicians, and journalists to talk about business and the environment. My visit was part of a three-year project launched last fall to provide information, resources, and support to help Indian firms integrate environmental thinking into their operations in a way that engenders both environmental and economic benefits.

The need for such a program couldn’t be greater. India is the world’s sixth-largest and second-fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases. It is home to three of the world’s ten most polluted cities. Two-thirds of its urban dwellers lack sewerage; one-third lack potable water. India’s industry relies on inefficient coal and lignite for energy, contributing to its already choking pollution. With an urban population of 350 million, including millions of slum dwellers, the demand for water and sanitation services is inadequate and growing faster than the cities’ ability to supply. A study released last month by the Delhi-based Tata Energy Research Institute predicted catastrophic consequences if India didn’t clean up its environment.

Amid all this, India’s economy is on the rise, pushing up demand for goods and services from its mushrooming middle class. Its high-technology sector is emerging as a global powerhouse, as companies harness the country’s rich lode of tech-savvy workers.

In many respects, the issues confronting Indian companies aren’t much different from those faced elsewhere. While myriad environmental laws exist in India, their provisions are widely flouted and enforcement efforts are spotty. Some larger companies have developed environmental management systems and implemented a variety of other measures, but smaller firms are uniformly disengaged with environmental matters and enjoy government protections that give them even less incentive to be proactive. Both large and small firms bemoan the lack of rewards from consumers, regulators, and the media for introducing greener products or practices.

And yet, as I discovered, there is strong interest by companies to bring environmental responsibility more to the forefront.

Some sectors already have discovered the environment as a driver of business value. A trade association of cement companies has pooled knowledge and resources to reduce energy use and increase use of recycled materials. The sugar industry is learning to burn agricultural waste to generate energy and income.

There’s a burgeoning environmental services sector, including a handful of local consultancies and technology and service providers. Ernst & Young is among the many larger firms helping companies implement ISO 14001 and pursue other eco-opportunities.

Students at the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management were eager to talk about the greening of business. Their Environmental Management syllabus is impressive and comprehensive; it could be a model for any U.S. school. The students were hungry to know about how to get environmental jobs inside companies. It didn’t seem much different from any of the MBA classes I’ve addressed in the developed world.

It’s a hopeful beginning, but there’s much more to do. The U.S. AID project holds a great deal of promise to foment change. A newly launched U.S. Environmental Resource Center there is gearing up to assist local companies through education, training, technology transfer, pilot projects, and other efforts.

Change won’t be easy. As I walked the cities and rode bumpy rural roads, I was struck by the hopelessly smoggy air, the appalling lack of sanitation, the gross waste of human and natural resources. The task to green India at times seems overwhelming and nearly inconceivable.

But maybe not. Early one morning, as I strolled one of the more desolate parts of Calcutta, a butterfly flittered past, an unlikely symbol of beauty in a sea of human misery, somehow surviving amid the squalor.

It gave me hope: Perhaps India, against all odds, is preparing to emerge from its cocoon.

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Joel Makower is editor of The Green Business Letter and producer of GreenBiz.com.