Sustainable infrastructure - still at a nascent stage in India - implies creation and operationalising of structural elements to support daily functions.
In the mid-2000s, Walmart was in for a shock when it was informed that its maximum carbon emissions were not from its supply trucks, but refrigerators placed inside stores. Storage of ice cream and other frozen foods in open shelves was resulting in higher energy consumption as they were required to be cooled at higher temperatures. The multinational retailer than proceeded to install glass doors on open shelves. And in the very first year of doing so, it managed to save $20 million! The Walmart anecdote is just one example of how new business opportunities can be discovered by adopting sustainable infrastructure.
But what is sustainable infrastructure? Sustainable infrastructure implies creation and operationalising of structural elements to support our daily functions without hindering social, economic and ecological processes required to maintain human equity, diversity and functioning of natural systems. Its realm could extend to areas as diverse as land use, energy, transportation, communication, retail, waste management, and so on.
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Development Agenda titled ´Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development´. The UN agencies, under the guardianship of the United Nations Development Group (UNDG), committed to support the campaign through several independent entities, including corporate institutions and international organisations. Named ´Project Everyone´, the campaign has outlined 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), with ´Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure´ at number nine in the list. This involves building of resilient infrastructure, promotion of inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation.
Challenges in Sustainable Development
India presently has several environment and social standards from a compliance perspective. Meanwhile, SDG guidelines are voluntary in nature. Experts point out that, therefore, it would be more appropriate for India to first augment the existing standards. Labour standards, for instance, are part of the larger gambit of sustainability standards. Amendments have either been made or are proposed to the existing labour laws, with more changes likely in the future. Therefore, implementation of sustainability standards is at a very nascent stage in India. Asserts George C Varughese, President, Development Alternatives, a New Delhi-based organisation that works to address the issues of sustainable development of institutional innovations, ´What sustain ability goals do we want to reach? To reach those goals, what are the methods we need to use? And what are the tools and techniques that are available? All this is not currently available to stakeholders in such a way that they can reach a standard. So, all this now needs to be evolved.´
But with the federal government itself admitting in 2012 that about 22 per cent of Indian live below its official poverty limit, is the country ready to adopt sustainability standards? Says Yasir Ahmad, Executive Director, PwC, ´If you suddenly tell those living in shanties or mud huts that they need to go the sustainable way, they have bigger problems at hand than thinking about sustainability. We can´t blindly take up targets and follow everything and say that everything needs to be implemented from, say, tomorrow. There has to be wider cognizance of the fact that there are some lesser fortunate ones who need to be addressed in a slightly different manner.´
However, he goes on to explain how India´s ongoing demonetisation drive might hold a lesson towards successful implementation of SDGs. ´If you apply the same rule to sustainability initiatives, but with a little bit more planning and thoughtfulness, I think it is a great learning from demonetisation. From a sustainability perspective, wherein we feel the less fortunate ones will not be able to cope up, I think some measures can certainly happen, and the government has definitely shown that if there is a will, there is a way.´
Traditional Indian businesses are accustomed to viewing anything to do with a non-profit making scheme as a cost head and, therefore, instead of acting proactively, prefer to wait and watch. Such a mindset does create a little bit of inertia. Add to this the fact that most Indian MSMEs operate on very thin margins.
Can NITI Aayog Be a Game-Changer?
Four years after attaining Independence in 1947, India adopted a system of Five-Year Plans that were overseen by the Planning Commission constituted for the purpose. Thereafter, the Five-Year Plans were an important and critical part of India´s developmental agenda. In 2014, the government replaced the Planning Commission with NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog as it was felt that the ´one size fits all´ approach to economic planning had become redundant in a country with diversified development needs.
Experts that the author spoke to for this article feel that the NITI Aayog might prove to be a game-changer in the execution of sustainable development goals in India. Avers Varughese,´The Five-Year Plan process has lived its life, and especially from an operations perspective, it had become heavy and cumbersome. The transformation involves pressing the reset button. The question is, what is the slightly longer-term perspective, because companies today live on quarters and, at best, an annual basis.
Now the perspective planning over the next 15 years will set out that broad direction.´
Adds Damandeep Singh, India Director of the UK-based Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), ´We need to make sure that whatever we plan, we do it for the long term. It is, therefore, heartening to note that NITI Aayog is encouraging all the ministries to do long-term planning. It is asking them for scenarios over the next two decades. This has at least forced them to think.´
Wealth of Opportunity
According to experts, the next decade will be a watershed moment in the way business has been done in India. And that is the starting point of sustainable development.
Points out Singh, ´Initially, nobody wanted to build a Metro railway network in Delhi. But now that it´s there, everyone wants these kinds of showcase projects that they can show to their constituency. In Delhi, if you can clean up the Yamuna, you can have a lot of riverfront development. You can have a jogging park, bio-diversity park, cycling track and lot more activity going on rather than the stench that we all have to put up with presently. So, if we clean up water and air, it could lead to creation of other huge business opportunities.´
However, Varughese prefers to be somewhat cautious on this score. ´Unfortunately, the infrastructure sector from the operations perspective is controlled by the hard engineering people, financing gurus, and the politician-bureaucrat nexus. In this context, the understanding of environmental issues at the level that is required to drive a process is virtually close to zero. If you want to look at sustainability, you cannot see this as a problem but as an opportunity. Can a road project be also seen as a drainage project?
Can it also be seen as an irrigation project?
Can it also be seen as an environmental management project? Now the perspective completely shifts from seeing it as a problem to seeing it as an enabler for newer and more interesting solutions.´
According to certain estimates, India will be adding on nearly 70 per cent more to its existing infrastructure base by 2030. Experts feel that this presents an opportunity for the country to build it on a sustainable platform. They point out that though this might add a little more time to the planning process, over the years, the cost of going green has been gradually declining. The benefit of such a proactive approach will be visible in the medium and long-term.
- Manish Pant