Choking the middle
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The third element of the counter narrative is that we can afford to pay the costs of environmental regulation as we grow rich. This is also self-defeating. India is now on the verge of not just designing large systems of all kinds, from cities to transport systems, and the transition to a formal economy. It is also going to put in a huge amount of capital stock in the next few years, which is near impossible to alter for decades. Now is, in fact, the time to get the environmental architecture right.
The fourth element that makes the counter-narrative problematic is that it underestimates the potential of environment as an economic opportunity rather than as an economic constraint. It can drive technological innovation; give India a latecomer advantage. The co-benefits story, as Navroz Dubash has argued, is quite persuasive. To be fair, this is an area where there is more action than we acknowledge. On climate change and low carbon growth, our domestic record is far more defensible than that of advanced economies. But we are reluctant to put this into a coherent narrative and tie them to mainstream environmental concerns.
It would be a grave mistake if the environment versus development debate remained as adversarial as it is. The framing of the environmental regime as an obstacle gets us off to a wrong start, where the fringes will feed on each other: the rank instrumentalism of certain business versus the luddite views of certain environmentalists, while the sensible middle chokes.
The concerns of business about red tape would be far more sincere if they also became, at the same time, a pressure group for more sensible standards, environmental regulation and capacity building. We all agree that there are huge issues with how the state exercises its power. But in collective goods like this, there is no bypass. If the state fails, you will get an even more coarse and blunt reaction from the courts and civil society. In fact, it speaks measures of our debate that the environment has, for the most, become a civil society issue rather than part of mainstream politics.