Development and Environment: Sustainable development the answer

Author: Anshu Bansal, Research Associate

The idea of sustainability can imply there is one perfect, unchanging future, if only we could work out how to get there. Resilience might be more useful, in that it assumes a dynamic environment and that perfection is impossible. You need to design systems to accommodate failure rather than eliminate it ((Jamais Cascio, writer and ethical futurist (article in ‘Green Futures’, January 2010).)).

The tussle between development and environment is not a new thing to ponder upon but in the recent years, it became one of the most debated topics in the world. It would be incorrect to read Development and environment in isolation rather both of them are two sides of the same coin. One evident example is constitution of India. Although the Constitution of India does not explicitly conceptualize the inter-relationship between environment and development but a perusal of the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ and ‘Fundamental Duties’ incorporated in it reveals that, it (the Constitution) has not only outlined possible directions of development but also ensured protection and improvement of environment ((Vibhute, K. I.,Environment, Development and the Law: The Indian Perspective, 7 J. Envtl. L. 137)). Through Articles 48A and 51A (g) it also lays down the foundation of sustainable development by outlining a blueprint of social and economic betterment, and at the same time, by providing for protection and improvement of environment ((Id.)). Hence, over a period of time, the trend shifted from ‘environment vs. development’ to ‘development and environment’.

The United Nations, through its Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972, realized the need to protect and improve the human environment for the well-being of peoples, and economic development throughout the world ((Proclaim 2, Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, (5-16 June 1972).)). More recently, the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by Gro Horlem Brundtland, and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, have drawn the attention of the international community to the critical relationship between environment and development and have, in fact, given a global perspective of environmentally compatible development ((Supra note 2.)). The Rio Declaration contemplates a ‘sustainable development’ ((The term ‘sustainable development’ was first used in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Brundtland Commission) to denote that development which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.)). It proclaims that the right to development must be equitable to the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations ((Principle3, For an excellent discussion on our duty to future generations to preserve the global environment, see Agora, ‘What Obligations does our Generation owe to the next? An Approach to Global Environmental Responsibility’, 84 AJIL 191 (1990).)). It insists that environmental protection must constitute an integral part of the development process ((Principle 4, Rio Declaration.)). At the international level, 1992 was a vibrant year as environmental concern, the conservation strategy and policy statement on environment and development were presented ((Nayyar, K. R,  Politics of sustainable Development, Economic and political weekly, (28th May, 1994).)).

Importance of development and environment

Development implies the transformation and distribution of economic resources in favour of a socially and economically underdeveloped segment of society or region ((Supra note 2.)).  In order to understand the necessity for development let us take an example. Various reports shows that the majority of  the population from sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and part of Latin America are living on less than $2.50 a day ((Available at These countries would be able to grow and compete with the developed countries only when they start producing large numbers of goods and services and engage in trade. Setting up of industries would not only bring more jobs in the developing countries but would also pump money into the economy. Without development it won’t be possible for these countries to match up with the need, want and desire of people of the nation. Hence, development is indeed important for a country to justify its existence.

On the other hand, protection of Environment is also necessary for our survival. Environmentalists are of the view that in order to preserve the earth for our children and grandchildren, it is high time that we can afford to neglect environment. The most important issues facing our environment right now are the depletion of ozone layer, global warming and the subsequent rising sea levels caused by the rapid melting of glaciers. It is reasonably well-accepted that the environment is important for the enjoyment of human rights, and that a healthy environment is instrumental in the fulfilment of human rights such as the rights to health, water, food and housing ((Lewis Bridget, Environmental rights or a right to Environment: Exploring the nexus between Human Rights and environmental protection, 8 Macquqrie J. Int’l and Comp. Envtl. L. 36 (2012).)).

Creating the balance: sustainable development

Man is both the creature and moulders of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth ((Preamble to the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, 1972 (Stockholm Declaration).)). The question has also arisen whether the right to environment is inconsistent with the right to development. To answer this it must be noted that these rights are not unlimited; rather they should be regarded as mutually reinforcing ((Atapattu, Sumudu , Right to a Healthy Life or the Right to Die Polluted: The Emergence of a Human Right to a Healthy Environment under International Law ,16 Tul. Envtl. L.J. 65 (2002-2003).)). Unfortunately, Humans are defined as a recent addition to the livestock and are considered to have been a wholly disruptive influence on a world which was paradise before their arrival ((Id.)).

In Indian context, after independence, it was felt that it is of prime importance to improve upon certain area in order to provide basic minimum necessity to the masses including irrigation facilities, water supply, and electricity generation. In the process, mountains and forest region underwent massive upheaval. Many of the dams constructed in ecological fragile areas caused considerable damage to the soil. As a result, people started to protest and hence, the two famous movements which come into light are Chipko Andolan and Narmada Bachao Andolan.

In order to the reach the goal of sustainable development we need to go for better development strategy. Some of them are steps switching from non-renewable to renewable sources of energy and materials, targeting cleaner production, maximising recycling and reuse of wastes and environmentally sound product design. Political India needs to learn the virtues of good environmental governance, which limits exploitation of natural resources to sustainable levels ((Available at Population size and growth and related consumption patterns are critical elements in the many environmental degradation and social problems we currently face. The population issue should be urgently addressed by education and empowerment of women ((Environment and  Development Challenges:  The Imperative to Act (20 February 2012) available at In order to realise our dream of a more sustainable world there is a need to understand the triple interdependence of economic, social and environmental factors and integrate them into decision-making in governments and the private sector ((Id.)).

Our people have a right to economic and social development and to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty. For this, we need rapid economic growth. However, I also believe that ecologically sustainable development need not be in contradiction to achieving our growth objectives. In fact, we must have a broader perspective on development. It must include the quality of life, not merely the quantitative accretion of goods and services. Our people want higher standards of living, but they also want clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe and a green earth to walk on” ((Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh during the released India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change in New Delhi, available at In addition, Taking note of the magnitude of the disaster in Uttarakhand, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has summoned the Ministry of Environment and Forest and the state government, to give details of upcoming projects pending clearance in the state and their ecological and environmental impact ((Uttarakhand floods: Green tribunal notice to MoEF, Hindustan Times, New Delhi (July 03, 2013).)). It’s clear that the devastation caused by the flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand was at least in part due to environmental degradation of fragile mountain slopes and reckless commercialization


It will be over ambitious to state that we can completely stop environmental damage but at least we can counter the negative influence of development on the environment. In theory, development that is sustainable and not damaging to the planet is very much possible but in practice there are a lot of politics and challenges involved. By taking positive steps like resurrecting the loss due to deforestation, activity by planting more and more trees will give fruitful result.

Compared to developed nations, India is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their low capacity to adapt and their disproportionate dependency on natural resources for welfare ((Available at In such a scenario, Going for green growth is one option. Green growth can be defined as “fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies” ((Id.)). Alternatively strategic climate/ environment policies should not be framed as a choice between the environment and economic development, but rather as a choice between effective measures to achieve balance between the two dimensions ((Antony Gnanamuthu, Environment vs development: India’s policy dilemmas? (Jun 07, 2013).)). It is rightly said that “Natural resources like air, water, forest, vegetation etc., are of great importance to the people as a whole and should not be subjected to private ownership or commercialisation, when public interest suffers a greater damage due to over exploitation of the nature. Lastly, Laws of Nature have to respected and for the benefit of people and human race require observation and compliance” ((Text of 18 September 2009 order of the High Court of Delhi related to the environment clearance of M/s JSW Energy (Ratnagiri) Ltd.)).