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'India Inc has been passive and reactive on climate change'

August 26, 2009 12:19 IST

Greenpeace activists hold bannersAn Inconvenient Truth, former US vice president Al Gore's dark and compelling film put climate change squarely on the global agenda like nothing before.

Now, as governments of 192 countries get ready to meet in Copenhagen this December to discuss a new framework agreement on climate change, the spotlight is inevitably turning to India and China, the populous and fast-growing economies in which the next chapter of climate change is being written.

But even as politicians argue over past culpability and future responsibilities for climate change, the case for businesses to adopt a sustainability agenda grows more compelling. Is India Inc really prepared to play its part in bridging the gap between development and environmental protection?

Climate Challenge India, a climate change mobilisation effort by Bangalore-based NGO Center for Social Markets has produced a film titled In Good Company: Corporate India and the Climate Challenge that partly tries to answer the question but also raises some red flags on the issue.

The 54-minute film succinctly explores the key issues surrounding the climate change debate but mostly focuses on how businesses view the agenda and what they are doing. The 'usual suspects' are to be found -- ITC's Yogi Deveshwar, Tata group's J J Irani, Mahindra's Anand Mahindra, Godrej group's Jamshyd Godrej - but so are a host of smaller eco-preneurs with inspirational stories.

The film was launched in May at the World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen. As CSM's founder and climate change campaigner Malini Mehra explains, the film which costs a mere Rs 200 to order, was mostly a 'labour of love'.

It was partly financed through a grant from the Danish government 'but there's been a lot of personal subsidy involved'.  In this interview with Kanika Datta,  Mehra discusses the challenges of India's private sector sustainability agenda.

Excerpts:

Did the suggestion to make the film come from corporate India or was the idea CSM's?

The idea was entirely ours. For almost a decade we've been making the business case for corporate India to embrace a strong sustainability agenda.

We think it's in our interest as a nation and that we're more than capable of doing it. What's been lacking is strong, vocal and visible business leadership. Corporate heads have preferred working through business associations rather than taking public stands themselves.

This is partly explained by the history of the private sector in India and our risk-averse business culture. People are not motivated by what business associations say, but by what corporate leaders say and do.

So far, the private sector in India has been far too private, it is time for it to take a public stand on major issues of the day. Climate change is just such an issue - it is the defining challenge of our age.

We know that privately many of our CEOs are progressive on climate change, but they've lacked public platforms. So for the past few years we've made it our job to provide platforms for leadership on climate change.

We work with many global bodies on this such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations' Caring for the Climate Initiative.

Just last year we organised an event at the British House of Parliament with Tomorrow's Company showing what Indian companies were doing on climate change. It was the first time something like that had been done and it blew people away.

The attendance was outstanding and we still have people writing to us saying what an impression it made on them as they had never seen India as a country that could lead on climate change before.

So, this film is really the latest in a long line of such activities. It profiles in film format for the first time what India corporate leaders have to say on climate change.

It shows a new India -- not a weak, impoverished country but a self-confident and articulate nation of feisty entrepreneurs and energetic innovators who know what our problems and how we can solve them. The film is designed to inspire and motivate. It shows people making a difference.

I don't wake up in the morning thinking I want to be the next Confederation of Indian Industries or the next Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, I wake up thinking I want to be the next Chetan Maini, or the next Nandan Nilekani, or the next Harish Hande.

The film profiles several eco-preneurs, but most of them appear relatively small. The heads of several of the larger companies with whom you spoke seem to understand the importance of the climate change question but don't appear to be doing as much -- at least, bar, say, the odd ITC, Godrej and HUL, the others didn't really speak about specific initiatives. Are big Indian corporations really doing enough, in your estimation? if not, what's holding it back?

Given the constraints of a 54-minute film format, we could only include fragments of interviewee responses not the full length interview. Many did mention specific initiatives and the full-length interviews can be viewed on our portal (www.climatechallengeindiaorg).

In general, however, I certainly don't think enough is being done in a serious way on climate change. The film profiles some of what is being said and done by some of our business leaders. But there is a gaping hole between aspiration and application.

The only way this will be bridged is if we have a few things in place: An unequivocally strong national policy framework incentivising industrial de-carbonisation as a competitiveness issue. An innovation strategy geared at a low-carbon transition for all major sectors.

A vocal consumer class demanding sustainable, low-carbon goods and services - and everyone willing to put their money where their mouth is. The fact is that we can no longer pass the buck -- we all have a role to play and it's time we started playing it.

In the film, speaker after speaker points out that government policy can drive the sustainable development agenda. But does India Inc do enough to pressure the government to be more pro-active? So far our stance at Kyoto is centred on 'victim-hood' (ie: developing countries are being made to clean up the mess created by developed countries), which may be partly justified, but it is also clear that, with or without Kyoto, we need to clean up our act.

The short answer is no, India Inc. has not been doing enough to pressure the government to adopt a more pro-active stance on the climate or sustainability agenda. It has been passive and reactive. Unlike in many countries there has been no progressive business lobby formed to push a business case for climate leadership.

Again this is not because many business leaders don't privately 'get' the climate agenda, they do -- but they simply have not exerted themselves publicly or pushed a progressive policy agenda.

This is why the government has gotten away with casting climate change as someone else's problem and just a cost for India. This is entirely the wrong approach.

India is the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. In under a decade we will be amongst the top three and the next generation of climate-changing pollution will come from us. What we need is a change in mindset. Not to see this as a problem that India is to poor to address, but as an opportunity that India is fully capable of rising to.

If we will ourselves to think poor and weak, we will act poor and weak. This is what the government has been doing all along. It is an entirely self-defeating and disempowering approach.

It is true that India is a poor and inequal country. But we have more billionaires than Japan and vast reserves of ingenuity and entrepreneurial talent that are the envy of the world.

Instead of constantly pleading poverty and hiding behind the poor, why don't we focus on the latter? We forget that we have enormous strengths. We should be mobilising these to address the inequalities in our society and make ourselves a climate-resilient, competitive nation. .The climate challenge is our challenge.

We cannot accept the mantras of the past, we have to look to the future and make it our own.

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