The Environment Foundation

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2009 - India as a case study

When and how does democracy facilitate sustainable development? This was the central question for participants at a three-day event held in New Delhi from 2 to 4 February 2009.

The event was organised by 21st Century Trust and Salzburg Global Seminar in collaboration with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the Environment Foundation and in association with TERI's 2009 Delhi Sustainable Development Summit.

Participants began their discussions with a visit organized by “Growth-for-All” and partners working with people resettled in Savda Ghewra, a new residential complex in the west of New Delhi, to make way for construction associated with the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Visitors spent the afternoon seeing how coordinated civil society initiatives were supplementing government resources in areas such as health and education.

Nitin Desai opened the formal part of the event, calling for a new set of global ethical principles to underpin climate negotiations. We need real international democracy, he said.

The gap between organic decision-making at the local level and 'inorganic' official decision-making was a theme. Kalyan Paul advised patience: “Some people sometimes feel ... that all institutions should flower at the same time and create a house full of lovely aroma – but it takes time to create democratic institutions.”

For Sushma Iyengar, when pro-sustainable development practices at the local level are lost, democracy can be weakened: “We've all seen how communities are dependent economically on each other – for example sheep rearers and weavers. When you remove the economic interdependency it reinforces huge divisions at the community level.”

Can India's 8% growth target be sustained alongside a commitment to democracy? India's rapidly growing energy needs are a test-ground. Ajit Kapadia noted that: “whatever India's road map to energy security and sustainable development, I do not believe that in a democracy it can happen without popular support and advocacy”. But there are real risks here: “India will not, as a democracy, be able to build new power plants sufficient to meet projected demand of up to 800,000 megawatts. Constructing for the capacity that will be required can only happen if this country is a dictatorship...” warned Chandra Bhushan.

Processes of economic and development change at local level need to be supported by proper appreciation of the right to be responsible oneself as a citizen. As Dr Rajendra Pachauri emphasised, concluding the discussion, leadership through lifestyle choice and modest consumption are important at every level.

You can download a full report of the meeting from our reports and publications page.