Build a Sustainability-Conscious Society: Emphasize the Notion of Sustainability and Responsible Consumption

You have done a significant amount of work on public policy. What trends do you see emerging around sustainability issues in public policy?

The centrality of sustainability in public policy is perhaps best symbolized by the shift from Millennial Development Goals (MDG) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by the UN as the target of policy during the 2015-2030 period. Environment and ecological sustainability concerns have now begun to get embedded in every aspect of development since the fears of environmental depletion is rising extremely fast.

Do you feel India is equipped to handle the emerging trends in sustainability?

India’s development record so far has seriously neglected the sustainability aspect- whether in terms of nature, or people or economic structure. While in international negotiations, and in all fairness, India makes strong arguments against restrictive regulations being imposed, the environment in Indian cities is now palpably among the worst in the world and the health hazards of simply breathing the city air are becoming increasingly obvious in several urban areas. Our water resources are severely at risk though our forest cover is improving. As urbanization expands inevitably, congestion in our cities will rise dramatically. We simply do not have enough road space to keep the auto sales growing at current rates. Sooner or later some kind of congestion tax just has to come in simply to enable mobility in our cities. The shift to public transport is not a matter of choice but will soon be almost the only option. Tier-2 and tier-3 cities suffer the most from lack of planning. More broadly, India lags behind much poorer Bangladesh in most human development indicators. Gender inequality, an area of policy apathy and neglect has led to warped sex ratios and social problems. In the economic arena, jobs have seriously lagged income growth. During the seven years from 2005-2012 (latest phase with data) India’s GDP has grown 54%. It has created less than 3% more jobs during the same period. And we are the world’s youngest large country, awaiting a demographic deluge ahead of us. Consequently, in a long-term perspective there are several risks that need to be managed.

Can public policy drive social responsibility and sustainability? What should be the role of the Government?

So far it seems the arm of government that has actually pushed aggressively for environmental sustainability has been the judiciary. The elected executive has only moved at the insistence of courts, rarely on its own prerogative. That is largely because the costs of sustainability are concentrated and financial- for industry or car-owners or other groups – while the benefits are diffused and masked in health and quality of life. Also the awareness of the Indian public on sustainability issues is pretty poor, which probably lies at the core of many problems. For instance, indoor air pollution caused by traditional biomass burning stoves is one of the biggest killers but it does not even feature in major concerns for most public authorities. Again gender inequality and lack of women’s empowerment is the driver here.
Sustainability – environmental or otherwise – often comes as an afterthought in public planning or project planning, whereas it ought to cut across and permeate all policies and projects. Also the Indian environment and setting are quite unique and there is need to look for and promote innovations in India rather than transplant solutions form elsewhere. One of the roles of the government – mostly states and local, not just at the centre – ought to be to build a sustainability-conscious society: emphasize the notion of sustainability and responsible consumption and lifestyle in school education and possibly carry it through right into higher education. Gender inequality needs to be dealt with on an urgent basis. Job-creation needs to be the top economic priority.

Is there a role for multi-disciplinary business education that covers Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, and Public Policy?

Absolutely. Integrating Public Policy, Sustainability and CSR in business education is a crying need today. The awareness of public policy, government systems and goals of policy like sustainability is surprisingly low among today’s business students. CSR is another frequently misunderstood concept, even in B-schools. This is particularly surprising since these are critical factors for long-run business success. As private-public partnerships proliferate from infrastructure to social sectors, the chasm of mistrust between the two parties is a serious hindrance. And this stems completely from lack of communication. Business people often type cast government officers as inefficient or corrupt and government people think of the private sector as ethicless profiteers. At Sunay, for instance, we work towards supplementing business curricula with short public policy interventions and find that students and executives alike find an introduction to public policy both interesting and helpful.

In reality, anticipating, managing and influencing policy movements are key aspects of doing business anywhere, especially in India. Whether out of global pressures or judicial decisions, pro-sustainability policy moves are likely to strengthen over time and businesses that voluntarily adopt sustainability into their DNA are going to be a step ahead in the near future. Indian corporates, like Indian citizens, need to change their ways, move out of the old style of engaging with policy makers or avoiding them completely, but interact at the right levels with ideas and even seek to set the agenda in some spaces. Government itself is seriously resource starved, so can use as much of clearly articulated inputs as it can get from private players. The gap is often filled by a small set of consultants, but even they lack the bandwidth. For businesses this can be an opportunity for true partnership for a better society – CSR in its truest sense. Given the broad trends towards sustainability and transparency, the rewards from the latter will necessarily be short lived and the ultimate loss of credibility and brand can be fatal. An informed partnership on the other hand is a win-win for both sides and the nation.

In conversation with Mr. Rajesh Chakrabarti, Professor and Executive Vice Dean at the Jindal Global Business School. (Original post)