Concept of Sustainable Development

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of “enoughness” in his saying “the earth provides enough to satisfy every persons need but not for every person’s greed” According to World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987) , Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

The newly revised The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) indicators contain a core set of 50 indicators. These core indicators are part of a larger set of 96 indicators of sustainable development. Major of them are as follows:-

• Poverty

• Governance

• Health

• Education

• Demographics

• Natural hazards

• Atmosphere

• Land

• Oceans, seas and coasts

• Freshwater

• Biodiversity

• Economic development

• Global economic partnership

• Consumption and production patterns

To ensure sustainable development following pre conditions are to be ensured:-

  • The rate of exploitation of renewable resources should not exceed the regeneration rate.
  • Waste emission should be kept at or below assimilative capacity (waste absorptive capacity) of the environment. For instance the absorptive capacity of the environment for radioactive radiation is zero, so strong sustainability criteria suggests that no radioactive substance should be disseminated to the environment.
  • The extraction of nonrenewable resources should be consistent with the development of renewable substitutes. This condition is in line with the Hartwick’s sustainability assumption.
  • Conventional national account should incorporate the depreciation of natural resources.

Natural resources are not unlimited and with the human population increasing at a tremendous rate due to improvement in health-care, the demand for all resources is increasing at an exponential rate. The management of natural resources requires a long-term perspective so that these will last for the generations to come and will not merely be exploited to the hilt for short term gains. This management should also ensure equitable distribution of resources so that all, and not just a handful of rich and powerful people, benefit from the development of these resources.

Another factor to be considered while we exploit these natural resources is the damage we cause to the environment while these resources are either extracted or used. For example, mining causes pollution because of the large amount of slag which is discarded for every tonne of metal extracted. Hence, sustainable natural resource management demands that we plan for the safe disposal of these wastes too.

Forests and wildlife

Forests are ‘biodiversity hot spots’. One measure of the biodiversity of an area is the number of species found there. However, the range of different life forms (bacteria, fungi, ferns, flowering plants, nematodes, insects, birds, reptiles and so on) is also important. One of the main aims of conservation is to try and preserve the biodiversity we have inherited. Experiments and field studies suggest that a loss of diversity may lead to a loss of ecological stability.

Industries would consider the forest as merely a source of raw material for its factories. And huge interest-groups lobby the government for access to these raw materials at artificially low rates. Since these industries have a greater reach than the local people, they are not interested in the sustainability of the forest in one particular area. For example, after cutting down all the teak trees in one area, they will get their teak from a forest farther away. They do not have any stake in ensuring that one particular area should yield on optimal amount of some produce for all generations to come.

Management of protected areas, by keeping the local people out, by using force cannot possibly be successful in the long run. In any case, the damage caused to forests cannot be attributed to only the local people – one cannot turn a blind eye to the deforestation caused by industrial needs or development projects like building roads or dams. The damage caused in these reserves by tourists or the arrangements made for their convenience is also to be considered.

Water management

Watershed management emphasises scientific soil and water conservation in order to increase the biomass production. The aim is to develop primary resources of land and water, to produce secondary resources of plants and animals for use in a manner which will not cause ecological imbalance. Watershed management not only increases the production and income of the watershed community, but also mitigates droughts and floods and increases the life of the downstream dam and reservoirs. Various organisations have been working on rejuvenating ancient systems of water harvesting as an alternative to the ‘mega-projects’ like dams. These communities have used hundreds of indigenous water saving methods to capture every trickle of water that had fallen on their land; dug small pits and lakes, put in place simple watershed systems, built small earthen dams, constructed dykes, sand and limestone reservoirs, set up rooftop water-collecting units. This has recharged groundwater levels and even brought rivers back to life.

Water harvesting is an age-old concept in India. Khadins, tanks and nadis in Rajasthan, bandharas and tals in Maharashtra, bundhis in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, ahars and pynes in Bihar, kulhs in Himachal Pradesh, ponds in the Kandi belt of Jammu region, and eris (tanks) in Tamil Nadu, surangams in Kerala, and kattas in Karnataka are some of the ancient water harvesting, including water conveyance, structures still in use today (see Fig. 16.3 for an example). Water harvesting techniques are highly locale specific and the benefits are also localised. Giving people control over their local water resources ensures that mismanagement and over-exploitation of these resources is reduced/removed.

Coal and petroleum

The management of these energy sources involves slightly different perspectives than other resources. Coal and petroleum were formed from the degradation of bio-mass millions of years ago and hence these are resources that will be exhausted in the future no matter how carefully we use them. And then we would need to look for alternative sources of energy. Various estimates as to how long these resources will last us exist and one is that at present rates of usage, our known petroleum resources will last us for about forty years and the coal resources will last for another two hundred years.

But looking to other sources of energy is not the only consideration when we look at the consumption of coal and petroleum. Since coal and petroleum have been formed from bio–mass, in addition to carbon, these contain hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur. When these are burnt, the products are carbon dioxide, water, oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulphur. When combustion takes place in insufficient air (oxygen), then carbon monoxide is formed instead of carbon dioxide. Of these products, the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and carbon monoxide are poisonous at high concentrations and carbon dioxide is a green-house gas. Another way of looking at coal and petroleum is that they are huge reservoirs of carbon and if all of this carbon is converted to carbon dioxide, then the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going to increase leading to intense global warming. Thus, we need to use these resources judiciously.

Sustainable management of natural resources is a difficult task. In addressing this issue, we need to keep an open mind with regard to the interests of various stakeholders. We need to accept that people will act with their own best interests as the priority. But the realisation that such selfish goals will lead to misery for a large number of people and a total destruction of our environment is slowly growing. Going beyond laws, rules and regulations, we need to tailor our requirements, individually and collectively, so that the benefits of development reach everyone now and for all generations to come.

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