I spent Christmas and New Year touring India (or as much of India as you can tour in sixteen days) with my girlfriend and mum. It was greatly exciting to be in a country I had wanted to visit ever since seeing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi aged ten. Not to mention India’s prime position in the sustainable development spotlight as its population and economic growth continue to explode. The sub continent’s green challenge is well documented here in the West, but I had not appreciated just how prominent the environmental agenda is in India itself. No tour guide failed to mention global warming and its impact on water supplies (I don’t think we saw one river that hadn’t dried up). And for all the noise, congestion and bustle of Delhi, I was stunned to see that every single auto-rickshaw now runs on Compressed Natural Gas (which has made a hugely positive impact on pollution levels I’m told). As London contentedly parades its tiny trial fleet of fuel cell buses, it’s worth noting that all Delhi’s buses have been converted to CNG for some time. All vehicles proudly bear the slogan ‘World’s Largest Eco Friendly CNG bus Service’). And given the vast numbers of people crammed into and hanging off the buses, the carbon footprint per passenger is probably almost nil.
Just like Europe and the USA, companies are keen to ride the bandwagon (if not the buses). A variety of green ads adorn the domestic terminal at Bangalore Airport. I’m not entirely sure that the phrase ‘Eco-friendly Miners to the Nation – Spreading Happiness’ from the country’s largest iron ore producer would pass muster with the UK Advertising Standards Authority (who’ve just upheld a Friends of the Earth complaint about a BBC World TV ad proclaiming Malaysian Palm Oil as ‘sustainable’), but it’s interesting that the company feels the need to say it nonetheless.
Reading the newspapers everyday was also revealing. Just as many articles and leader columns about climate change, carbon offsetting, clean energy, the growth of the organic food industry and corporate responsibility in The Times of India, The Hindu or the Indian Express as we find on our European breakfast tables every day. That was a truly pleasant surprise as well. Please don’t misread this as an assertion that India is on track to be a sustainability icon, or a green and pleasant pollution free land. Nowhere are water scarcity, the impact of climate change, extreme poverty, unsustainable agriculture and over-fishing more apparent. Pollution is everywhere, as is the daily waste of a country on the move towards ever vaster consumption levels. And systemic corruption always threatens to scupper any noble political or commercial progress. But national, state governments and big business are at least moving these issues fast up the agenda in a way that is not often reported here. The prospect of clean technological development (India is a global tech leader after all) and this superpower as a force for good in the world is a real one. Sitting in Bangalore Airport, I felt the same as I did in China last year – these emerging giants may have further to travel down the green path than some European countries, but their culture, appetite for change and technological expertise means they might just get there faster than we did in the West, with all our dithering and political fudge. They will get there even more quickly if we don’t make them the dumping grounds for our own wasteful excesses by sending them all our rubbish. I don’t really want to live in a country that exports rubbish, be it in container bins or on television. There were the usual green gripes you get on holiday. Irritation with the (gorgeous, sorry but it was) Kerala hotel that plastered its bathrooms with brass signs saying ‘protect our planet’, pleading with guests to hang towels up on hooks for re-use, and firmly encouraging us to use water and energy sparingly. Yet short of hiding your towel in your suitcase, no matter what time you returned from the pool you would find it replaced with a clean one. And it’s hard to save water when the bathroom basins have no plugs and the loo flushes for around 20 minutes at even the tiniest flick of the flush. And try saving energy when they turn your air-conditioning system down to 5 degrees on full blast all day when you’re away from your room. Anyway, all these points belong on the feedback form (I have never visited a country so into feedback forms). And the truth is, most hotel chains are no better in Europe or the US. When I saw the resilience, courtesy, spiritual wellbeing, work ethic and calm diligence of the people I met across five different States, I couldn’t help thinking that for all the chaos, dirt and noise, if there’s one place on earth that might one day be a mammoth green pilot light for the rest of the world, India is it.