Looking at the census data of 2011, and subsequent studies and numbers shared by experts from the government, some stark numbers stand out when it comes to the India story. Consider this.
Less than 8% of the approx. 250 million Indian households have AC’s. Just over 11% have two wheelers. Barely 5% have cars. Over 70% have mobiles now. However, if you consider the combination of a vehicle, TV, computer and a phone connection, we are back to the 5% figure.
Enter an area like sanitation, and the numbers get even more interesting. Just 62% of rural households have access to toilets, while the urban numbers remain meshed in contesting claims. But over 700 million is a number we see regularly, for those without access to one.
On sheer scale , these numbers tell a staggering story.
It’s a story we tell the world at large, at multilateral forums, at climate control talks, and many other places. About how India has a disproportionately lower share of contribution to global emissions, waste and what not, unlike say, China. And why we need more time consequently to ensure we can catch up first. Two things stand out.
One, we have started these bald statements at face value, without considering the massive implications they hide. For example, consider the fact that China, a benchmark for most of these categories, is ahead by a multiple of 4-5 times on most of these indicators, a growth that has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty there, but also at great cost to the environment in that country with repurcussions far beyond.
To reach even present day China levels with present day technologies and methods makes a demand on resources and the environment at a scale that is simply not available, forget sustainable. Be it commodities like oil, or metals, or wood , or even fresh water, lets face it, it is simply not available, or available at a price that is palatable.
The fact that even these numbers for India are concentrated in the urban pockets, demonstrates just how we have literally been riding on the shoulders of a huge, deprived majority of our people, whose unwitting ‘sacrifices’ have helped us claim time, benefits and self righteousness at world fora.
While one expects the political system to respond to this massive distortion and set about fixing it, urban India has an equally big challenge to play a role, by adopting better practices at scale. Be it for waste management, water distribution, power consumption or improving public transport on a war footing. Each of these areas are acknowledged today as a challenge, which is start, albeit a late start. The time has come to move to action, at a scale never seen before anywhere in history, or suffer the kind of degradation and struggle for resources that has never been seen before.