Honorable Prime Minister, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
On the occasion of the world’s environment day and in honor of Prime Minister Modi’s focus on Lifestyle for the Environment (LiFE) and his call for papers, I am guided to the ancient texts of India and enlightened by their great respect for the natural world and the environment.
The words of the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Charak Sanhita speak of trees removing pollution; of not disturbing the sky; and of the importance of forests to the strength of the state.
The Baghavad Gita is also clear when it says: “The environment is not ours to take or leave, it is ours to make.” We can ask: how? And the Gita speaks to our hearts with prescience: “Let the human community protect the environment for their own survival.”
In these words, I see a call for action, not inaction. I saw this urgency during my participation with Prime Minister Modi in 2019 at the Civil Service Capacity Building event in Gujarat.
Mobilizing and empowering communities around sustainable growth and development is at the core of the World Bank’s work – and the Prime Minister’s call for a movement of the masses against environmentally destructive behavior.
I will focus today on the question of what the state can do to mobilize communities at scale for sustainable economic growth and development.
To begin with, any mobilization of communities around development issues requires frontline motivators. India’s anganwadi workers who focus on children in rural areas; self-help groups of women mobilized around access to credit; and asha health workers – these are examples of frontline workers who are embedded in communities and work at scale. The Poshan program of India owes its success to the frontline workers fighting malnutrition affecting children, adolescent girls, and expectant mothers.
Localizing decisions to the community level has been an important part of India’s development philosophy. The “white revolution” which changed the dairy industry was catalyzed by the cooperatives managed by communities. Similarly, the swacch bharat sanitation program relied on behavior change and community ownership of the mission. Mass action has been an integral part of its progress.
In the context of adaptation to climate change, India faces one of its biggest challenges in the management of water and land. India is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, with demand projected to nearly double by 2050. Faced with decades of over exploitation of ground water, India’s Atal Bhujal Yojana is incentivizing communities to collectively take responsibility for ground water management. Success will require behavior changes in agricultural practices, water conservation, and land preservation. To address the “problem of the commons”, it offers local decision making where local administrations and communities jointly take responsibility for better water management, and with the goal of doubling farmers' incomes, improving water use efficiency on a mass scale, and improving cropping patterns. Frontline motivators embedded in communities will be needed to help bring about the many necessary changes in behavior and incentives.
Getting prices right remains a vital prerequisite for changing behaviors of communities and strengthening the economy. Farmers will have little incentive to preserve ground water in states where free electricity makes the cost of pumping ground water close to zero. Other key building blocks for sustainable development will be: more correct pricing of diesel fuel, fertilizer and coal; improving fuel efficiency; and shifting transport from road to rail and waterways.
Getting institutions right is also a vital prerequisite. Distorted prices cause weak institutions of service delivery and vice versa. Free electricity contributes to financially weak electricity distribution companies – the discoms. Their weakness leads to greater dependence on state subsidies, inviting weaker governance and management. Weak discoms in turn can become the Achilles heel of the government’s plan to expand renewable energy – an ineffective discom system can’t implement the ambitious vision of 500 GW of renewable energy and profitable electric vehicle and battery factories.
Alongside community motivators, mobilizing communities around development and climate-related issues will require more effective local governments and local administration. The 15th Finance Commission has, for example, provided fiscal incentives for cities to fight air pollution. But, this program assumes the presence of effective urban local governments or at the very least urban local administration.
To help support change, India has an impressive system of cash and non cash transfers that forms the foundation of a strong social protection system using a unique ID mechanism. Important for today’s discussion, using cash transfers to mobilize and incentivize communities around specific development issues allows the state to reduce the reliance on subsidies and artificial prices. Communities facing shocks – due to pandemics or climate changes – can be supported by targeting specific groups such as farmers and women headed households. India also has one of the world’s largest food distribution systems which during the peak of Covid provided support to 800 million people.
Prime Minister Modi is right that communities have successfully mobilized around development programs and can do more. The state must play its role by leveraging front line workers; and investing in effective and accountable local governments, which are the tier of the state that is closest to the citizens.
And, vitally important, the state must get pricing policies and institutions right in order to credibly invite communities to participate in development programs as part of a mass movement. After all, we cannot expect to mobilize communities to advocate for public transport when public sector bus companies are inefficient at best; or to farm in a sustainable way when fertilizer subsidies distort behavior; or to conserve water when free electricity tells you to do otherwise.
India has a long history of community mobilization that has worked, but also instances when it has not worked. For India to be a global leader in environmental action, it also has to be a global leader in economic development.
The Prime Minister is correctly calling for a whole of life approach. It makes sense that this will need a whole of economy approach—ending poverty, growing the incomes of farmers and ordinary people, properly pricing water, electricity, fertilizer, coal, and oil, and making the right investments in cities. We look forward to supporting this with a whole of World Bank approach combining the full resources and energy of the IBRD, IDA, IFC and MIGA.
Today’s call for papers offers the opportunity to use scholarly work to understand better how policies and institutions matter in incentivizing and leveraging communities around development issues. Let us not lose this learning opportunity being offered here today by Prime Minister Modi, who said recently that once people are determined to do something together, they do wonderful things.
Thank you very much.