Development vs. Ecology: GreenKarbon National Debate generates heat and light

September 2011 │ India

On a sultry Friday evening, nearly 500 people from diverse backgrounds – students, professionals, journalists, bankers, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts – poured into that bastion of learning, St. Xavier’s auditorium in Mumbai for the GreenKarbon debate on the Proposition: "This House believes that exaggerated ecological and climate change concerns are impeding India's economic growth."

This first GreenKarbon Debate, held on 16 September, is part of a series of national debates under the aegis of the GreenKarbon initiative. The GreenKarbon initiative, led by Deutsche Bank along with Sanctuary Asia, seeks to communicate the rationale for biodiversity conservation and its connection with India’s food, water and economic security. The belief is that neither economics nor the ecology of the Indian subcontinent will escape unscathed if India loses the climate battle. By stimulating public discourse, along the lines of the Oxford Union Debates, the GreenKarbon initiative hopes to add to the understanding of the complex issues surrounding both climate change and biodiversity conservation.



As expected, the topic drew a heated exchange. The speakers were passionate. Barun Mitra, Founder and Director, Liberty Institute, K. K. Narayanan, Managing Director, Metahelix and Sunil Alagh, Chairman, SKA Advisors Pvt. Ltd. spoke against the proposition. They were pitted against C.P. Chandrashekar, Head, Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Omkar Goswami, economist, writer, finance consultant and Gautam Patel, environmental lawyer and writer.



Usha Thorat, Director of Centre for Advanced Financial Research and Learning (CAFRAL) and former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, chaired the debate. Father Frazer Mascarenas, Principal, St. Xavier’s College launched the evening by speaking of the need for young people to be a part of the solution. Shrinath Bolloju, Group COO India, Deutsche Bank clearly enunciated the Bank’s commitment to sustainability and reducing carbon footprint, before inviting Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia to introduce the speakers.



Each speaker had ten minutes – four minutes to open, three minutes to rebut and three minutes to conclude. The introduction round was followed by three questions to each team from the audience.



Mitra spoke first and discussed the need to question science and not accept widely perpetuated information at face value. He was followed by Goswami who spoke about air pollution and the alarming rate at which India’s remaining wildernesses were being destroyed and the impact this was having on local communities. Nararayan went up next and discussed the need for India to employ science to meet its growing food needs. He spoke about Bt Cotton and how it had benefited farmers and urged people to look beyond “misconceptions” pertaining to genetically-engineered crops.



Patel took the stage next and chose to focus on the definition of “exaggerating” an ecological concern. In his view, environmental concerns were always labeled as “exaggerated” without an in-depth look at their impacts and the magnitude of the response needed. He also questioned the development paradigm India was espousing if it was to be without environmental protection. Alagh disputed Patel’s point saying that the hype around environmental issues was diminishing their credibility and that there should be a focus on solutions.  Chandrasekhar took up where he left off and said it was impossible to ignore rising carbon emissions, the damage that was being caused by it.  He questioned the premise that scientific developments should be accepted at face value and saying, "You need to question what technology is being used for."



Eventually, once both the teams had had their fair say, the proposition "This House believes that exaggerated ecological and climate concerns are impeding India's economic progress" was put to the audience’s vote, and defeated by an overwhelming majority.



It was a scintillating debate, but the real impact is that the 500-strong audience joined in this unique conflict resolution exercise that seeks to build environment-development bridges. With the galaxy of experts and tight moderation, the subject, which usually generates considerable heat, was liberally embellished with light as well.


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