Rudyard Kipling penned “The White Man’s Burden” on the USA–Philippines war in 1899. In it, the unabashed British imperialist sought to justify colonisation as a moral mission of those with European ancestry. The poem invited much public outrage and reaction then, including a deeply satirical response by Mark Twain.
Yet that poem by the author of the anthropomorphic “Jungle Book” and creator of“Mowgli”, only highlighted the unique and remarkable ability of our species to convince itself of the moral necessity of all that is in its self-interest. An evolutionary moral blindspot that has consistently enabled it to take actions that otherwise are the opposite of values it claims to cherish. “Homo Sapiens”- by most accounts- wiped out “Homo Neanderthalensis” in a fight-to-death competition for scarce resources, invading Spaniards wiped out the Aztecs in their search for gold, encroaching American settlers wiped out American Indian tribes in their search for land.
In the natural world, the extinction of species by “Homo Economicus” has been greater and even less accountable. From the woolly mammoth hunted by the caveman for its flesh and tusks to the dodo hunted by Dutch sailors for easy meat, it is a long and unenviable record.
The latest episode in this man versus nature extinction face-off is the Great Indian Bustard, of which less than 150 remain. At the centre of the debate is the recent Supreme Court judgement that orders all overhead power lines evacuating renewable energy power from solar and wind projects in the Great Bustard habitat – an area of approx 13,000 sq kms in the Thar/Kutch desert of Rajasthan/Gujarat – to be laid underground wherever feasible, within a year and the installation of bird diverters pending the same.
A committee has also been constituted to examine case-by-case, the technical feasibility of shifting the overhead lines underground. The industry is, understandably, up in arms. Funding requirements to comply with this order have been estimated at an additional up to $4 billion, and 20 GW of awarded renewable energy projects are said to be at risk for delays and potential additional costs. The threat to India’s green energy goals are real and imminent.
The development versus nature battle is an old one. But what is unique about this one is that perhaps for the first time, both corners are fighting the green battle. And the sacrifice of the Great Indian Bustard is being asked for at the altar of the Greater Green Good and “Net Zero by 2050”. At $27 million per bird, the outcome in the eye of the cynic is a foregone conclusion. Shrill media campaigns with widespread publicity have already been launched of “green bottlenecks” in the “green future” of the Earth while approaching the Supreme Court with a review petition is being mulled.
But even as the whittling game of attrition to reduce coverage area, lowering compliance costs and speeding up implementation for companies fighting a survival battle themselves on tight timelines of project costs and projected revenues, the question that remains in the public policy domain is a moral and ethical one rather than of economics.
What responsibilities do societies and nations have towards other species that inhabit their territorial boundaries? At what point, if at all, do moral imperatives begin to trump—or even moderate—supposed economic logic? Unutilised green cess funds—from coal, electricity sale etc—with various governments now run to tens of billion dollars. In some, these have been diverted to fund non-green initiatives by perennially cash-starved governments. It is high time these public funds were utilised for green purposes as intended. Clear and timebound judicial directions for their use towards purposes such as these would help nudge reluctant administrations that remain bogged in inertia and inaction, even as amounts collected in cess pile up and remain unutilised.
For those arguing a financial cost-benefit analysis against saving these birds, they would do well to remember that leading domestic and international companies recently lost more than $4 to 6 billion in market capitalisation in a few days—in the case of one, in a few hours on a random media incident that went viral. Just to put things in perspective, the prices of solar panel modules are up by 15 percent this quarter.
Polysilicon, a key ingredient, is at prices last seen in 2012. There are however no protests against polysilicon manufacturers or the supply side disruptions caused by the pandemic. Or Ronaldo. Fluctuations of price are a part of the normal functioning of markets, as the intermediary to channelise resources into activities promising returns on investment. It is for governments to use fiscal and public policy to nudge these investments in the right direction through cross-subsidisation in the public interest. It would be unfair to bill the argument of “increase in costs” only to these hapless avians with no voice at the monetary table, leaving industry and government unaccountable. The genetic wealth and diversity that the Bustard represents, is also held by nations and societies in trust for future generations besides its inherent ethical argument.
The moral gospel of the markets and the “invisible hand” of economic self-interest has dominated public policy in the 20th century largely to the exclusion of all else. It is only now that realisation of being part of a sustainable ecosystem is beginning to emerge with companies and CEOs pledging to ESG and sustainability of their businesses and processes. However, even as Adam Smith and Milton Friedman are being revisited, it may be well to remember Oscar Wilde’s words of the cynic as “one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Markets cannot be the only intermediary, untempered by public or ethical interests and considerations.
As for the poor Great Indian Bustard facing imminent extinction, once considered for being proclaimed India’s national bird but losing out to the more glamorous peacock, it may be hoped that to paraphrase the words of Dylan Thomas, it does not “go quiet into that dark night, but rages and rages against the dying light”.
—Sandeep Hasurkar is an ex-investment banker, and author of Never Too Big to Fail: The Collapse of IL&FS and its trillion rupee maze. The views expressed in the article are his own
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)
First Published: IST