There is every reason to want to focus on sustainability and energy efficiency in India! The world's most populous democracy, home to 1.3 billion people, is also one of the fastest growing economies. However, this remarkable growth has been marred by the resulting environmental degradation and energy insecurity. In fact, a report by the World Bank finds that environmental degradation costs India $80 billion per year or 5.7 percent of its economy.
In another survey by the World Bank, India ranked 155th overall and almost last in air pollution exposure out of the 178 countries where the environment was surveyed. The survey also concluded that India's environmental quality is far below all other BRICS countries. According to the latest WHO survey, 14 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India. It’s no wonder then that environmental sustainability is considered to become the next major challenge as India surges along its growth trajectory.
Eco-innovation is critical for growth
It is commonly acknowledged that eco-innovation, i.e. incremental and groundbreaking innovations in terms of product, processes, business models, and utilization systems for sustainable development, is an integral part of the successful transformation towards a green economy. Its potentially significant benefits, competitive gains, and social and environmental benefits have been widely discussed and universally accepted. In fact, Allianz suggests that eco-innovation would be the driver of a new wave of industrialization, just as steam engines, the railways, automobiles, or more recently Information and Communication Technology drove earlier business cycles.
The question then is - why is India lagging far behind what is needed and expected in both the innovation and sustainability domains, despite enormous potential and a critical need?
The eco-innovation 'gap' in India
India’s innovation potential is grossly underutilized and has largely bypassed its younger population, especially in the field of eco-innovation. India needs to build capacities for researching, inventing, adapting, or adopting new technologies. Doing so is prudent not only from an environmental perspective but also from an economic one.
But as the situation stands, while there is an undisputed need for eco-innovation, it hasn't translated into demand yet - probably because there aren't strict standards in India today that reinforce the need for sustainability. The government on its part can take a number of different steps varying from tax-based approaches to regulatory approaches to entice investments in and encourage companies to focus on eco-innovation.
At the same time, it is also time for the business community to step up and play its role. Today, the total R&D investment in sustainable technologies in India adds up to $3 billion per annum, which is less than one-third the investment into two companies, Amazon and Flipkart. There are not enough startup companies starting out outside the realm of e-commerce, traffic aggregation, or transportation who are solving problems of air quality and energy. It's high time that innovators don't start their journey by looking at valuations and positive cash flows, but focus on solving real problems instead.
Given sufficient government support and a genuine need/problem such as sustainability, the positive cash flows will soon come.
Translating the concept into reality
In my view, there are three key steps that will help eco-innovation gain momentum in India:
- We need a much wider discourse and debate around the subject of sustainability in general. Today, with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, India's ratification of the Paris Accord, inter-governmental initiatives such as COP 21, etc., there has been a notable increase in media coverage and consequently in the public's attention to sustainability. It is imperative to keep the conversations going to fuel demand and innovation.
- In the corporate sector, sustainability needs to become part of the corporate strategy and move beyond being a PR or CSR exercise. Unfortunately, today, only the top 15-20 percent companies in India embrace sustainability as part of their corporate agenda. The role of corporates in driving this change is paramount as it tends to have a domino effect, gradually percolating into homes and the rural segment as well.
- Lastly, it is also the onus of the startup community in India, which is the fourth largest in the world. They need to focus on solving real problems and not rely only on what we usually call 'jugaad'. The difference between jugaad and innovation is a fine line, but the distinction is critical. Jugaad cannot solve systemic problems, and our innovators need to adapt. It's part of our mindset, and India needs to improve the quality of education to imbibe a culture of innovation.
For eco-innovation to make a real difference in India, bold visions need to be converted into feasible plans that help share risks and promote synergies among different stakeholders. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenge for our generation to overcome.
Gaurav Burman is the VP and Country President of 75F India.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)