The tiny Central European country of Slovenia has made a remarkable transition into one of the most sustainable countries in the world, does it have lessons for India?
Slovenia is a ridiculously pretty country. With a population of just over two million people, and with about 60% of its mountainous terrain covered by forests, Slovenia is one of the greenest countries in Europe. It is also water rich, with enough groundwater in its capital, Ljubljana, to sustain its current level of groundwater usage for at least another 450 years.
The tiny European country, that most Indians would probably have difficulty finding on the map, was the co-host of a workshop organized by the Global Diplomacy Lab, to which I had been invited. To be honest, a couple of months ago I would have been one of those Indians desperately trying to locate the country on the map. I knew of it only because of my interest in the Balkans War, but given that Slovenia had peacefully seceded from the former state of Yugoslavia, and avoided the genocidal bloodshed of the war, it remained only on the edge of my knowledge.
I was mightily intrigued. The German foreign office being a co-host of the workshop, and which houses the GDL, made sense. Germany is at the heart of Europe, but why would Slovenia be involved?
My short trip was an education in how a country, and its people, can create a politics of environmental sustainability, and carve out an entirely new space for themselves on the map. Slovenia has important lessons for India, as the climate crisis increasingly impacts our security and economy, and as we search for a new way of being.
Being water rich has not always been a blessing for Slovenia. It has a history of typhoid and other water borne diseases. Over the last half century, huge areas of its lowlands have been drained, and 40% of its reedbeds destroyed.
Bad infrastructure has meant floods and the above named spread of diseases. It has only been after its entry into the European Union that Slovenia has been able to change these things around.
While a large part of this is access to funds to restore these degraded areas, and protect its forested bits, Slovenia has gone far beyond merely asking for funds, it has created an identity that is both economically and ecologically good for it. In 2018 National Geographic Traveller cited Slovenia as the most sustainable country for tourism. This is no small thing where, despite the hammer blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for 6.5% of the GDP and employed more than 10% of the population in 2020.
This did not come out of nowhere. As the Deputy Mayor Tjaša Ficko told us, the government had decided to pursue this line of development early. This meant, among other things, reconfiguring the capital city, Ljubljana, so that its city centre has become a walk and electric vehicle space only, despite significant opposition. A huge part of the effort was in bringing the issue into the education space, so that informed citizenry could value and sustain their heritage. This has meant an interesting relationship with the government.
Two important activities by the government have borne long-term results. One was Ljubljana’s application to win the European Green Capital award. Like all European Union initiatives, this requires a great deal of documentation and evaluation, but Ljubljana fulfilled the difficult conditions, becoming the 2016 European Green Capital, the first ever capital city in Central or Eastern Europe to do so.
Tjaša Ficko said that she, and others, had expected that the award would have meant more people from Central and Eastern European countries coming to pay them a visit to learn, but was pleasantly surprised that many Western European capitals sent their teams too, to learn.
Slovenia had not just become an inspiration to countries they thought were their peers, but had become a peer to much richer countries.
This was the same year that Slovenia made access to water a fundamental right for all citizens, which limited its commercialisation.
And yet this intervention was deeper than just a government initiative. A surprising referendum in 2019 would show how much these changes were “owned” by the public, made a part of their character.
In March 2019 the Slovenian parliament approved amendments to Slovenia’s water laws. Civil society groups feared that this was done by the government led by Janez Jansa – the only world leader, incidentally, to congratulate Donald Trump on his “re-election” after the 2020 US elections – to commercialise properties near water bodies. They launched a movement for a referendum, which requires 50,000 signatures (about 2.5% of the population), and got it. When the referendum happened, 46.15% of the people voted, the highest turnout since 2007, and nearly 90% rejected the amendments.
The Slovenian Constitution requires at least 20% of its voters to accept a referendum like this. In this case it was nearly twice that amount. Water security has become a perfect trifecta for Slovenia. It allowed it to advertise itself as an attractive destination, raising its revenues; it also allowed it to compete on an equal footing with countries with far greater power and resources; and lastly, it allowed a deepening of democracy that made its citizens participants in its progress, not reduced to mere subjects. It is no wonder that it continues to showcase its green credentials, and its success as a leader on water issues.
The lessons for India from this example are not immediately obvious, but if you ask a few basic questions they come into sharp focus.
These are: can the green economy be economically beneficial? Can India be an example, not just in its neighbourhood or to other developing countries, but to richer ones? And maybe the most important question of them all, who is in charge of India’s green spaces, or its green transition? Is it a space for deepening democracy, or undermining it?
The first question is easily answered with a negative example. Bengaluru, arguably India’s smartest city, with huge human capital, and a robust civil society network, was recently engulfed by floods. The losses in revenue and damages are still to be calculated, but are likely to be massive. A greener Bengaluru, one that had not steadily destroyed its green spaces and wetlands, would have suffered far less damage, even if the rainfall was far greater than average. Mismanaged urbanisation and degraded wetlands are hardly rare, and are, arguably central to India’s current mode of development. The thing is that they do not have to be. That was Slovenia’s mode of development, at great ecological, economic and human cost until a couple of decades ago. It was costly – and Slovenia was deeply helped by EU funds – to turn this around, but instead of paying for water catastrophes, Slovenia now profits off of a reputation of good water management.
The key difference is scale, and complexity. India is huge, and hugely diverse. Managing a transition even partially as successful as Slovenia’s would require enormous resources as well as – and this is the most important – restructuring how we govern water. One of the participants at the Slovenia conference was a professor of hydrology, who had a lovely phrase: “Water flows through government”. This is something we know, but do not understand. Every single major ministry is responsible for the management and allocation of water – the key resource impacted by the climate crisis. Unless we restructure our governance structure to deal with this, we will always be playing catch up, unprepared for the next disaster. Due to where India stands in the process of infrastructure development and urbanisation, we have the freedom to design new structures in a way that many already developed countries do not. Their infrastructure has to be adapted and modified – ours can be invented, innovated.
India has the possibility of being the greatest innovation lab in the world, in shaping how we govern water in the climate crisis. We have the power of being an example to the world, but we persist in aping bad examples instead.
The last question, though, is where the biggest challenge is. In her fantastic book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshona Zuboff identifies three questions for managing processes: Who knows? Who decides? And who decides who decides?
In Slovenia, the investing in educating citizens on environmental issues created a citizenry able to make and shape decisions about its future. Both the government and organised citizen groups were able to decide. Lastly, the people who decided who could actually decide were an active public.
This is important because, as details of the loss of green and blue spaces in Bengaluru came out after the catastrophic flooding it was clear that most people did not know. They had not been educated, or informed. By definition, they were from the decisions that upended their lives. In theory, they could have decided who decides, and had done so, but as the list of news stories in this newsletter attests, that decision has been rendered meaningless when the laws passed by a democratically elected government are bypassed with government complicity.
In a deep investigation, Tapasya Tofuss recounts how democracy has been eroded when the Union Minister of Forests, Environment, and Climate Change deliberately obfuscates what is happening, effectively lying to the public.
Maybe the most dangerous argument is that people do not have the capability to decide, or decide who decides. The knowledge to make the decisions to adapt to the climate crisis are often technologically heavy – involving Geographic Information System (GIS) and other data systems. Some would argue that only those technically trained in such systems and designs – a class of deciders – should be involved.
This goes against the whole experience of India. Making India food secure involved huge technological shifts, the creation of an affordable space programme, and the training of millions of farmers, especially during the Green Revolution. This made India secure, a food exporter, and admired for its technological innovation. The path forward – including dealing with the downsides of the Green Revolution – should aspire for similar achievements for India and Indians. It cannot be left to a small technologically elite coterie to do so. The only way to do so, as Slovenia has shown in its remarkable journey, is to make the environment an issue informed by, and responsive to, the public.
Due to the length of this article, we are not featuring an interview in this newsletter.
Parliamentary panel endorses controversial changes in biodiversity law overlooking concerns: When the Union Government proposed amendments to the Biological Diversity Act (2002) in December 2021, it was criticised for opening up the country’s biodiversity resources to increased exploitation. The Bill was then referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for further deliberation. However, the JPC that has submitted its report recently, has agreed to most of the controversial provisions that had earlier received strong opposition from state diversity boards and civil society – including exemption of codifying knowledge and cultivation of medicinal plants and decriminalising the infringement of any section of the law.
How Vedanta Hopped, Skipped and Jumped Over Pollution Laws in Goa: Roughly 25 km away from Panaji (Goa’s capital), Vedanta operates two pig-iron manufacturing plants in the twin villages of Amona and Navelim. Towering blast furnaces in the plants fire throughout the day to break down iron ore into crude iron or pig iron, which gets refined into iron. The Union environment ministry cleared Vedanta’s substantive expansion plans for these plants earlier this year–despite an adverse environmental audit, with the ministry’s own inspection report having confirmed the hazardous nature of these plants’ graphite emissions (already found to be beyond permissible limits by the Goa pollution control board). There is documented evidence showing the ministry has been ignoring Vedanta’s violations and red flags here for over a decade. Graphite particles in the pollutants that escape Vedanta’s plants are known to be harmful to people breathing the air in the plants’ vicinity. Graphite is an allotrope of carbon and can irritate the skin and eyes, cause pulmonary diseases and lead to organ damage.
Is India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) working? New CSE analysis says NCAP and non-NCAP cities are showing similar trends in PM2.5 levels. Both NCAP and non-NCAP cities need substantial reduction in PM2.5 levels to meet the national ambient air quality standards in all climatic zones. Even though the NCAP programme has targets for both PM2.5 and PM10 reduction by 2024, due to inadequate PM2.5 monitoring, the Central Pollution Control Board considers only PM10 for the first air quality performance assessment for fund disbursement. This makes dust control the primary focus of clean air action and diverts attention and resources from combustion sources, including industry, vehicles and waste burning. Meanwhile, state action plans under NCAP need to break the silos between NCAP and non-NCAP cities for region-wide air quality improvement and reduce emissions from industry, vehicles, waste, and solid fuels in households across all regions. Further, there is a need for strong data quality control and standardised protocol for reliable and credible assessment of air quality.
Particulate Matter Can Contribute to Increase in Anaemia Among Women of Reproductive Age in India: India is amongst the countries having the highest prevalence (about 53%) of anaemia in women of reproductive age (15-49 years). The prevalence of anaemia may increase with long-term exposure to Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, a type of air pollutant. A recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability showed that for an increase of 10 µg m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) of PM 2.5, the prevalence of anaemia increases by 7.23%. The study also says that among the PM species, sulfate and black carbons are usually more associated with anaemia in comparison to dust and organic carbon.
CSE criticises environment ministry’s new notification on emission norms for coal-based power plants: The environment ministry’s latest amendment to the 2015 notification on emission norms for coal-based thermal power plants, notified on September 5, has – once again – given another two years’ extension to meet the standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2). Typically, background levels of sulphur dioxide in the ambient air of healthy environments are below 2 g/m3. Its presence over 20 g/m3 (24-hour mean) or 500 g/m3 (10-minute mean) can have severely deleterious effects on health. Recent research has revealed that even a slight increase in sulphur dioxide concentrations in the ambient air affects sensitive groups such as babies, pregnant women and people suffering from asthma or chronic lung diseases. In addition, the pollutant gets accumulated in the air and also converts to secondary particulate matter. CSE analysis shows that till date, only 4 per cent of India’s coal power capacity has installed equipment to control SO2 emissions and another 41 per cent has identified the vendors for supply of the equipment. The remaining 55 per cent of the capacity has not taken any concrete steps to meet the norms even after seven years since the norms were first notified in December 2015.”
Unpacking the presence of microplastics in the Bay of Bengal: A recent study published in ScienceDirect that has traced the potential route of microplastics from Indian rivers to the sea finds that microplastics in the Bay of Bengal are mainly pumped in by rivers draining into it from India’s east coast, including from wetlands of international importance such as the Chilika lake. Microplastics are minuscule plastic pieces, less than five millimeters long (smaller than a grain of rice), which can be harmful to the ocean and aquatic life. In 2021, scientists found that microplastics are being shed into the atmosphere, mainly from roads, the ocean, and agricultural practices. Microplastics end up spiraling around the globe like the biogeochemical cycles of water or nitrogen. The scrutiny on the impacts of microplastics on human health is only recent; researchers documented the presence of microplastics inside the human body in two separate papers in 2022.
Why Fisherfolk Are Protesting Against Adani’s Vizhinjam Port in Kerala : Protests against the Adani Group’s upcoming Rs 7,500 crore mega trans-shipment container terminal project at Vizhinjam Port near Thiruvananthapuram are continuing with fisherfolk carrying on their day and night sit-in at the entrance of the Port. One of the main concerns that local communities as well as activists and scientists have raised for some time is the coastal erosion since work on the port began in 2015-16. Construction of breakwaters has already altered the direction of sea currents, causing coastal erosion across the entire coast of the project area. Sea erosion has already led to the loss of Thiruvananthapuram’s famed Shanghumukham beach entirely and of the homes of around 600 people from local fishing villages who are now living in relief camps. The fisherfolk lost access to beaches and their livelihoods are at risk as the more turbulent sea makes it difficult for them to manoeuvre their craft around.
How cities can cope with climate change-induced floods: Devastating urban floods, as seen in Bengaluru, north-eastern India and Pakistan in the 2022 monsoon season, will become more common as the world becomes warmer and the atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing the possibility of extreme rainfall events. Apart from meteorological reasons, the lack of climate-adaptive infrastructure has compounded the intensity of the flooding and this needs to be addressed. “Climate change in cities will lead to increased rates of heavy precipitation, accelerated sea-level rise, exacerbated acute and chronic coastal flooding, drought, higher-than-average annual temperatures and extreme heat events,” the United in Science Report released on September 13, 2022, while pointing out that these, in turn, will exacerbate socioeconomic challenges and inequalities.
With NCR Draft Plan 2041, the sensitive Aravalis remain vulnerable: The National Capital Region (NCR) Draft Regional Plan 2041 is proposed as the next iteration of the NCR Regional Plan 2021, which has been in force since 2005. The draft plan is positioned as a long-term plan for the development of the region – comprising the national capital Delhi and certain districts of the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – with citizen centric infrastructure aims to be in tune with the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Rolled out by National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB), the draft has faced flak from the environmental community for being regressive and threatening air quality, groundwater recharge, forest cover and wildlife habitat across the 25 districts of the region. While the plan promises to contour the region’s development while balancing ecology, it has been touted as a blow to the conservation of the Aravali hill range that has been fighting for survival for decades.