Interview/ Bhupender Yadav, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, and labour and employment
How do you assess the past nine years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi? What has been the transformation in the country’s polity?
When Narendra Modi took over as prime minister, India was stuck in policy paralysis and corruption. Appeasement politics prevented inclusive development.
The most significant thing that has happened in the past nine years is that Modi has set India firmly on course for realising Amrit Kaal. India is today making great strides in all spheres of development, ensuring ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’. We are now the world’s fifth-largest economy, and the fastest growing major economy. The government is working with consistency and continuity to ensure ease of doing business and ease of living.
Regarding the transformation that has happened, I see a shift in approach. From ‘how will this be done’ we have moved to ‘how will it not be done’. The nation of 130 crore people is working with a ‘can do’ approach. Most significantly, India is taking pride in following Indian growth models. Culturally, we have ushered in a process of ‘returning to the roots’. India no longer sees itself as a democracy cast in the model of the west. Modi has instilled confidence in the nation to believe that India is the cradle of democracy.
This is important for any nation state to grow. ‘Make in India’, ‘Vocal for Local’ and ‘Local for Global’ are born out of this belief in Indianness. There is unforeseen inclusivity and unprecedented energy in Indians to work towards the realisation of Amrit Kaal. That has happened because Modi has addressed people and their concerns not as constituents of sectarian groups but as part of the whole, which is India.
The country has witnessed new milestones in the field of environment. What according to you are the major achievements?
Today, environment conservation is the front and centre of all policy formulations in India. Modi has outlined that, in India, environment conservation and development are not at cross-purposes, but work side by side. If you look at the 2023-24 budget, the ‘Saptarishi’, or seven priority areas, include green growth.
India’s aggressive policies towards rapid deployment of renewables and robust framework for energy efficiency programmes have shown considerable impact. India has been ranked among top five countries in the world, and the best among G20 countries, based on its climate change performance.
When it comes to India’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2070, we are walking the talk. At COP26, Modi declared Panchamrit, a five-fold strategy to achieve this feat. These five points include:
#India will get its non-fossil energy capacity to 500GW by 2030
#India will meet 50 per cent of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030
#India will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes from now onwards till 2030
#By 2030, India will reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by less than 45 per cent
#So, by the year 2070, India will achieve the net-zero target
In August 2022, India became one of the few countries to communicate its updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. India now stands committed to reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 per cent by 2030.
From being a power deficit nation at the time of independence, the efforts to make India energy-independent gained momentum in 2014. Today, we are a power surplus nation with a total installed electricity capacity of over 4,00,000MW. Keeping in mind the sustainable development goals, India’s power generation mix is rapidly shifting towards a more significant share of renewable energy. India has already installed 172.45GW of renewable energy, and is the only country among G20 nations that is progressing rapidly to meet its climate goals. In the past nine years, India’s installed renewable energy capacity has increased by two and a half times, and the solar energy capacity has increased by 25 times. India is thus likely to achieve its second NDC well ahead of schedule. The 2023-24 Union budget has also made an allocation of Rs19,700 crore to the National Green Hydrogen Mission as a step towards a decarbonisation pathway.
India’s forest cover has grown significantly. The total forest and tree cover is 80.9 million hectares, which is 24.62 per cent of the country’s geographical area. As compared to the assessment in 2019, there has been an increase of 2,261sq.km in the total forest and tree cover.
India is also on course to protect at least 30 per cent of biodiversity-rich areas by 2030, which is a target set under the global biodiversity framework agreed upon at the UN Biodiversity Summit. The population of lions, tigers, leopards and elephants has also grown.
India is working on all fronts to ensure that environment is not just protected but also enriched.
India has been leading the conversation globally as a voice of developing countries on climate change. What has been achieved so far?
The world is facing the challenge of climate change as a whole. There is no part of the world that can claim to be immune from the impact of the climate crisis. And therefore, everyone has to work together to fight the crisis. But what cannot be forgotten is that the global north has developed at the cost of the global south. Their mindless consumerist approach and industrialisation are responsible for the crisis we are facing.
Let me put this in numbers for a clearer understanding. While the developed nations are responsible for 59 per cent of global CO2 emissions, India, with 17 per cent of the world population, contributed just 4 per cent to the cumulative global emissions from 1850 to 2019. The entire African continent is responsible for only about 3 per cent of the emissions.
Yet the countries that had little to no contribution are facing the worst vagaries of climate crisis. This imperils the development needs of populations in countries that constitute the global south. India has thus maintained that there should be climate justice and equity when it comes to deciding climate action. At every global forum, India has maintained [the concept of] ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (CBD-RC), highlighting the different capabilities and differing responsibilities of individual countries in addressing climate change.
India believes in the principle that poverty anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere and, therefore, ‘no one should be left behind’ as we move to a sustainable world. Our G20 presidency is based on the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—One Earth, One Family, One Future. We are urging the world to work together in finding solutions.
Our efforts are bearing fruits. CBDR-RC is an accepted principle in determining climate action. A breakthrough agreement was reached at COP27 to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. This was the cause that India championed and worked for.
In September 2019, Modi launched the climate and disaster resilience initiative (CDRI) with the objective of promoting disaster-resilient infrastructure at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. As the voice of the global south, India is mindful of the fact that the developing and underdeveloped world is most vulnerable to climate disasters and through CDRI, India has taken the lead in ensuring that the vagaries of climate change are battled together.
In November 2021, India launched the Infrastructure for the Resilient Island States initiative for developing infrastructure of small island nations. The initiative was launched since India believes small island developing states are most threatened with climate change and calamities due to climate change can become devastating for them. It isn’t only a challenge for their lives but also for their economy.
So, India is not just raising the points that concern the global south at global forums, but also forming smaller groups for climate action, technology transfer and knowledge sharing.
There is debate over development and environment. You have talked about ‘climate justice’ regarding the use of coal and fossil fuel. How is the balance being maintained?
As I have said earlier, India does not see development and environmental conservation as antagonistic. India reserves its right to develop and ensure an end to poverty, which is one of the sustainable development goals.
We do not need the west to decide our development model when their own model has caused today’s crisis. Having said that, I want to reiterate that India is a responsible global partner and has been doing more than its fair share for the cause of sustainable development.
At COP27, India emphasised that no sector or fuel source or gas should be singled out for action. India maintains that the world must work towards ‘phase down of all fuels’.
In the spirit of the Paris Agreement, countries will do what is suitable as per their national circumstances. India maintains that just transition means transition to a low-carbon development strategy over time. The time scale has to factor in food and energy security, and growth and employment, leaving no one behind.
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It has been more than six months since cheetahs were reintroduced in India. How has been the experience so far? Are we ready to take more cheetahs in?
India believes historical wrongs done to environment can be corrected. When the world talks of the ‘development vs environment’ paradigm, it mainly thinks of humans. But in India, we believe in oneness with nature, and so we believe all life forms must be protected, preserved and allowed to propagate. Project Cheetah is born out of the same thought.
Project Cheetah is the world’s first intercontinental large wild carnivore translocation project. We are monitoring the project closely and based on our learnings, future decisions will be taken.
There is opposition to genetically modified crops from many stakeholders and groups. What is your stance?
The opposition to GM crops is not based on scientific evidence, but on unfounded fears and misunderstandings. GM crops can give higher yields than conventional crops, which can help feed the growing global population.
GM crops can be engineered to be resistant to certain insects, which can reduce the need for chemical insecticides. This can benefit the environment by reducing the amount of harmful chemicals that are released into the ecosystem. The crops can be engineered to have increased levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamin A or iron. This can help address nutritional deficiencies in populations that rely heavily on a particular crop. They can be engineered to have longer shelf lives, which can reduce food waste and improve food security. They can be engineered to be more drought-resistant, which can help conserve water resources.
GM crops have undergone rigorous biosafety assessments over the years. One important thing is to note that the use of GM crops is not mandatory; farmers who do not wish to use GM seeds can continue to use traditional varieties.
We urge all stakeholders to consider the scientific evidence and benefits of GM crops before opposing its release in India. GM technology has the potential to revolutionise our agriculture sector, increase food security, and reduce our environmental footprint. We must embrace innovation and progress if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
During the pandemic, migrant workers were the worst hit. The past few years have been tough for them. What has been done for their welfare?
The Modi government places a very high degree of importance on our shramjeevis, our nation-builders. Several steps have been taken in the recent past to ensure social welfare measures for our workers to secure not just their present but also their future. Close to 29 crore workers from the unorganised sector, which employs 90 per cent of the workforce, have been registered on the eShram portal. This will ensure that workers get social security cover and the benefits of welfare schemes.
The new version of the portal also has data-sharing and data analytics capabilities. The data-sharing portal will allow sharing of eShram beneficiaries’ data with states and Union territories for targeted implementation of schemes. Recently, the labour and employment ministry also initiated an exercise to map data related to different schemes with eShram data to identify the eShram registrants who have not yet received the benefits of these schemes. This data is also being shared with states and Union territories.
The government is working on expanding the social security coverage for unorganised workers, and [directing] states to make rules for labour codes. This will help strengthen the country’s labour market.
Additionally, India has launched the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maandhan Yojana, which is meant for old-age protection and social security of unorganised workers. About 3.2 million street vendors have been provided collateral-free loans to help them resume their businesses after the Covid lockdown.
One of the key issues facing the world economy today is that of skill gaps. With technological advancements and artificial intelligence becoming an important aspect of life, skilling of workers is of prime importance. Skill mapping is crucial to our efforts to bridge the skill gap. Towards that end, Skill India or the National Skills Development Mission of India, was launched by Modi in 2015.
Critics often cite job creation as a shortcoming. Your views.
Employment generation has been a top priority for the Modi government. Major schemes being implemented include the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme, the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana, the Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission and the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana.
Flagship programmes such as Make in India, Start-up India, Digital India, Smart City Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Housing for All, and Infrastructure Development and Industrial Corridors are also geared towards generating employment opportunities.
In order to enhance India’s manufacturing capabilities and exports, the 2021-22 Union budget announced an outlay of Rs1.97 lakh crore for production-linked incentive (PLI) schemes in 14 key sectors of manufacturing. With the announcement of PLI schemes, significant creation of skills, employment, economic growth and exports is expected over the next five years.
Further, the 2023-24 budget proposed to increase capital investment outlay steeply for the third year in a row—by 33 per cent to Rs10 lakh crore, which would be 3.3 per cent of the GDP. This substantial increase is central to the government’s efforts to enhance growth potential and job creation.
Employment data released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation also reflects the outcome of job-creation measures taken by the government. The Periodic Labour Force Survey Report 2021-22 reveals that India’s worker-population ratio increased to 52.9 per cent as compared to 46.8 per cent in 2017-18, indicating steady increase in employment over the years. On the other hand, the unemployment rate for persons aged 15 years and above has declined to 4.1 per cent during 2021-22, from 6.0 per cent during the year 2017-18. The PLFS data itself is clear evidence of improvement.
The country is nearing the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The opposition is trying put up a united fight.
Opposition unity is a myth. What is this unity about? Apart from opposing the prime minister, what is the one issue that this opposition is united over? We saw these people organise lunch, dinner rallies and what not before 2019 as well. And then they went back to fighting each other.
Therefore, I don’t take this talk of opposition unity seriously. They have neither a cause nor a face to lead the group. The only common thing is that all factions of this ‘united front’ have prime ministerial ambitions. Well, you can’t stop people from dreaming.
The BJP is working with consistency and continuity towards governance of saturation. We are working hard and have a strong connect with the people. The people of India have unwavering faith in Modi’s leadership. The BJP, under his leadership, will return to power with an even bigger mandate than 2019.
In your book on the rise of the BJP, you have charted out the party’s fascinating journey to the top. What are the challenges ahead, and what can other parties learn from the BJP?
We are on a mission to ensure that the benefits of all government schemes reach all intended beneficiaries, and that people in India live meaningful lives of dignity.
My book talks about how the BJP, driven solely by the ideology of cultural nationalism and through the agency of a disciplined cadre, has been able to win the trust of the people. Power in the BJP has always been a means to serve, and that is the reason we received a pro-incumbency vote in 2019.
Look at other parties, and you see that they use power to make money and to ensure the welfare of their families. What they want to learn or not learn from the BJP is up to them.