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Meet Pavan Sukhdev

Meet Pavan Sukhdev

Pavan Sukhdev in his tree house in Australia with a visitor – an Australian King Parrot. Photo: Ashima Sukhdev.

A banker by day and an environmentalist by night, he defies all stereotyping. A climate change expert, he is a Founder-Director of the ‘Green Accounting for Indian States Project,’ which is gaining recognition for its pioneering work on Green Accounting for India. He is also the Chairman of the Conservation Action Trust (CAT), an NGO that wants to put forest protection centre stage to ensure that looking after our essential ‘Natural Infrastructure’ becomes a national development priority. He heads Deutsche Bank’s Global Markets business in India and its global division’s leading-edge offshoring hub in Mumbai. A respected finance professional who believes that money does grow on trees, a banker who believes our true wealth is found in our outside vaults, Bittu Sahgal unravels the man and the ideals behind this multi-faceted personality.

It hardly seems possible, but in addition to global banking and green accounting in India, you have ‘spare’ time to protect Australian rainforests?

Yes, I am doing that, in a very small way. Time is an amazing thing; it can expand to fit your priorities. The key is to know your priorities. My wife and I work with local partners to manage a relatively tiny model rainforest restoration and eco-tourism project in Tarzali, North Queensland, Australia. When I saw Lumholz tree kangaroos come back and colonise our little rainforest haven, just a couple of years after we replanted local tree species, I realised that if nature is given half a chance, it actually restores itself.

You write a lot too?

Not as much as I want to. Basically, I write popular articles to demystify the apparently complicated issues surrounding national wealth management. I try to point out why a nation’s progress should be measured through the well-being of its people, including its natural capital base. Economists and planners prefer using the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) gauge but it does not measure wealth – it just measures production. I also attempt to explain how climate change is going to force the nations of the world to reinvent economics and why we should anticipate and plan ahead, rather than be caught napping.

What becomes of centuries of economic ‘wisdom’ in an age of climate change?

If classical economics – what I call Bretton-Woods economics – manages to hold sway for even another 15 or 20 years, then large numbers of species and vast ecosystems will die. But it may not come to this. There is a serious movement afoot right now to change this status quo. The European Union held a large conference in Brussels recently, aptly named ‘Beyond GDP’ – a fantastic outcome was that nobody attending it questioned the need for change, they only discussed what to change, in what order and at what pace. India should be leading this charge. But we will need leaders.

But how would even true leaders convince the die-hard developers who have such a firm grip on our lives and our future? 

Well, for one thing, by showing simple satellite images to demonstrate the chronology of forest loss. We cannot claim to be getting wealthier as a nation if our natural asset base is shrinking. By comparison, this would be the equivalent of claiming to be getting richer by going on a spending spree, thus exhausting your financial capital base. You buy more ‘things’ but your capacity to continue to do so steadily falls.

So seen in this light, where are we in India?

We are, figuratively speaking, selling our family silver – the ecosystems that we will need to survive over the next several decades. We are placing our financial, social and ecological security at grievous risk.

And wildlife conservation? Where does this fit into the larger scheme of things?

Well, it’s certainly taking a back seat now, and will in the near future. Wildlife defenders fought a tough battle, but they have lost this round. We are bound to see species take a hit as a result of the combined impact of the new industrial, financial and forest policies that are being implemented in India today. But in the end, it is wildlife conservation that will be recognised as ‘the’ strategy to combat the most dangerous cause of climate change – ecosystem loss. This is because elephant, tiger, rhino and dugong habitats are the ‘factories’ that can sequester and store carbon, thus, keeping the planet safe from its overheated fate.

Take us back a bit. What was Pavan Sukhdev’s launch pad?

Not very dramatic. Born in New Delhi, studied in Delhi, Geneva and England. Got an open scholarship to Oxford University for a Physics degree in 1981, then switched tracks to “get a good job” (scientists were not the best-paid professionals then) as a banker.

You compress a lot into a tight sentence! Your parents?

My father was an Indian Police Service officer from whom I learnt that “Good work is its own reward.” My mother was the archetypal loving, driving, Indian mother: “Study hard. Do well.”

And your wildlife influence? Where did that come from?

Childhood walks and hikes around Simla, Mussoorie and Nainital every summer, and then a life-changing holiday in Kaziranga with my newly-wed wife, Vinati, in 1986.

What made it life-changing?

The ‘larger than life-ness’ of Kaziranga. It placed things in perspective. A mock-charge by an elephant matriarch defending her herd taught me respect. The Brahmaputra river, its power and benevolence, injected appreciation for what nature does for us. Once you allow the wisdom and patience of the natural world to influence you, your life changes. My life changed.

And then?

For a while I was totally lost in the Financial Markets of Mumbai and London... until my elder daughter Mahima forced me to wake up and feel nature again... Little eagle-eyes (Mahima) and I became a birdwatching team, spotting and photographing birds everywhere with my clunky Nikon and 500-mm. lens. Every near and far trip to Mumbai’s open spaces, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Powai, Gorai, Kashid, Bharatpur and Goa saw my understanding and respect for nature grow.

And when did the penny drop about the economic value of ecosystems?

When a friend asked: “You’re a banker and all that, so tell me, why are some things worth money and other things not?” I understood her question, but had no answer! That bothered me, so I started off on a quest for an answer and discovered the classic: Blueprint for a Green Economy by Professor David Pearce. He opened my mind to the concept of ‘Economics as if Nature Mattered’. I saw, almost instantly, that nature’s contribution to the economy was huge, but that India (and most other nations) never accounted for it, and that GDP growth did not translate into better health, wealth, education, or even that favourite pastime of all economists and politicians – poverty reduction.

Pavan Sukhdev addressing a public meeting on climate change, organised by Sanctuary in Mumbai. Photo: Sanctuary Photo Library.

So economics and environmental protection are destined to be at odds with each other?

Yes... if we persist in viewing economic growth as an end unto itself. Let’s say India reaches its Holy Grail 10 per cent GDP target, like China, but destroys itself in the process because it neither factored in sustainability, nor equity. What good would that be?

And how did you tackle this ‘strange, new idea’?

Well, as a young banker, I was taught that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. So I decided as a first step to measure sustainability for India. I always knew this would be an uphill task, that funds would be hard to come by, and that, in the end, the government might not even listen. But I had found my purpose and, just as Gandhiji had predicted, the means followed.

You mean money?

Money was not the key. People were the key. In London in 2003, I met my inspiration and ‘guru’, Professor David Pearce, who helped me formulate the plan. The means really follow! Very soon, I was joined by three like-minded friends – Professor Rajiv Sinha (of Arizona State University, USA), Sanjeev Sanyal (a Senior Economist in Singapore) and P. Yesuthasen (a Risk Management consultant in Chennai), and together we launched our charity, the Green Indian States Trust (GIST), and its ‘Green Accounting for Indian States Project (GAISP)’ in 2004. Dr. Haripriya Gundimeda and Dr. Pushpam Kumar, both outstanding young environmental economists, became our volunteer lead authors. We then hired young and enthusiastic researchers and ploughed through mountains of official data, converting this into GDP adjustments for ‘Natural Capital’ being destroyed (forest losses, declining water quality, degraded agricultural land, etc.) and ‘Human Capital’ being created (education at various levels). This data – entirely from existing government files – was turned into the monographs.

Clearly, you have not been ignored because the monographs have seen you being invited to speak at virtually every climate change forum now.

Not every forum, but yes, some very satisfying communications did result, including sharing platforms with Lord Nicholas Stern and Achim Steiner (Executive Director, UNEP, earlier Director-General of IUCN). Leading economists such as Bob Costanza, Joan-Martinez Alier and Karl-Goran Maler have praised our work.  GIST calculations were worked down to the state level, because an “India adjustment” would have been everyone’s problem, and therefore, no one’s!

The Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee used some of your valuations to determine the monetary value of forests that were to be parcelled off to a project, right?

Yes, I understand they did. The amount, which used to be paid per hectare (five lakh to nine lakh rupees) was apparently being challenged, but our work proved that their values were, in fact, close to the minimum or “floor values” from our project, which averaged around eight lakh rupees per hectare, and could not, therefore, be lowered. Thanks to Supreme Court action, and by charging these amounts, the huge CAMPA funds were created, which, we hope, will be used to reverse the deforestation cycle and, thus, enable India to claim carbon and conservation credits from the industrial nations across the world, which are mainly responsible for the climate crisis in whose grip we find ourselves today.

Who, in your view, are the individuals driving the fight to tackle climate change today? What is their primary message to us?

There are far too many to name, but Lord Nicholas Stern, Al Gore, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri are surely among them. Each of them has done humanity and the Earth a big favour by bringing the risks of climate change to global attention. Dr. Pachauri through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Al Gore through his sustained passion and advocacy since 1980 and his award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and Lord Stern through his well-argued and presented report on the economics of climate change. It would be most unfortunate if we ignored the lessons they are trying to teach us on how to manage the Earth’s resources in a way that doesn’t destroy the Earth’s ability to sustain life, including human life. Global warming is human-induced and it is the biggest problem, but it can be fixed, they say, if we act now.

If this valuation were added to the cost of megaprojects that take such a high toll on natural ecosystems today, at least some of the deforestation (exemplified by this image taken just outside the Nameri Tiger Reserve,) which accounts for over 25 per cent of all our greenhouse gases, might be arrested. Photo: Samsul Huda Patgiri.

And where does President Bush fit into this?

President Bush? He and his friends in the oil industry, including Cheney and Rumsfeld have set us back eight years. The biosphere has suffered because they played a role in suppressing and obfuscating climate change science and, in the process, encouraging a virtual orgy of global oil profligacy. Bush puts out a token $1 billion per annum for new energy investment grants, while allocating $75 billion per annum for the Iraq war. But Bush is not going to be around any longer, so we should just get on with the job at hand now.

Let’s move to India. The Forest Rights Act? Why do you say it will help neither tribals, nor wildlife?

For 60 years since Independence, 15 governments of India have tried unsuccessfully to solve the problem of tribal poverty. But because they have never understood the problem, they have not been able to summon the vision for a solution. The key issue of tribal poverty will only be understood when we realise that despite being ‘custodians of forests’, tribals have never benefitted from the real value of forests. They have never been paid to ensure the protection and conservation of forests. On the contrary, in the past few decades, they have always had to pay their way through – either by negotiating with forest guards or Naxalites for the resources they need to survive! None of this will change with the Forest Rights Act because they are destined to be a medium through which forest land will be converted to commercial land! And when this is done, they will be landless and the cycle starts again.

Would you care to elucidate? Why are you so sure this is what will happen?

Let me explain. First of all, the real value of forest land is not land, but the forest itself. But the tribal populations of India have no way of capitalising on the land granted to them by the Forest Rights Act without selling their land holdings, or illegally offering them on lease to others who will be able to earn money from capitalised land values.

Is this something that our Prime Minister, responsible for ushering in the Forest Rights Act, might understand?

The richness of our sustaining forest ecosystems is neither recognised nor reflected by governments, nor the representatives of the people who ultimately constitute our government. When our Prime Minister talks about nine per cent Gross Domestic Product growth, for instance, he merely refers to the increase in the production of goods and services, but not the economically vital and enabling services of forests, the protection of which ostensibly is the justification for transferring vast forest lands to millions.

I agree that GDP is an inexact gauge. But how do we explain this to those who are poised to deal forest India a coup de grâce?

By repeating it ad nauseum at every possible opportunity, in every possible forum, until it sinks in. India’s GDP simply does not measure the value of forests to the economy, neither the rural nor the urban economy. It does not measure the flood-prevention service of forests; nor the drought-control service; nor the soil-conservation service. I could go on and on. Does it measure the soil-enrichment and nutrient-recycling service, the water-storage and regulation service, the climate-regulation service, or the true value of non-timber forest produce to the tribal poor? The answer to all these questions is a big NO!

The ecosystem services of forests are undervalued, often not valued at all, by economists. According to Sukhdev, the true worth of forests such as Periyarcould exceed Rs. 20 lakhs per hectare (average Rs. 8 lakhs). Photo: Sali Palode.

In which case, asking the government to take the value of our ecosystems and biodiversity into account becomes a truly naive hope.

Regrettably, yes. Which is why this immense value is being quietly destroyed each day by commercial interests and encroachers, and all this by official policy! It’s a state of environmental anarchy where legal or illegal, personal or public short-term profit is placed on a higher pedestal than long-term survival and sustainability. Until this is understood and tackled, none of the environmental campaigns, court cases and disagreement have any hope of resolution.

The forests are dying. The government seeks to gift away the miniscule quantity that remains. Climate change is upon us and the poor need the forests to stay alive if they are to have any chance of staying alive. Yet the forests are being squandered. So where do we go from here?

We must unite all forces – social activists and wildlife defenders – who understand how vital it is that forests are not lost. We must somehow agree that the loss of forests benefits no one, except exploiters in search of short term political and financial gains.

And as always, the tribal people remain pawns, mute witness to all this wrangling that again leaves them adrift without a paddle?

There are directions in which we can go that could turn traditional tribal communities, I mean genuine forest-dwelling tribal communities into the saviours of the forests, and indeed the planet. But for this to happen they need to be incentivised to conserve ecosystems, not become conduits for their ‘conversion’, which is just a polite term for destruction.

Your last word on the Forest Rights Act?

An organised nationwide land-grab that will use tribals as an excuse to privatise and capitalise land holdings in the name of equity and redressing past injustices.

To know more about the initiatives described above, or to be a part of them, log on to: www.gistindia.org, www.cat.org.in or www.india-environment-trust.org.uk

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVIII No. 1, February 2008.


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