It is 20 years ago last month that "Our Common Future", the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, better known after its lead author, the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, was published. Without resorting to hype of any kind, it would be true to state that this was a landmark event because it forged an umbilical link between environment and development for the very first time. Previously, the two had been seen as irreconcilably opposed to each other.

In the 1970s, the Club of Rome, consisting of European experts, pointed in rather doomsday terms to the danger of the earth's resources being depleted beyond its ability to regenerate them. These were neo-Malthusians, who saw population growth - mainly in developing countries - outstripping the capacity of the earth to produce resources for human consumption.

In 1972, Indira Gandhi was one of only two Prime Ministers who attended the first United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm, along with the host Olof Palme. Unfortunately, she resorted to some populist rhetoric, which has singly done the cause of protecting the environment a grave disservice, one from which it took at least of couple of decades to recover. She said that pollution was the worst form of poverty - implying that it was all very well for industrial countries to be concerned about the environment because they had enough to feed their bellies. Developing countries, by contrast, had to attend to the basic needs of their societies and could not afford to be concerned primarily about the environment.

The Earth Summit was, at the time, the biggest conclave of heads of state the world had ever witnessed, in sharp contrast to the two who attended the Stockholm conference 20 years earlier.

 •  An undemocratic environment

This sounded radical enough and was parroted for years to come by heads of developing countries that resisted attempts by the UN and other multilateral organisations to bring them into line on global environmental treaties. Typical of such resistance was the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who - shortly before the path-breaking Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - called for all countries, irrespective of whether they were developed or not, to maintain 30 per cent of their area as green cover. In calling for this, he sought to turn the tables on industrial nations which had decimated their forests and other resources to achieve high living standards but were now persuading developing countries to forego their consumption to save the earth.

Gandhi's formulation glossed over the fact that many so-called development programmes, which were ostensibly meant to bring prosperity to the people, actually ended up impoverishing them, along with the degradation of the environment. In India, the Centre for Science and Environment brought out its first "State of India's Environment - A Citizen's Report" in 1982. A statement of shared concern signed by the country's leading environmentalists clearly and unequivocally stated that environment and development were two sides of the same coin. Anil Agarwal, the indefatigable CSE founder, put it another way when he stated that there was the Gross National Product, but also the Gross Natural Product, which more accurately served as an index of the well being of the poorest people.

The 1972 Stockholm conference drew on the work of seminal thinkers like the late British economist, Barbara Ward, who was one of the first to draw the link between the environment and development. She and Rene Dubos published Only One Earth: The care and maintenance of a small planet (Andre Deutsch) the same year. It carried a preface by Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, to give the Stockholm meet its official title.

The World Commission on Environment and Development brought out "Our Common Future" in 1987; this was followed in five years by the Earth Summit, which put the imprimatur of the UN system on these relatively novel concepts. It was, at the time, the biggest conclave of heads of state the world had ever witnessed - in sharp contrast to the two who attended the Stockholm conference 20 years earlier. At Rio, the UN issued Agenda 21 (for the century), a massive document which was like a check-list of all the things that had to be done to set right the earth's balance.

In 2002, a decade after Rio, the original Brundtland definition of "sustainable development" being that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" was ratified at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. This has now entered the lexicon of international development and every country, if not states within large countries, sets about trying to achieve sustainable development. Even cities have started to worry about their ecological footprint, and how the reckless consumption of resources is depriving other areas within the country and outside it of resources which are required for future generations.

Steadily losing the moral high ground

Twenty years after the Brundtland report, the world should salute all those who contributed to its understanding that any economic growth that consumes resources without regenerating them is, by very definition, unsustainable. What has been the record of this country on this front? Despite taking the high moral ground two decades ago, its performance is at best mixed.

Indira Gandhi is wrongly held up today as an example of a Prime Minister who most strongly espoused the cause of the environment. In recent months, Valmik Thapar has extolled her leadership in initiating Project Tiger in the early 1970s, which was at the time believed to be the most successful conservation project in the world. However, as this writer has documented in an early book Temples or Tombs? Industry versus Environment: Three Controversies (CSE, 1985), which details the Silent Valley case and two others, Gandhi was always more concerned about the approbation of foreign governments and agencies, more than of environmentalists at home. By any reckoning, Project Tiger earned her and India a great deal of kudos but, as the ongoing scandals over missing tigers reveals, the approach did not take a holistic view of the problem and address the needs of tribals living in sanctuaries as well.

For that matter, Gandhi was circumspect about the Chipko movement, which flowered around the same time. She told Anil Agarwal in an interview that she wasn't sure about its motives. This was by far the most development-oriented grassroots environmental movement then but, because of its Gandhian connection, she refused to endorse it.

Her mercurial daughter-in-law, Maneka, shone briefly as Environment Minister in the late 1980s, but she lacked an understanding of the comprehensive nature of the environment-development nexus and after relinquishing her portfolio, revealed her true interest, which was the protection of pets and movements against cruelty to animals. Arguably, this country had its finest hour in the environment-development debate when it played a pro-active role during the Earth Summit, during which Environment Minister Kamal Nath excoriated the US and other nations for failing to sign treaties on global warming. Truly, India was seen as the spokesperson for developing countries at the time. The White House even intervened and asked Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to rein in his ebullient minister in Rio.

India has moved a long distance from those heady months. After the economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, every government and successive Environment Ministers have tended to view the portfolio as an unnecessary impediment in the reckless drive to step up economic growth. Today, the Ministry is headed by a political lightweight and the secretariat is more concerned about earning dollars through the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, which permits industrial countries to pay developing nations to absorb their carbon emissions. There is hardly any reference in official circles to a moral stand on the need for global equity: commerce, it would seem, has taken precedence over all other concerns.