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WRI India: Tackling the World’s Toughest Challenges

The great twin challenges of the 21st century — development and climate change — are nowhere sharper than in India, and within India they are perhaps nowhere more vivid than Mumbai. India’s largest and richest city, greater Mumbai is home to more than 22 million people, including 30 of the country’s 62 billionaires. Yet nearly half the population lives in cramped informal settlements like Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

Mumbai sits low in the water and is one of the top five cities most vulnerable to climate-driven sea level rise. Raising living standards in Mumbai and across India—more than half the country lives on the equivalent of less than $2 a day—will require massive increases in energy use that could drive a surge in greenhouse emissions. Whether hundreds of millions of Indians can escape poverty without pushing climate change beyond the tipping point will be determined in no small part by decisions made in Mumbai.

It’s appropriate, then, that WRI India has its largest office in the rapidly transforming former industrial core of the city. When I visited there recently the narrow, twisting streets that lead to the office were further constricted by lean-to sheds where artisans were building massive statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings.

High Stakes

“The stakes are incredibly high,” Nitin Pandit, WRI India CEO and country director, told me in an interview in WRI’s modest third-floor offices in a former lock factory owned by Jamshyd Godrej, an Indian industrialist and philanthropist who serves as chairman of WRI India’s board of directors.

“India didn’t cause climate change. We have very low historic emissions levels and even today our per capita emissions are among the lowest of any major nation,” Nitin said. “But Indian industry and government recognize that it’s on our own best interest to be part of the solution. Fortunately, a growing body of evidence shows that climate action and poverty-reducing growth go hand in hand.”

WRI began working in India more than 20 years ago through Embarq, a sustainable transportation initiative that helps cities to build and operate Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems.

WRI has also worked closely with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in creating the India GHG Program, an industry-led voluntary framework to measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions.

An entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in public policy and expertise in topics as diverse as artificial intelligence and energy conservation, Nitin leads a further scaling up of WRI’s work in India, drawing on the Institutes global expertise. Priorities include water and landscape restoration, re-greening of degraded lands to create jobs and intensify and diversify agroforestry, improving livelihoods while sequestering carbon.

WRI also has offices in Bangalore, India’s tech hub, and Delhi, the capital, with a total of about 60 staff—mostly young, passionate and highly entrepreneurial. Among the managers are Shailesh Sreedharan, director of projects, and Madhav Pai, who has served as director of Embarq India and is leading the expansion of the sustainable cities effort to include energy and building efficiency.

Bhopal, Delhi and Mumbai

During my visit, I sampled a smorgasbord of activities that illustrated how my colleagues are – as WRI India’s tag line goes – “Making Big Ideas Happen in India.”

  • In Bhopal, I addressed the Bhopal Smart Cities Conclave, where hundreds of people came to discuss the city’s proposal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Challenge.

  • In Delhi I joined in recreational activities at Raahgiri, India's first sustained car-free day, launched in 2013. Conceived by a coalition in which Amit Bhatt, head of strategy for WRI’s transport work in India, and his wife, urban planner Sarika Panda Bhatt, played a catalytic role, Raahgiri has spread to a dozen locations in nine Indian cities, with similar events in two dozen others.

  • In Mumbai, I moderated a panel discussion on carbon pricing at the India Business and Climate Summit organized by the India GHG Program. Representatives of scores of Indian companies participated and many signed a giant wall poster expressing support for India to put forward an ambitious proposal ahead of the Paris climate conference in December. “More and more Indian companies recognize that measuring and managing their emissions is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” said Vivek Adhia, head of business engagement for WRI India and one of the organizers of the conference.

As an American, I told the conference, coming from a country that bears much of the responsibility for global warming, I felt presumptuous addressing an Indian audience on the need for climate action. Fortunately, many in India understand that it is in their own best interest to act, and that action by India can help raise the bar for others. WRI India is an important part of this growing movement.

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