Balipara Foundation: Boosting Rural Employment with Green Entrepreneurship Models

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Time and again, it does seem as if there is a significant divergence between what one really wishes for and what one ultimately ends up doing. Between these two lies the arc where all sorts of noise, distractions and self-doubts emerge from the crevices of the mind to cause one thing or the other in reality; when the fact is that the human body is simply reacting to the stimuli one put himself or herself into, either out of compulsion or by choice or both. While being a realist is highly appreciated; being a realist for the development of the community is even more so.
The worthy ones have always appreciated both the material and spiritual side of their lives; decided what felt was right to them for certain reasons and have taken action to claim the rewards they felt they deserved as the mark of their efforts and achievement. Rewarding human achievement is the greatest reward of the capitalist system; as it was envisaged in its idealist form. It does perform this function to a great extent today; with certain cracks always visible and inherent in every socio-economic order that human beings have sought to build. The rewards for the worthy last much beyond the person’s own lifetime; for their service to the community renders them invaluable.
Today on World Environment Day, we spoke to Mr. Ranjit Barthakur, a social entrepreneur, committed to pursuing social change through innovative cutting edge concepts, ecological neutrality and impactful action. He has pioneered the concepts of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures, with a view to inspiring community-based conservation and livelihoods in the Eastern Himalayas. Below are the excerpts from our interaction.

According to you, how is India placed to deal with environment related effects on its social and economic progress?

India is not at all equipped to deal with the emerging climate and environmental threats. Every year we watch devastating cyclones come up the west and east coasts, while we tear down mangrove forests that minimize flood damage. Every year we hear how Assam loses 200 crore in economic damage because of floods – but we don’t hear as much about how those floods are part of the natural ecosystem and cycle. Human disruption, poor flood and natural resource management and deforestation exacerbate the negative impacts, without added climate change effects.

What are the broad trends you’re observing in the consumer and business markets when it comes to their understanding or adherence to a broad range of regulations pertaining to their environmental footprint on the natural ecology?

Corporate giants are already proactively shifting towards symbiotic and sustainable business models, for two reasons. One, young people are environmentally conscious consumers and are increasingly scrutinizing business practices, demanding accountability and yes, investing sustainably. Two, and perhaps most importantly, businesses are realizing that ecology is economy. Short-term growth with rampant environmental destruction undermines the long-term sustainability of their own businesses, and their resilience to cope with climate related risks.

In the Indian context, forward thinking companies such as the Tata Group and Hindustan Unilever are orienting business practices to mitigate their environmental footprint and also build climate resilience across their supply chains. Others have a long way to go to catch up – they still are catching up to the science of nature-related risk management. With more ESG regulations coming into play, we will see more businesses incorporating green accounting, measuring their environmental impacts monetarily as a means of identifying their business sustainability and profitability in the long run, and investing in environmental protection or restoration, whether directly or through CSR and philanthropy.

The younger generations seem to be more aware of their surroundings and environmental problems (at least that’s the impression that marketers have, partly because of Greta Thunberg); how big is the gap between their idealism and practical issues?

Young people are far more aware and thoughtful about where their food and clothes are coming from and have a much stronger idea of the environmental costs associated with these areas, which they have successfully put to use by either purchasing from sustainable brands or advocating with businesses to change their practices. But there is a significant gap in their understanding of consumption and the sheer scale of the problem we are faced with. Our entire economic system depends on the exploitation and destruction of our natural capital. There is no facet of our lives that does not need a complete rehaul.

There also needs to be a stronger focus on rural issues, to tackle climate and environmental issues, with solutions moving beyond a few well-publicized ideas. Yes, we need to plant trees, but we have to do it scientifically and even more scientifically, forest land needs to be stewarded and managed by rural and indigenous communities. To preserve our forests we have to fight rural poverty and direct investments in sustainable businesses to rural communities as well, not just urban communities. Unless we can center our rural communities in driving solutions, we will be fighting a losing battle for our environment.

India is not doing well on multiple developmental parameters; yet can we make a case and say that both economic growth and environmental mindfulness can take place together?

Firstly, there would be no economic growth without the environment. Nature is very forgiving, but its capital has to be used sustainably – this is the basic fundamental of economics, but because environmental costs are externalized and borne indirectly either by communities or the public sector, we forget this.

Secondly, we have to define development. Is development only economic growth and infrastructure to facilitate economic growth? Or is development about universal access to healthcare, education, renewable energy and good housing?

We ran the numbers for the North East, on what you can achieve with a sustainable natural capital economy of agroforestry, sustainable bamboo, timber and ecotourism. Our calculations found this will generate earnings up to INR 450,544 crores annually following a 10 year maturation period (INR 208,341 crores annually from 3 years onwards), against an investment of INR 22,339 crores. Invest these earnings back in rural communities and you can deliver universal basic assets (healthcare, education, energy, good housing, clean water access) to 6.5 million households annually – with spending on healthcare & education matching OECD standards. So yes, economy and ecology go hand in hand.

Your work and career are admirable. Do you think Naturenomics can be scaled all over the country with some adjustments in the parameters of geography, health and culture? 

Absolutely. Wherever natural capital and assets are used and impacted by economic processes, there is a Naturenomics opportunity to identify these assets, how they can be optimized and leveraged for nature regenerating business opportunities.

As a founder, what are you paranoid about? What keeps you awake at night?

I am constantly worried that we may not be doing enough to create interdependence between ecology and the environment. There has been some progress since we first started talking about Naturenomics in 2007, but it is only now that people are starting to understand the idea of Naturenomics. We are at a tipping point and what we need is action, scale and collaborations like never before. 

What gets you excited about this company?

I strongly believe that ecology is economy and that this is an interdependence we have to actively push towards. We have to build the natural wealth of nations. This is the future. There is nothing more exciting and inspiring than innovating for this future.

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