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Sustainable Transitions in Developing Countries: Cases from India


Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 02. 2023

Sustainability transitions are long-term, multi-dimensional, and fundamental transformation processes through which established socio-technical systems shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption. But, when it comes to developing countries, there can be several barriers to sustainable transitions. Government plays a central role which help in fostering a regime shift, but there are major institutional and political aspects which form barriers to transition and upscaling. A socio-technical system is created for infrastructure and institutions to work, and they are embedded into society. In developing countries, there can be societal, institutional or policy-related barriers to these transitions. Regimes in developing countries like India show a much higher degree of frequent changes, non-uniformity, and internal tensions. Often, institutional reform is the best solution to such barriers. However, the question is whether this can help accelerate sustainability transitions by upscaling socio-technical systems..

Sustainability transition processes in South Asian countries like India faces several societal, institutional and policy barriers because it involves a multitude of actors and processes. However, recently researchers have stated that these factors which effect the acceleration of transitions have remained under-studied in context of developing countries which have a democratic and federal governance structure like India. Within this context, this article addresses three cases from India’s capital city Delhi: The shift from petrol/diesel to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in public transportation, The modal shift from private/public transport to Delhi Metro rail, and the emerging scenario of renewable energy. While Delhi has been the locus of innovation, this article elaborates on how these innovations have spread to different cities nationally.

The main impetus for the CNG initiative in Delhi came from civil society. This civil society is defined as a bridge between government and the citizens and comprises of “the sphere of private institutions, organizations, associations, and individuals protected by, but outside the scope of state interventions.”. The backdrop of this was a public campaign for clean air and health which had gathered momentum in the later part of the 1990s. Delhi’s CNG experiment has been touted as a commendable effort towards curbing vehicular pollution which was implemented in a very short time, resulting in Delhi winning the ‘Clean City International Award’ in May 2003 for fully converting its 9000 public buses to CNG. The Environment Pollution Authority set up by the Supreme Court of India drafted some recommendations based on which Supreme Court issued orders in 1998 for public transport buses to switch to CNG for fuel by 1st April 2001. Table 1 shows some of the directives by the supreme court pertaining to CNG implementation. As per a study done by The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in April 2019, the economic advantages of CNG have seen private car market switch to CNG and has seen an increase by 50% in sales as of November 2018. The main policy drivers in this program were regulatory and judicial mandates of the Supreme court and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) which was created in January 1998. These regulatory and judicial mandates have further provided scope for upscaling of CNG niches in other Indian cities among which the CNG programs of Delhi and Mumbai are most well established.

The case study shows that while CNG program has indeed been a successful example of transition from one fuel type to other, the monitoring and impacts on the air quality gains, health benefits and climate benefits are yet to be analyzed and monitored properly.

​Directive by the Supreme Court/ Central Government



Supreme Court directs all public transport vehicles - three-wheelers, run on CNG



Replacement of all autos and taxis manufactured before 1990 with vehicles using clean fuel.



Order issued for private operators to book CCNG by 31.03.2001



Supreme court extends the deadline for (3) till April 14



Ministry claims that there is not enough CNG and Delhi government requests SC to extend CNG deadline



Supreme court orders phasing out of diesel buses every 4 weeks.



Supreme court reserves verdict on CNG conversion


Table 1 Directives of the Supreme court/Central government in the CNG case

The Delhi Metro (DM) is a mass rapid transit system in the National Capital Region (NCR) of India. It has also earned carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations for reductions in CO2 emissions. The city of Delhi expanded rapidly resulting in a twofold rise in population and five-fold rise in the number of vehicles from 1981 these factors resulted in an immediate need of a rapid transit system for Delhi and in 1995, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation(DMRC) was jointly setup by the Government of India and Government of New Delhi to function as a statutory body to serve as an authority to undertake construction of Metro project in Delhi.

The establishment of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the failure to privatize public transport in 1992, gave a much-needed push factor for environmental policies in India to be more rigid, this, coupled with population rise and increase in number of private vehicles lead to the emergence of the need for a rapid transit for the city of Delhi. Research conducted in 2002 about Delhi’s transport situation states that there was a paradigm of growing demand for mobility and during the year 1989, the motorized transport was solely responsible for 70% of Air Pollution. However, the existing regime at that time, i.e., the locus of established practices in Delhi required a need for a new institution which could stabilize an innovation like metro rail and hence it gave way for establishment of DMRC. Like the case of CNG program, the implementation has been effective in the case of Delhi Metro but the impact assessment in terms of modal switch from private transport to metro rail and air quality gains have not been effectively studied.

Delhi Metro is transitioning towards totally becoming emission free, with regular monitoring and updating of technological aspects and is being already touted as a success story by researchers. Delhi Metro is aiming to be the world’s first 100% rail network to be run on green energy.

For a country like India which has largely depended on fossil fuel sources for energy, energy transition to renewables becomes a mandate. Increasing carbon emissions, increasing import bills, and geopolitical vulnerabilities are the main factors behind this transition. The low-carbon transition with respect to energy system in India has seen considerable progress in recent years, yet the scale of challenges in India due to its social and cultural heterogeneity remains the same and demands more consistent efforts. Renewables are emerging as a huge market in India being able to counter the challenges of climate change mitigation, and simultaneously the technological capabilities across the states are witnessing rapid progression and a rising number of consumers. From 2017 to 2018 the investments in clean energy and technology have seen a drastic rise with a parallel fall in wind and solar prices. The Economic liberalization in India in 1991 introduced new and more systems which were efficient in terms of generation, and this allowed the diffusion of renewable energy within the country.

The target areas for the three case studies are broadly similar in their aim, i.e., Improvement in air quality, clean fuel, and a need for a rapid transit. The primary goal was to reduce carbon emissions from various sources. Despite having similar timescales, in the case of CNG experiment and Delhi Metro, the niche upscaling has been much faster in case of Delhi metro and in terms of implementing similar mass rapid transit projects in other parts of India. Intermediaries like NGOS, civil society organizations and think-tanks have played an essential role in advancing these transitions. The renewable energy transition, however, is still in its nascent stage and MNRE states in one of its reports that local governments have the power to bring renewable energy decisions into mainstream because they are responsible for managing municipal infrastructure.

While institutional reform could be a possible solution to accelerate transition processes, the long-term monitoring is equally essential to analyse the future impact. For changes to occur, sustainability-oriented technologies should be diffused and developed at a rapid pace. The governance policies become crucial because the enablers are often faced with actor level challenges like lack of technical expertise. For the emerging niches to become a norm, the bureaucratic delays must be eliminated by proposing a new Governance model at a local level where challenges are faced. The three case studies were driven by a need for having a low carbon transition which led to changes in various sectors of governance. From the case studies, it is evident that the Government provided more policy support and ensured the smooth implementation of the same models in future.

In India, the government changes every 5 years and often there are contrasting ideas between the current government and the upcoming one, this sometimes leads to a drastic change in policies leading to further delays, there is a need to follow and stabilize one policy model regardless of the ruling government which will possibly lead to further acceleration of low carbon transitions. Along with the contestations, there can be coalitions to ensure that the policies pertaining to response to climate change remain the same. However, there is still ample of scope and challenge when it comes to careful monitoring of low carbon transitions in a developing country having informal sectors. Local Government bodies can play an active role when it comes to engaging with people and forming coalitions with local agencies.

(Mr. Abhishek Koduvayur Venkitaraman is a doctoral researcher at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan.) ■□■


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