Three factors lie at the heart of sustainability for a developing-world country like India: electricity generation, land use (principally in agriculture and deforestation), and protection of water resources (especially as it as relates to agriculture).

All three are linked, a tall order for a government with other reforms to enact.

The first session of India’s new Parliament opened Monday with a customary address by President Pranab Mukherjeee. The speech laid out what Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government sees as its priorities for India in the years ahead, and it strikes an ambitious tone on sustainable development, though with much of the detail still left to be worked out.   

Plans for Expansion

I have previously written about Modi’s ambitions regarding solar power. Neatly packaged in a proposed national energy policy is a dedication to expanding the Nehru National Solar Mission, as well as India’s natural gas grid infrastructure.

The recent announcement by Gail India, Ltd., the country’s largest natural gas distributor, that it would purchase natural gas at the American Henry Hub benchmark suggests the country is serious about such an expansion. (Using the American benchmark would protect against price spikes from Asian providers, who use contracts where the price is more closely linked to the price of petroleum.)

The new government also promises to “operationalize” its civil nuclear agreements, which would mean addressing international concerns about its hitherto strict liability laws (though the exact methodology for doing so is not addressed in this speech).

Trimming Deforestation

With respect to land use, the Modi government is rhetorically pushing back on complaints that its land-use policies, specifically regarding deforestation, are opaque and not responsive to the communities affected.

The previous Singh government drafted a national policy to reverse deforestation, but critics, such as Greenpeace India, say that, too often, environmental considerations have taken a back seat to economic development priorities.

The Modi government has put down a rhetorical marker that this would not be the case this time around.

Prioritizing Water

One of the most threatened resources, water, is of particular concern to a country so reliant on agriculture, especially rain-fed. (The imminent arrival of the monsoon, with an expected 7 percent decline in precipitation, is a closely watched development.)

Mukherjee’s speech also focused on the building up of the infrastructure of irrigation projects, as well as improving efficiency and guarding against both drought and flood.

In this instance, the Modi government may find itself wading into conflicts between Indian states; in previous years, the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu went to the Indian Supreme Court to settle a dispute over water rights.

If Mukherjee has laid out the Modi government’s true priorities, then this speech is to be applauded as a harbinger of smart policy.

Those wanting more details may reference the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto, though like many election manifestos it is a laundry list of the possible instead of the very likely. It does offer more hints of methods to tackle climate change and development, including guidelines for green building, efficient waste management practices, and research and development into environmental technology.

Of course, judgment on the real effects of these policies must await their implementation.

Reform will be challenging for a government that also needs to address India’s investment climate, overhaul its lumbering bureaucracy, and follow through on a commitment to “meet the challenges posed by climate change.”

The central tension between achieving growth, as part of an essential effort to reduce the ranks of India’s extremely poor, and doing so in a way that preserves India’s environment and slows its contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, is one that will likely dominate debates over the country’s development plans in the years to come.