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India's pollution challenges Is the country's economic growth environmentally sustainable?

Ravi Agarwal

/ 10 Minuten zu lesen

Smog in Neu Delhi. Die Luftverschmutzung in Indien gehört zu den schlimmsten weltweit. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

In May 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked the Indian capital Delhi in a report as the most polluted city in the world in terms of air pollution, even above China's capital Beijing. A couple of months ago, another report from Yale University (an annual Environmental Performance Index which compares 132 countries drawn up by the Yale Centre of Environmental Law and Policy) had come to the same conclusion. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the country's nodal regulator, Indian cities routinely exceed the norm for PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns), which is one of the key measures for air quality. The more dangerous PM 2.5 (less than 2.5 microns) is not as yet being measured in most cities.

However, it is not hard to see the air pollution with the naked eye. As one flies into Delhi, the smog is unmistakable, especially during the winter months when the air is heavy. On the ground itself, the roads are chock a block full of cars and two wheelers, often locked in slow moving traffic, which enhances toxic emissions. There are about 7.45 million vehicles in Delhi alone, a city of 17 million people. If one were to consider the larger urban area around the National Capital Region, the population would exceed 25 million.

High costs of environmental degradation

India is urbanizing and becoming polluted – fast. The whole country is undergoing a transition. Job opportunities and industrialization have resulted in 30 percent of its 1.2 billion population migrating from rural areas to cities according the government statistics, and the figure will exceed to 40 percent by the year 2030. Cities, the hubs of economic growth, contributed 58 percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011, which will touch 70 percent by 2030. Labelled as "engines of economic growth" the question arises: Are the cities healthy places to live in?

Air pollution is not the only problem. Indian cities are overflowing with urban waste, both toxic as well as household, their rivers are polluted with sewage and industrial effluents, and there are several reports which show the contamination of fresh vegetables by heavy metals from dirty irrigation water. A 2013 World Bank report (Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India), puts the annual cost of environmental degradation in India at about 5.7 percent of India's 2009 GDP, with air pollution accounting for 1.7 percent of this and indoor air pollution 1.3 percent.

"Environmental pollution, degradation of natural resources, inadequate environmental services, such as poor quality water supply, lack of sanitation, impose severe costs to society in the form of ill health, lost income, and increased poverty and vulnerability," the report added. A significant portion of such diseases affects children younger than five years of age, attributing 22 percent of child mortality in the country to environmental degradation. These are significant impacts, and bring into question the effectiveness of the host of environmental policy and regulatory instruments, which have been in place in India since 1972.

Threats from climate change

Simultaneously, India faces serious threats from climate change. Even though its emissions of greenhouse gases (1.7 metric tonnes per capita annually) are a fraction of the United States (17 metric tonnes per capita annually), yet owing to its size, India is fourth on the list of emitters after China, the USA and the European Union. A governmental briefing paper accedes that "Climate change is impacting the natural ecosystems and is expected to have substantial adverse effects in India mainly on agriculture." 60 percent of the population still depends on rain fed agriculture for livelihood, which contributed over 19 percent of the total GDP in the year 2004/05 (April to March). Water storage in the Himalayan glaciers is the source of major rivers and groundwater recharge and uncertainty in water flows owing to climate change will have deep impacts.

Besides, India is already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world. Many of its 1.2 billion people, especially the poorer communities, live in areas vulnerable to hazards such as floods, cyclones and droughts. It is estimated that a rise of just one meter in the sea level would put 7.1 million people at a risk of displacement. Climate change will impact India's food security, water security, cause health impacts, and make coastal population vulnerable.

The causes of climate change are mostly owing to the large amounts of fossil and coal based energy production, which also release toxics emissions like mercury, sulphur dioxide and other deadly chemicals. The use of local firewood and fodder for cooking by 80 percent of rural India and the practice of burning harvested crops on the fields to avoid clearing them before planting new crops, also releases high amounts of carbon. In cities, petroleum based vehicular fuels, add to the load of greenhouse gases. Much of the energy produced is essential, to provide for industry and domestic lighting. India still suffers severe energy shortages, with over 400 million people having no access to electricity and coal continues to be touted as the most cost effective solution to the problem. It is immediately evident that managing the environment is a challenge cutting across many sectors of the Indian economy.

Environmental crisis escalated with economic liberalization

India's environmental protection thrust started as early as 1972, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed the first United Nations Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm. This commitment soon translated into the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974, under which an empowered regulatory infrastructure was set up. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act followed in 1981. However, it was the worst ever industrial accident in Bhopal in 1984, which triggered the passing of the overarching Environmental Protection Act (1986). The industrial accident had resulted in the reported loss of over 20,000 lives through the release of lethal gas from a pesticide factory run by American company Union Carbide (today Dow Chemical). Simultaneously India has participated in all multilateral United Nations agreements like the Basel, the Persistence Organic Pollutant (POPs), and Minamata (dealing with mercury) Conventions, provisions of which are reflected (or being) in national policy.

The crisis of the environment really escalated after 1990, when India liberalized its economy, moving from a socialist to a market based one. The subsequent increase in industrial activity was beyond the capacity of the environmental regulatory infrastructure to manage and this led to the many citizens filing cases in the Courts against the pollution and its impacts on health. Many new industrial projects were stalled as a result. The system had come under a severe strain, which continues to this day. Also political interference and the lack of independence of the regulator made it virtually ineffective.

As a way forward, for the first time in 2006, a comprehensive National Environmental Policy was formulated, largely to try and balance development and environmental protection needs. In 2010/11 there was an attempt by the then Minister of the Environment Jairam Ramesh to initiate an institutionally independent regulator. However this did not go far with the economic ministries who saw environmental controls as being a bottleneck to new investments and did not want to relinquish control.

Pollution as a violation of the Right to Life

On a more hopeful note, India is a rare country where the judiciary has played a stellar role in protecting the environment, going to the extent of reading environmental pollution as amounting to a violation of Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution of India. A National Green Tribunal with five specially empowered environmental courts have been set up in different parts of the country to settle the massive number of cases which have been brought up in regular courts, including in the Supreme Court of India.

There are two key issues involved in keeping the environment healthy. Firstly, is India's ability to manage emissions and wastes from industry, vehicles, specific sectors like hospitals, and households. Pollution from here contaminates water systems, rivers, and ground sites like landfills, industrial areas, and the air. This is the main task of the State level regulatory bodies. The ineffectiveness of these regulators, the mismanagement of funds earmarked for these purposes, both from underuse and incorrect reporting and the diversion of funds has added to the dismal situation.

Inadequate capacity to regulate the thousands of sources of pollution present as well as a lack of human and technological infrastructure for monitoring and control are additional factors for the failures. For example even though air quality in twelve cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai is being monitored in real time and data on twenty four others is being collected by the Central Pollution Control Board, (externer Link zu Werten: …yet deadly pollutants like PM 2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micron, which is highly respirable and the cause of ill health), is being measured only in a few monitoring stations, while lead or benzene (a carcinogenic pollutant) levels are not regularly checked.

Only a fraction of the urban waste is collected, but that too is dumped into non-engineered landfills, which leach toxins into the groundwater. Unauthorized recycling in backyard operations accounts for more than 90 percent of recycling in cities. Waste products like old electronics, plastics, car batteries, release pollutants like mercury, lead, dioxins in the air and on the ground through these operations. The urban poor, who live and work in these areas, bear the brunt of the exposure.

Improving renewable energy production is a key issue

Similarly even though India has adopted the best international norms for vehicular emissions, and compressed natural gas as a clean fuel for its public transport fleet, goods transport still depends on diesel. Since diesel is priced lower than petrol to keep the cost of goods transportation low, it has unfortunately encouraged people to buy diesel passenger cars which emit fine particulate and chemical pollutants. Finally industrial and household effluents are not monitored strictly enough, and often find their way into rivers, local water bodies, or are sometimes illegally injected into deep water wells. Cities lack the sewerage infrastructure needed to channelize the effluents into segregated treatment facilities, resulting in industrial and household effluents being mixed.

A second set of factors relate to efforts to adopt clean processes and technologies upfront. These too have received inadequate attention. For example, cleaning up urban air needs not just emission controls, but also transport management and limiting vehicles from roads. Investments in public transport and shifting traffic from private to public are some measures this points towards. With a shift of manufacturing activities like chemicals, information technology, and clothing production, requiring them to adopt clean methods is important, especially as India gears up to becoming a supplier to new western markets.

Improving renewable energy production is another key issue. The real cost of coal is not factored into energy pricing in India, and toxic impact like mercury emissions, the impact of coal fly ash on agriculture production, or disposal of mining wastes are unaccounted for, making the pricing case for solar energy (for example) weaker. These issues go beyond the brief of the classical environmental sector, but cut across into urban planning, transport planning, energy, industry, and consumer rights. In effect it is an issue of development policy rather than only environmental policy.

Challenges have been recognized at the highest policy level

This is not to say that the challenges have not been recognized at the highest policy level. In fact the National Plan on Climate Change is headed by none other than the Prime Minister. Recognizing the inter sector implications of this, eight National Missions have been set up, ranging from energy to habitat and agriculture. A special Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has been in existence for over two decades.

Currently, renewable energy accounts for about 12 per cent of the total electricity generation capacity. In 2012/13, the electricity produced by renewables was equivalent to meeting the per capita annual electricity requirement of about 60 million people. However over the past two years, investment in renewables went down from 13 billion US dollars (9,5 billion Euros) in 2011 to 6.5 billion US dollars (4,8 billion Euros) in 2012. This was largely because of policy uncertainty – some say paralysis – within the MNRE.

Likewise, the Urban Affairs Ministry is granting projects for urban infrastructure development through the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewable Mission, a fund of a staggering 20 billion US dollars (14,7 billion Euros) for public private partnership in urban infrastructure including water, sanitation, transport, metro rails and waste.

In the area of waste the Ministry of Environment and Forests has also laid out new rules for batteries, plastics and electronic waste recycling based on the principles of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which mandates the producers to invest in infrastructure to collect and recycle their end of life products, but their implementation has been poor.

A special National Rivers Conservation Directorate has been established since 1984, to clean up the major rivers like the Ganges, through the setting up sewage and effluent treatment plants, but again its success is wanting. Several Court orders have penalized the industry for polluting by activating the Polluter Pays principle. Water and sanitation have received special attention, especially since they were globally recognized as a trust area in the Rio Earth Summit of 2002, and have been set as a Millennium Development Goal. However the issue of using water based western sanitation systems is still controversial since it leads to high water and sewage disposal costs.

Lack of political will to enforce environmental regulations

The question is, is this all enough? In an economy aspiring to grow at over 8 percent annually, and with over 50 cities with more than one million population, clearly the miniscule 0.012 percent of its 1.8 trillion US dollars (1,3 trillion Euros) GDP spent on environmental needs is insufficient. Despite all the well meaning and far reaching policies, there is little political will to implement these measures, which are more long term, but may appear costly in the short term.

Environmental issues are considered "soft", not central. Environmental regulations lack teeth, and need an overhaul to deal with the scale of the problem. The eradication of poverty, job creation, and industrial growth has followed the classic model of development. Leapfrogging into a sustainable path, will need not only new approaches, investments, but also recognizing that poor disproportionately suffer from environmental degradation and exposures.

is an environmentalist and founder director of Externer Link: Toxics Link, one of India's leading not-for- profit non-governmental environmental organisation.