The State of the Global Air report released late last month in Boston estimates that India had suffered about 1.1 million premature deaths in 2015 because of air pollution.
This shocking estimate has been challenged by the environment minister, but the fact of the matter remains that, despite many efforts to stem the rot, India’s environment is in bad shape and certainly worse than what it was 40 years ago.
Most rivers are polluted, with the story of the Ganga known to all. Water bodies in many cities have disappeared and been paved over; the water table is dropping at an alarming rate in most parts of the country. Less than a quarter of the municipal waste produced in our cities is scientifically processed. Four of the five worst cities in the world for particulate matter concentration are in India. Even remote locations like the exquisite Pangong Lake in Ladakh are now infested with plastic waste. The 2015 floods in Chennai or the more recent fire in Bangalore’s Bellandur Lake are spectacular examples of this deterioration.
Clearly the efforts have not been enough. Why is that?
First, there is no groundswell in demand to clean up the environment. Some argue that India’s per capita income is too low for the average citizen to care about the environment. The latter is seen as an elitist issue, though paradoxically the negative effects of inadequate environmental stewardship fall disproportionately on the poor. None of the political parties have staked a distinctive pro-environment position.
A false dichotomy has been set up between protecting the environment and pushing for economic development. Yet, for India, environmental sustainability has to be as important an issue as economic growth because with only 2.4% of the world’s land, it needs to meet the aspirations of 18% of the world’s population, now and in the future.
If this country sees a spontaneous people’s movement for protecting the environment as it saw in the defence of Jallikattu, it would indicate that India has turned a corner—its citizens are becoming stewards of the environment. In the meantime, it is important for society to create environmental awareness and raise stakeholders for the environment. For example, some of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan cess can be used to ensure that many more environmental NGOs are funded to act as citizen’s representatives and watchdogs.
Second, protecting the environment is a complex systems problem. Just as economic growth or job creation does not have a simple single solution (such as setting up a training institute), similarly reducing the environmental footprint also does not have a one-point solution—be it banning diesel cars or segregating garbage.
Solving a complex problem requires many independent initiatives—several experiments need to be performed; the successful ones scaled up while learning from the failures. Environmental impact has to be factored into all actions. The good news is that there are solutions that have been tried and tested in other countries that India can quickly adapt and make considerable progress.
Third, government initiatives have not been commensurate with the scale of the problem. Good quality comprehensive data to understand the problem and monitor progress is still not available. Detailed environmental databases are needed, and these should be made accessible to all citizens.
The pollution control boards are also not adequately funded or staffed, and do not have the ability to challenge major polluting industries. In fact, the Central Pollution Control Board seems to have more representation from polluting industries than citizen’s representatives, environmentalists, or health care professionals.
Indian universities need world-class departments for environmental studies while the Indian Forest Service should be upgraded to an Indian Environment Service.
Last, like Sisyphus’ boulder, any progress India makes on environmental sustainability will soon be lost through additional economic growth—unless it constantly adopts newer and more innovative approaches with greater environmental efficiency.
At a bare minimum, the environmental cost should be included in product prices so the invisible hand of the market works effectively. For example, agricultural policies regarding subsidized fertilizer and power and free access to ground water could be reconsidered.
Similarly, the price of petrol and diesel should have a pollution cess that factors local congestion. The cess money should be used to mitigate the negative impact of carbon emissions. Administrative approaches that the public seem to like, such as road rationing that was tried out in Delhi, will not solve the problem and will have to be accompanied by a systematic change in incentive structures, e.g., pricing, liability.
That said, there is no need to be too pessimistic. Countries like the US (after the Cuyahoga River Fire in 1969) and the UK (after The Great Smog of London in 1952) have made considerable progress. Today, the aggregate emissions of six common air pollutants in the US have declined by almost 70% over the last 45 years while the American economy has more than tripled in real terms.
If the right development strategy is implemented, it is possible to have both economic development and an environment worth living in. If not, sooner rather than later, India will have to face nature’s wrath.
Mahesh Krishnamurthy has about 30 years of experience in the corporate world in India and abroad, and a deep interest in environmental and governance-related issues.