Opinion | Whether we will survive ought to be our foremost concern

How we respond as a country to the crisis of polluted air and unsafe water could make or break independent India

The 72nd year of our existence as an independent nation, when Indians are estimated by the United Nations to number 1.35 billion, is a fitting occasion to take stock of the two greatest threats to our continued survival. Quite simply, the lack of safe water and clean air will either make or break India.

On 14 June 2018, a report by NITI Aayog warned that India is facing its most terrible water crisis in history. Nearly 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress, 75% of households do not have drinking water on the premises, 84% of households do not have piped water access, and 70% of our water is contaminated. Therefore, nearly 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water.

Incredibly, 21 cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people. The final nail on our collective coffin is indicated by the fact that India is currently ranked 120 among 122 countries in the water quality index.

Prakash K. Dutta, writing in India Today on Chennai’s widely reported water crisis, noted that while the city had a 41% rainfall deficit as of June 2019, it had also lost 33% of its wetland areas and 24% of its agricultural land to development projects over the last decade. Both are crucial to maintaining ground water supply. Dutta concluded that Chennai’s four main reservoirs, responsible for its drinking water supply, were at 1% of their storage capacity. As people in the city survived on water distributed in tankers, women were lining up for hours to collect them.

While posting many stories on Chennai’s water supply on my Twitter page, I was particularly struck by one comment. A well-meaning gentleman said Chennai has always had water issues, and the city usually got through it. Now, his reaction may be indicative of our resilience as a people, but it is also bereft of an appreciation of the changed nature of our times.

For climate change, global warming and rapacious “development" by India and its citizens means that what could actually be survived earlier, is simply not the case anymore. This May, in north-western India, temperatures were on average between 3-5 degrees warmer than before. This is a result of the global phenomenon of climate change, but is also shaped by pressures specific to India—of a rapidly growing population, unchecked development, and loss of water sources. As the country gets warmer and drier each year, we will simply find it harder and harder to survive the water crisis every summer.

As if this were not enough, a report by the Centre for Science and Environment released last year indicated that the severity of the air pollution crisis in India has caused life spans to shrink by 2.6 years on average. Now, that is an average across different regions, but in particularly hard-hit areas in northern India, including the capital Delhi, life spans will reduce by up to 10 years due to exposure to severely polluted air. According to the same report, “air pollution is now the third-highest cause of death among all health risks ranking just above smoking in India. This is a combined effect of outdoor particulate matter (PM) 2.5, ozone and household air pollution".

As many as 14 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India. In my own city of Delhi, it is quite normal in winter to have Air Quality Index-measured pollution levels between 300 and 500, sometimes shooting up to 999 (the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day). It’s no wonder that the World Health Organization calls toxic air the “new tobacco".

For the second-most populous nation on earth after China, the ever-increasing conflict over both natural and man-made resources is unsurprising. While in some ways, the lack of safe water and clean air affects us all, it is most dearly felt by those who have the least access to resources. Those who have always been left out of a fair distribution of resources will form the front-line of Indians who will face the severest onslaught of this twin-crisis of water and clean air.

As wealthier Indians migrate out of highly polluted cities like Delhi to cleaner ones like Goa, most have no such options.

But, let’s be clear. Climate refugees have existed across the ages. In June, I was visiting the stunning pyramids of Teotihuacán, or what the Aztecs called the City of Gods, located around 50km outside Mexico City. The city itself was abandoned due to increasingly long spells of drought. I heard our guide calmly tell the story of how the area dried up and had to be abandoned as the land got warmer.

Across civilizations, humans have moved from their traditional habitats due to droughts. But, on this 72nd year of our birth, this young country but old civilization must ask itself where all 1.3 billion of us will move. The need of the hour is a nationwide strategy on conservation, checks on development, salination projects across our long coast lines, and urgent steps to check pollution. Our political class and government must respond with the urgency this deserves—if not, we will simply not survive.

Menaka Guruswamy is a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India. Her twitter handle is @MenakaGuruswamy

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