Bottleneck: the environmental crisis in India
It’s January; a month which in northern India once fell during the winter season, but which is now more synonymous with the depth of the region’s dreaded pollution season. This month, as in recent years, a brutal combination of various factors continued to combine to produce disastrous air quality in its cities, especially in the capital New Delhi.
For a country with aspirations of global leadership, India’s dismal environmental ranking could be a particularly embarrassing outcome.
Air quality here is so often in the “extremely hazardous” range that life goes on as usual, even with the pollution making headlines in the world press. A recent title of this type read “Rain clears Indian smog, improves air quality to ‘very bad’,” an upside down compliment of just how common bad air is now.
The titles do not exaggerate. The air in Delhi throughout January ranges from mildly smoky, to what can delicately be described as mellow, to, at worst, pollution and fog so terrible that the visibility is around two meters.
PM2.5 levels – measuring particularly toxic particles 2.5 microns in diameter – are considered too high to be healthy. Regularly measured at over 100 – the United States considers a safe limit to be 35 – the level of PM2.5 is sometimes measured in the hundreds. On two occasions I have seen the levels reach 999, the highest recordable number, which means the actual level could be much higher.
With such pollution, it would be easy to consider that India is unable to make progress on environmental issues and conservation in general. But what is the real picture?
Reality is a mixed bag. While India scores very poorly on almost all indicators of environmental protection, there are some small steps forward, like last year commitment to ban single-use plastic by 2022. Citizen action is also increasing to clean public spaces, both independently and under the banner of the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission led by the Modi government.
In particular, the founding in 2010 of the country’s National Green Tribunal – similar to the Land and Environment Tribunal of New South Wales in Australia – means that there is a specific avenue through which environmental cases can be pursued. The Tribunal rules on cases of pollution, toxic waste, landfills, mining, dams, etc., with extensive powers.
Currently, the court is considering issues such as the uncontrolled use of groundwater in sensitive areas, the exploitation of sand from the Yamuna River and the illegal logging of trees in Shimla. He is particularly known for his ability to act with agility, unlike the elephantine processes of the rest of the Indian justice system.
Yet India remains woefully behind other parts of the world. In the 2018 environmental performance index, it ranks 177 out of 180. Drawn in particular by its low score for air quality, it also hurts on other measures, in particular the protection of biodiversity. For a country with aspirations for global leadership, this could be a particularly embarrassing outcome – but during his tenure, the Modi government appeared determined to dilute India’s existing environmental protection laws, the most likely to attract development.
Air: According to the WHO, India is home to 14 of the most polluted cities in the world. All are in the north, stretching from Jodhpur in Rajasthan east to Gaya in Bihar. Data recently published in The Lancet indicates that one in eight deaths in India is linked to air pollution. Authorities are taking measures to curb the threat, including the formation of the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) which contemplates long-term measures.
The water: Groups have warned of a looming water crisis in India, whether it’s falling groundwater levels or contaminated streams and bodies of water, or the drying up of Himalayan sources. Niti Aayog released her Composite Water Management Index last year, which is a useful summary of water management issues and processes across the country, and there are many cases in the NGT involving the ‘water.
Forest cover: Niti Aayog says India currently has just under 22% forest cover, compared to the recommended 33%. Deforestation is happening across the country – for example, Delhi is losing trees at the rate of one tree per hour – due to a mixture of development and forest fires. Efforts are being made to quell the trend, through awareness raising, policy changes, NGT and activism, such as the successful blocking of a main road under construction through a protected forest near Agra.
Waste: India produces much less waste than developed countries, but struggles to manage it, with cities often seeming to drown in waste. Landfills sometimes catch fire, causing major health problems. India is among the top five producers of e-waste in the world, but does not have mechanisms to monitor or manage it.
Renewable energy: Although there is still a long way to go, India is often praised for its investments in renewable energy. Solar energy is at record prices, although usage remains low. Karnataka is the leading state, with 27% of its energy coming from renewable sources.