As world’s fastest growing economy, India continues to enthuse global business leaders. However, business growth has come at a heavy price as India’s ecological parameters plummet to record lows, threatening the livelihood, health and lives of millions.
Residents of any large Indian city did not really need it, but a report on the State of Indian Environment 2018 released recently put India at near bottom of the pile of the global community as far as the environment was concerned.
Coming a few months after the World Economic Forum released a similar finding in January, the State of Environment report is a confirmation for the doubters, and there are quite a few especially within the Indian government, that even though India may be the fastest growing large economy in the world, this growth has come at a huge and as yet undefined cost to the nation’s environment and health.
But the cost is all too visible across India and for most part of the year. For instance, in New Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), the number of days with very poor or poor air quality index is around 65 pc of all days in summer and 85 pc of all winter days. The number of days with satisfactory air pollution levels was about one percent or about four days in a year. The situation is similar, if not worse, in about 20 large cities across India.
India scored all of 5.75 in global air quality index, while Switzerland and Japan were perched at over 90, showing how far behind India has slipped in ecological terms while trying to boost its economic growth.
The situation has indeed worsened over the last four years. Though India has been on a strong economic growth curve for nearly two decades, the Modi government, since it took charge in May 2014, has taken many steps to liberalise or even entirely do away with various environmental checks and norms that had been in place for governing various industries and businesses.
In India, implementation of existing norms has always been the weakest link in the chain with companies openly flouting and breaking norms and laws and exceeding or totally violating the environmental conditions imposed on their projects. There are hundreds of such cases in the country. Several real estate companies have built much more than authorized, with a famous case near Delhi where a builder with permission to construct only nine storeys, went ahead and built 56 storeys instead!
Unchecked construction activity is one of the primary reasons behind the terrible air pollution levels in Delhi and its neighbouring areas, where the particulate matter in the air regularly go beyond 1200 parts per million, almost 20 times over the safe limits of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The most recent and high profile example of companies getting a free hand from the government at the expense of environment is that of Vedanta, a metals company. Its proposal to expand capacity at a copper smelting plant in southern state of Tamil Nadu had been pending for several years as the then Congress-led government had insisted that the company needed to carry out public consultations with residents around the plant before any permission could be granted for expansion. However, within months of taking charge, the Modi government granted approval for expansion, and Vedanta began construction. Residents around the plant were alarmed at the expansion of a highly polluting plant and launched a campaign against Vedanta for polluting water and air in the area. Around the same time, the Chennai High Court halted the expansion and ordered Vedanta to hold consultations. Subsequently, the entire plant was ordered shut down by the state government following the death of 11 protestors in a police firing in May.
In the absence of public consultations, a large number of projects, which were earlier held up for the consultations and other environmental clearances, have started up under this government’s watch. Though an exact data is not available, last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which rules on all ecological matters, quashed the government’s order and restored the necessity for holding public consultations on large projects.
Cutting down key environmental regulations
In order to boost its business-friendly image, the government is also ready to axe some key environmental regulations, notably the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), a law that was enacted in the 1980s after the Indian Supreme Court criticized the then government for permitting unregulated construction in coastal areas, leading to demolition of several hotels, apartments, offices and factories located within 500 m of the high tide line all along the 7500-km long Indian coastline.
In April, the government released a draft of revised CRZ norms that remove a lot of hurdles in construction activity in the coastal zone. Environmentalists roundly criticized the revised norms as being an open invitation to the real estate companies and other industries to start building on the coast, effectively threatening the already precarious marine life as well as the millions of fishing communities that live along the coast. Even if the government does amend the CRZ Act, it is bound to be challenged in the courts.
Another major change that the government is keen to bring in is to allow again large-scale mining and manufacturing projects in the densely forested areas in central and eastern India as well as along the Himalayas. The forests in these parts are also home to most of the 110 million tribals of India. This population, amongst the poorest and most excluded from the country’s economic boom, has long felt exploited and ill-treated by the government and businesses and it is the primary reason for the large-scale presence of left-wing extremists called Naxalites who have vowed to drive out both the government and industry from the tribal areas. For over five decades, the Naxalites have been waging war against the state, leading to thousands of deaths in large swathes of eastern and central India.
But as if to add insult to the injury, the government has also increased its targets for road building, especially those that pass through the forests and wildlife parks in the country. The federal government is currently pressuring the state government of Karnataka to allow construction of national highways through some of the densest forests in the state, which have a large population of tigers, elephants, leopards and several other species. The construction plans seem to totally ignore the fact that a number of wild animals, notably tigers and elephants have been killed in accidents with vehicles or trains passing through the national parks or elephant corridors. According to some reports, human-animal conflict leads to over 80 elephant deaths a year, many of them in rail or road accidents.
Water and soil pollution in the country are also at extremely dangerous levels in several parts of the country, with many of its rivers being amongst the most polluted in the world, with chemicals, industrial effluents, sewage and fertilisers and pesticides in the run-off from farms found in toxic levels in many rivers.
An unfair distribution
One of the main reasons behind the support for Naxalites in India is the fact that while the beneficiaries of India’s economic development are a handful of urban Indians, the poorest and most excluded sections of Indian society, often living in villages and forests or slums in the cities, are the ones who suffer from the serious effects of pollution and pay the price of economic development. The high level of pollution, combined with climate change, is threatening not only their livelihood, especially for farmers and tribals, who live off the forests.
The pollution is also leading to serious health hazards such as respiratory diseases as well as cancers and other pollution-related problems. It is estimated that over 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015 were due to pollution, almost 27 pc of all deaths due to non-communicable diseases.
India also has the dubious rank of having the largest number of pollution related deaths in the world, accounting for a quarter of all deaths, according to a study published by Lancet, a medical research journal. In addition, over 92 pc of pollution-related deaths in India occurred in low income families, while the real beneficiaries of the cause of pollution – the rich business families – got away entirely unscathed.
If the government continues on the ill-advised path of further removing environmental checks and does not act hard and fast against polluters, it is bound to lead to large-scale social unrest and could easily disrupt the economic boom that the country has been enjoying.