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India will be devastated if it ignores environmental concerns

Last updated on: November 21, 2013 19:00 IST

India will be devastated if it ignores environmental concerns

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By 2050, India will be a devastated country if the deafness to environmental and resource concerns persists, says Nitin Desai. 

If the Indian economy grows at an average rate of six per cent, then it will be about 10 times larger in 2050 than it is today.

If we assume a two per cent improvement every year in resource productivity, the material throughput in the economy will go up by a factor of five.

Primary energy consumption, based on current projections, is expected to go up by a factor of three between 2010 and 2030.

The pollution load and resource pressures are directly related to material throughput and energy use and, therefore, will be five times larger than they are at present and geographically more concentrated because of rapid urbanisation. 

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Considering that we already face major environmental and resource pressures, this is a grim prospect. Coping with these pressures is as important an imperative as development.

From the third Five-Year Plan onwards, Indian planners have accepted add-on schemes to cope with ecologically stressed areas such as deserts, dry lands and mountains, and from the 1970s onwards, for pollution management and environmental impact assessment of projects. 

Much of the focus has been on rural issues such as land degradation, waterlogging, salinity, the loss of biodiversity, and so on.

As we move towards 2050, this will change. With the stabilisation of India’s rural population by the middle of the next decade and its subsequent absolute decline, the focus of environmental policy will have to shift to the consequences of a more rapid pace of industrialisation and urbanisation. 

Thus, the management of urban air pollution, congestion, chemical hazards and noise pollution will become increasingly important.

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Photographs: Reuters

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At present, these are poor cousins, which receive little attention from politicians and are left in the care of corrupt officials. The environment ministry itself is generally assigned to some lightweight politician.

When someone like Jairam Ramesh actually implements the laws in place, he is quickly shunted out. We need an independent and statutory environmental authority authorised to implement the laws on pollution and hazard management.

We also need to bring state governments and local bodies into the picture because their commitment is essential to enforce what are, in essence, municipal obligations.

The right to a safe environment is part of the fundamental right to life, as our courts have held, and a statutory environmental authority – independent of ministerial influence but answerable to Parliament and the courts for the faithful implementation of environmental legislation – is needed to cope with the range of environmental concerns that will emerge as the economy grows and the country urbanises.

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Image: Jairam Ramesh.
Photographs: Reuters

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On the resources front, the two big issues will be fresh water and forests. India is blessed with ample rainfall. However, it is spread over a very few days in the year and is unevenly distributed over different parts of the country.

The big challenge, however, is that this supply will not go up with a rising population and growing urban and industrial demands, which will account for 85 per cent of the additional demand between 2000 and 2025.

A recent assessment projects an increase in demand from 680 billion cubic metres to 900 billion cubic metres by 2050, with an increase in primary water withdrawals — from 37 per cent of potentially utilisable water resources to 61 per cent. 

Nine river basins, comprising 75 per cent of the total population, will be physically water-scarce by 2050. Groundwater withdrawal will increase from 303 billion cubic metres in 2000 to 423 billion cubic metres, which is close to the limits of availability. Ten river basins, home to 80 per cent of the total population, will see their groundwater tables decline considerably by 2050 (the groundwater abstraction ratio will be greater than 75 per cent).

The competition for scarce water resources will become acute and lead to inter-state tensions and inter-sectoral rivalries for scarce supplies. We are already facing groundwater stress in many areas and most of our big cities face water shortages. 

We are compounding the problem with projects that will greatly increase the urban population in some of our driest areas — one such project is the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

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Image: Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge/Pamban Bridge
Photographs: Indiancorrector/Wikimedia Commons

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The only way to manage this growing mismatch between demand and supply is water conservation on a scale and with a sense of urgency that we sometimes see in energy conservation.

What is also needed is a willingness to take water availability into account while fixing the geography of infrastructure development and growth.

The other current problem that will become more acute is forest conservation. According to the environment ministry, 35 per cent of the area in nine major coalfields has thick forest growth and should be categorised as no-go areas. This approach is now being questioned, but the choice between forest conservation and coal mining will not go away. 

Similar problems arise in other areas of mining. The recent referendum in Niyamgiri also exemplifies the conflict with the interests and sentiments of local communities. Given the stringency of our forest laws, this conflict between conservation and local rights on the one hand and mineral extraction on the other may become even more acute.

Perhaps, like other densely populated countries, India should also seek to obtain minerals and other resources from the more sparsely populated resource-exporting countries and conserve its own forest base - even if it means leaving some valuable mineral resources lying beneath the forests unutilised. 

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Image: Howrah Bridge.
Photographs: Dilip Muralidaran/Wikimedia Commons

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India will also face global pressure to contain its carbon emissions.

It has so far avoided this on the grounds of the developed world’s historical culpability for causing the global warming problem and the necessity of energy for development.

However, there is growing pressure, not just on India but also on other large developing countries such as China, to contain carbon emissions - on the grounds that, if that is not done, the global goal of containing climate risks cannot be attained even if the developed world were to roll back its emissions drastically.

Moreover, concerns about the impact on competitive strength reinforce the pressure from developed countries. India has to see this as an opportunity and should try to gain a first-mover advantage in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that will be the growth element in the world energy economy.

More than 40 years ago, the fourth Five-Year Plan spoke about the “obligation of each generation to maintain the productive capacity of land, air, water and wildlife”, a message that seems to fall on deaf ears today. 

By 2050, India will be a devastated wasteland if this deafness persists.


Image: Women carry metal pitchers containing drinking water to their homes at Merta district in Rajasthan.
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters
Tags: India , China

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