Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Choking point: India’s environmental crisis

The country performs very badly on almost all metrics in protecting its environment, even with small strides forward.

An open air laundry on the banks of the Yamuna River amid heavy fog and smog conditions (Photo: Xavier Galiana via Getty)
An open air laundry on the banks of the Yamuna River amid heavy fog and smog conditions (Photo: Xavier Galiana via Getty)
Published 10 Jan 2019   Follow @pomegranitaa

It is January; a month that, in north India, once fell in the season of winter, but now is more synonymous with the depths of the region’s dreaded pollution season. This month, as in recent years, a brutal combination of diverse factors has continued to coalesce to produce dire air quality in its cities, most notably in the capital New Delhi.

For a country with global leadership aspirations, India’s woeful environmental ranking could be a particularly embarrassing result.

Here, air quality logs in at the “extremely hazardous” range so often that life carries on as normal, even with the pollution hitting the global headlines. One recent such headline read “Rain Clears India Smog, Improves Air Quality to ‘Very Poor’”, a backhanded compliment illustrating just how unremarkable the bad air now is.

The headlines are not exaggerating. Air in Delhi in January ranges from mildly smoky to what can delicately be described as chewy, to, at its worst, pollution and fog so dire that visibility is about two metres.

Levels of PM2.5 – measuring the particularly poisonous particulate matter of 2.5 micrometres in diameter – are considered too high to be healthy. Regularly measured at over 100 ­– the US considers a safe limit to be 35 – the level of PM2.5 sometimes is measured as being in the hundreds. Twice, I’ve seen the levels hit 999, the highest recordable number, meaning the actual level could be far higher.

With pollution like this, it would be easy to consider India to be unable to make any strides ahead on environmental issues and conservation more generally. But just what is the true picture?

The reality is a mixed bag. While India performs very badly on almost all metrics in protecting its environment, there are some small strides forward being made, such as last year’s pledge to ban single-use plastic by 2022. There is also growing civic action to clean up public spaces, both independently and under the banner of the Modi-government led Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission.

In particular, the 2010 founding of the country’s National Green Tribunal – similar to New South Wales’ Land and Environment Tribunal in Australia – means that there is a specific avenue through which environmental cases can be pursued. The Tribunal rules on cases on pollution, toxic waste, dumping, mining, dams, and more, with wide-ranging powers.

Currently, the court is looking at issues including the uncontrolled use of groundwater in delicate areas, sand mining at the Yamuna River and the illegal felling of trees in Shimla. It is particularly known for its ability to act nimbly, unlike the elephantine processes of the rest of India’s judicial system. 

Yet still, India remains woefully behind other parts of the world. In 2018’s Environmental Performance Index it ranked 177 out of 180. Dragged down particularly by its low score for air quality, it also does badly on other measures including biodiversity protections. For a country with global leadership aspirations, it could be a particularly embarrassing result – however over the course of its time in power, the Modi government has seemed intent on watering down India’s existing environmental protection laws, most likely to attract development.

Air: According to the WHO, India is home to 14 of the world’s most polluted cities. All are in the north, stretching from Jodhpur in Rajasthan eastwards to Gaya in Bihar. Recently-released data published in The Lancet indicates that one in every eight deaths in India is related to air pollution. Authorities are taking steps to curb the menace, including the formation of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which is looking at long-term measures.

Water: Groups have warned of a looming water crisis in India, whether it be falling groundwater levels or contaminated riverways and water bodies, or Himalayan springs drying up. Niti Aayog released its Composite Water Management Index last year, which is a useful summary of water management issues and processes across the country, and there are numerous cases in the NGT involving water.

Forest cover: Niti Aayog says India currently is just under 22% forest cover, against a recommended 33%. Deforestation is happening across the country ­– for example, Delhi is losing trees at the rate of one per hour ­– through a mixture of development and forest fires. Efforts are being made to quell the trend, through awareness, policy changes, the NGT and activism, such as the successful stalling of a major road being built through a protected forest near Agra.

Waste: India produces far less waste than developed countries, yet struggles with how to deal with it, with cities often seemingly drowning in waste. Landfills sometimes catch on fire, causing major health concerns. India is among the top five e-waste producers in the world, yet doesn’t have mechanisms for monitoring or managing it.

Renewable energy: While there is still a long way to go, India is often praised for its investment in renewables. Solar power is at record low prices, although take up remains low. Karnataka is the state leading the pack, with 27% of its energy coming from renewable sources. 

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