Bottleneck: India’s environmental crisis


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

For a country aspiring to global leadership, India’s dismal environmental ranking could be a particularly embarrassing outcome.

The air quality here is so often in the “extremely dangerous” range that life goes on as normal, even with the pollution making the world’s headlines. A recent headline of this type read “Rain clears smog in India, improves air quality to ‘very poor’”, a backhanded compliment illustrating how commonplace bad air is now.

The titles are not exaggerated. The air in Delhi throughout January ranges from slightly smoky to what can be delicately described as rubbery, to, at worst, pollution and fog so terrible that visibility is around two metres.

Levels of PM2.5 – measuring particularly toxic particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter – are considered too high to be healthy. Regularly measured at over 100 – the US considers a safe limit to be 35 – the PM2.5 level is sometimes measured in the hundreds. Twice I saw the levels reach 999, the highest recordable number, which means the actual level could be much higher.

With pollution like this, it would be easy to consider India incapable of making progress on environmental issues and conservation more generally. But what is the real picture?

The reality is mixed. While India performs very poorly on almost every parameter of protecting its environment, small progress is 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 Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission led by the Modi government.

In particular, the 2010 establishment of the country’s National Green Tribunal – similar to the Land and Environment Tribunal in New South Wales in Australia – means that there is a specific route through which environmental cases can be prosecuted. The Tribunal adjudicates cases of pollution, toxic waste, dumping, mining, dams, etc., with broad powers.

Currently, the court is looking at issues such as the uncontrolled use of groundwater in sensitive areas, sand mining on the Yamuna River and the illegal felling 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 judicial system.

Yet India remains woefully behind other parts of the world. In the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, it ranked 177 out of 180. Driven particularly by its low air quality score, it also does poorly on other metrics, including environmental protection. biodiversity. For a country aspiring to global leadership, this could be a particularly embarrassing outcome – but during its tenure, the Modi government has appeared determined to water down India’s existing environmental protection laws, which is very likely to hurt. 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 eastward 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 steps to stem the threat, including forming the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) which is considering long-term measures.

The water: Groups have warned of a looming water crisis in India, be it falling groundwater levels or contamination of streams and water bodies, or the drying up of the Himalayan springs. Niti Aayog released his Composite Water Management Index last year, which is a useful summary of water management issues and processes across the country, and there are many instances 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 all over 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 major road being built through a protected forest near Agra.

Waste: India produces far less waste than developed countries, but struggles to manage it, with cities often seeming to be drowned in waste. Landfills sometimes catch fire, causing serious health problems. India is among the top five e-waste producers in the world, but has no monitoring or management mechanisms.

Renewable energy: Although there is still a long way to go, India is often hailed for its investments in renewable energy. Solar energy is at record prices, although demand remains weak. Karnataka is the leading state, with 27% of its energy coming from renewable sources.


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