About 45 per cent of India's land is degraded, air pollution is increasing in all its cities, it is losing its rare plants and animals more rapidly than before and about one-third of its urban population now lives in slums, says the State of Environment Report India 2009 brought out by the government.
The third official report on the state of India's environment, published after a gap of eight years and released by Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh in New Delhi on Tuesday, has only one word of cheer - it says India is using 75 per cent of the water it can use, and it has "just enough for the future if it is careful".
The report, prepared by NGO Development Alternatives under the aegis of the ministry, says 45 per cent of India's land area is degraded due to erosion, soil acidity, alkalinity and salinity, waterlogging and wind erosion.
It says the prime causes of land degradation are deforestation, unsustainable farming, mining and excessive groundwater extraction.
On the bright side, the report shows how over two-thirds of the degraded 147 million hectares can be regenerated quite easily, and points out that India's forest cover is gradually increasing.
Ramesh said it would be unrealistic to expect that India's area under forests would go above the current 21 per cent, given the competing demands for land. "Our plan is to have all this 21 per cent as high and medium density forests within the next 10 years," he said. Currently, only two per cent of India is under high density forest cover, while medium density forests cover about 10 per cent of the land.
Presenting the salient features of the report to the media, Development Alternatives President (Development Enterprises) George C Varughese said one of its most worrisome findings was that the level of respirable suspended particulate matter -- the small pieces of soot and dust that get inside the lungs -- had gone up in all the 50 cities across India studied by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Central Pollution Control Board.
"In these 50 cities, with their population of 110 million, the public health damage costs due to this was estimated at Rs 15,000 crore in 2004," Varughese said.
The main causes of urban air pollution were vehicles and factories, he pointed out, appealing for a major boost to public transport.
While India still had some cushion when it came to water use, this scarce resource would have to be managed very carefully, the report says. It identifies lack of proper pricing of water for domestic usage, poor sanitation, unregulated extraction of groundwater by industry, discharge of toxic and organic wastewater by factories, inefficient irrigation and overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as the main causes of water problems in the country.
While India remains one of the world's 17 "megadiverse" countries in terms of the number of species it houses, 10 per cent of its wild flora and fauna are on the threatened list, Varughese pointed out. The main causes, according to the report, were habitat destruction, poaching, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution and climate change.
The report points out that while India contributes only about five per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions that are leading to climate change, about 700 million Indians directly face the threat of global warming today, as it affects farming, makes droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe and is raising the sea level.
In the section on urbanisation, the report points out that 20 to 40 per cent of people living in cities are in slums. Varughese said there were good projects to upgrade their lives and improve the environment at the same time, but the problem was that most of the money from schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission was taken away by the big cities, "while the major problem is in about 4,000 small and medium towns".