India’s growth is increasingly taking place at the cost of its environment. This is no longer in doubt. Even so, when the man in charge of the highest office in the land says that the environment situation is ‘alarming’, you know that there is really cause for worry. This also highlights the disconnect between all the talk that we must ensure sustainable growth and the reality on the ground, which is gross mismanagement of our environment. At a conference of state environment ministers in the Capital recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the gathering that the ecological crises that confront the country have led to an “alarming situation”. He then went on to ask the state governments to curtail pollution, clean rivers and fight climate change.
The Prime Minister’s warning comes in the wake of two reports that demonstrate the slippery slope that we are on. The just-released ‘State of the Environment Report’ says that at least 45 per cent of India’s land is environmentally “degraded”, air pollution is rising and the flora and fauna are diminishing. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration study, also released around the same time, found that groundwater levels in northern India have been declining at an alarming rate, by as much as one foot per year over the last decade. The reason: water is being pumped and consumed by human activities — principally for irrigation — faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes.
To stop the further decline of our natural resources, stringent regulation and incentives are needed. And for this, the charge must be led from the top, from those in charge of keeping a balance between growth and the environment. If they follow the rules, then half the battle is won. There are instances galore when the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the nodal central ministry, has flouted all norms to give clearance to dubious projects at the cost of the environment and communities which depend on it. Therefore, it is no surprise that the fight between the government and civil society and civil society and corporates has reached a crescendo. While India gears up for the climate change battle in Copenhagen at the end of this year, it definitely needs to put its house in order before we are left with very little to save. This will also put us in a better position to argue for safeguards that developing countries need to stave off unreasonable demands from the developed world.