Opinion| Can India grow now and clean up later? No, it can’t
What is the BJP’s track record in the areas of environment, energy and climate change? The important themes of national security, economic management, and farmer distress are the battlegrounds of this election. Yet it is important not to lose sight of environmental performance because a deteriorating environment undermines both the economy and quality of life.
The data show that there are reasons to be concerned. The Centre for Science and Environment finds that 275 of 445 rivers are polluted, up from 121 in 2009, and that 90% of solid waste is unprocessed in a rich state like Maharashtra and 48% in Delhi. Air quality is a public health crisis. Greenpeace finds that 228 out of 280 cities are not compliant with standards. According to Lancet, air pollution is estimated to cause 1.24 million premature deaths in India. The impacts of climate change are projected to reduce agricultural incomes in unirrigated areas by 20-25% in the long run, according to the Economic Survey 2017. In 2018, India was ranked 177th out of 180 countries in a Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index. Can India afford further deterioration in the quality of our environment?
Clearly, this crisis has been long in the making, and transcends any single government. But equally, the trend has not substantially reversed under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the past five years, India has gone backwards on environmental quality regulation, has tried bold ideas in energy but with implementation challenges, and has improved messaging on climate policy but made limited change to the substance.
On environment, the Union government has sought to ease the cost of doing business through faster, easier clearances. For example, the government has attempted to exempt building and construction projects from the requirements of environmental impact assessment and consent requirements under the Water Act. Infrastructure projects have been allowed to fell trees on forest land before clearances are granted. Amendments to the Coastal Zone Notification loosen requirements for reclamation of land and developmental activities. Stricter emission controls from coal power plants were pushed back by five years through an appeal to the Supreme Court. And key institutions such as the National Green Tribunal have been hamstrung through lack of timely appointments. While unnecessary red tape is in no one’s interest, measures that cannibalise the basis for future growth are unproductive. We need streamlined but effective regulation, not gutted regulations and weakened institutions.
The BJP’s initial reaction to the air quality crisis downplayed the impact on health, and even weakened regulations on power plants and polluting vehicles. While the tone remained defensive, more recently the issue has been taken more seriously with the passage of a National Clean Air Programme, which is an important step, albeit one with limitations.
On energy, the story is one of useful visioning, but limited follow through. The government deserves applause for the Ujjwala scheme to provide subsidised cooking gas across India, which promises increased convenience and time for women, and reduced exposure to hazardous indoor air pollution. The government also deserves credit for building on previous administrations’ successes at extending the grid in rural areas and pushing ahead on household electrification. The rapid growth in renewable energy, driven in part by ambitious targets and clever incentives, is also worth noting.
That the energy glass is half full, however, is illustrated by implementation challenges in all these areas. Despite its undoubted gains, reports suggest that the gas cylinder scheme has not consistently resulted in sustained use of gas. Providing electricity, in practice, is hampered by the failure to reform distribution companies, as a result of which poor rural users are still frequently starved of electricity despite the presence of electricity lines. Both current and past governments share blame for this failure. The government has also risked confusing the renewable energy transition through mixed signals. While signalling support for renewable energy, it has put in place domestic incentives that have had mixed effects and has also called for a doubling of coal production. For the future, a more clear policy direction from the government consistent with its vision would be helpful.
On climate change, the BJP government has astutely managed global perceptions, shed the tag of a “climate spoiler” at the high profile Paris Agreement negotiations, and gone on the front foot with the creation of the International Solar Alliance. These are important gains of position and posture. But beneath this, the approach to climate change remains limited to one of image management. India has yet to seriously put its weight behind global efforts to address this challenge, or build the domestic ability to protect its citizens from the worst effects of climate change.
Can India grow now and clean up later, as the BJP’s emphasis on easing the cost of doing business implies? No. India’s GDP is one third of China’s but we already have worse air pollution. Growth without attention to environment risks making the country unliveable and undercutting the basis for future economic prosperity. There is more than enough blame to go around, across the current and past governments. The question now is whether the next government will address these problems with the seriousness they deserve.
Navroz K Dubash is professor, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal