An egret settles on a pile of floating garbage near Lake Ulsoor during sunset, in Bengaluru. (PTI)
An egret settles on a pile of floating garbage near Lake Ulsoor during sunset, in Bengaluru. (PTI)

On World Environment Day, India’s top ten concerns

Even as India battles these twin crises, the key to the future lies in ecosystem restoration — the theme for this year’s World Environment Day
UPDATED ON JUN 04, 2021 06:17 PM IST

The 2021 World Environment Day is being observed at the most difficult of times with India battling on two fronts — the second wave of Covid-19 has caused devastation, and evidence shows that the country has not augured well on environmental norms. Water and air continues to be as polluted, and forest degradation continues, as India tries to revive its economy.

India has contributed 30% of the global Covid-19 deaths in May and unlike the first wave, the second wave has spread more to rural areas than cities. In May 2021, 52 % of new cases and 53% of the deaths were from rural areas and health ministry data showed that spread of Covid in villages started from April and it got steam in May.

Data from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)‘s annual state of environment report shows that bad environment with the Covid-19 pandemic can have a devastating impact on rural India, where health infrastructure is very poor. There is a 78% shortage of medical human resource and 32% of health infrastructure in villages as compared to urban areas, the report said.

Even as India battles these twin crises, the key to the future lies in ecosystem restoration — the theme for this year’s World Environment Day. Ecosytem restoration basically means reviving old water bodies, building natural forests, providing space to wildlife and reducing water pollution to restore aquatic life. Healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity, yield greater benefits such as more fertile soil, bigger yields of timber and fish, and larger stores of greenhouse gases. The UN has dedicated this decade for ecosystem restoration.

Also Read | World Environment Day 2021: History, significance and theme

India needs to work on ecosystem restoration as its water and air quality is deteriorating and the impact of the climate crisis on people and agriculture is clearly visible. Here are the 10 major environmental concerns for India.

Climate crisis

The year 2020 was the eighth warmest year on record, and 2016 was the warmest ever, followed by 2009. 12 of the 15 warmest years were recorded during the past 15 years (2006-2020), and 2011-20 was the warmest decade on record.

This is a warning for India, with the average yearly temperature in 2020 being 25.78 degree Celsius. India Meteorological Department (IMD) data shows that warming is happening in all seasons, with average difference in summer and winter temperature being five degree Celsius as compared to four degree Celsius in 1901. CSE report also highlighted that the poorest and populated states of India such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Odisha and Chhattisgarh were most vulnerable to the climate crisis. The vulnerability index is based on 14 indicators which include social-economic condition of people and ability of states to adapt to climate change.

The biggest human consequence of the climate crisis is large scale displacement. India is the fourth-worst climate induced disaster hit country in the world, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), and has suffered several disasters such as floods, storms and cyclones in 2020 and 2021 till May. India is also prone to other sudden and slow-onset hazards including earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and droughts. The 2011-2020 decade saw 33 cyclones, the highest since 1971. An average of around 3.73 million people a year got displaced between 2008 and 2020 in India, the majority by flooding during the monsoon, the CSE said in its report.

Agriculture

Environmental degradation is a major cause of concern for Indian agriculture, with rising use of insecticides and pesticides, which is contaminating soil and ground water.

According to Jal Shakti ministry, around half of ground water in agriculture rich districts of Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan is contaminated. Ground water is also depleting in these states because of excess use. A study done by University of Michigan published in March 2021 said that depleting ground water will cause a fall in agriculture produce, especially in wheat growing states such as Haryana and Punjab by 20% by 2025.

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The impact of the climate crisis is clearly visible on agriculture, with IMD reporting increase in extreme weather events such as hailstorms, excess rain and storms. These factors, various studies have found, have contributed to high farmer suicides in India. According to National Crime Records Bureau, 5957 farmers died by suicide in 2019 as compared to 5763 in 2018.

Even though the government of India has launched a mission for organic farming, only two percent of India’s 140 million hectares of farm land is used for organic farming. Organic farming is the highest in Sikkim (100%) followed by Andaman and Nicobar Islands (60%) but is very low in agriculture rich states of Punjab (0.4%) and Haryana (0.7%), said CSE’s state of environment report.

Water

About 80% of surface water in India is polluted due to dump sewage and garbage, and an alarming percentage of ground water is contaminated by various organic and inorganic sources, said a study Water Sources and Challenges in India published in March 2020.

Water bodies in most places are shrinking and according to minor irrigation (MI) census, water bodies declined by about 8% between 2001 and 2006 and another 10% were not in use because of poor quality of water.

Less than half of country’s 1.3 billion people receives safe drinking water, though, to be sure, the Jal Shakti ministry has ambitiously and actively been working on its mission of connecting every home with a tap drinking water by 2024.

Contrary to general belief, the water quality of India’s 19 major rivers did not improve significantly during the Covid-19-induced lockdown. While Ganga and four other rivers became dirtier, the water quality in another seven rivers remained unchanged, showed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report. Discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage and no freshwater discharges from the upstream are main reasons for pollution levels in rivers.

According to CPCB report, India’s major rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna and Godavari have not seen any significant improvement in water quality despite the government spending a huge amount of money for setting up affluent treatment plants to prevent sewage from flowing directly into rivers.

Air pollution

Of the 6.67 million deaths due to air pollution in 2019, 1.67 million were in India, the second highest after China, according to a Lancet report. According to a CSE report, deaths because of particulate matter 2.5 pollution have increased by 2.5 times in the past decade, with air pollution rising in most places in India, especially the Indo-Gangetic plains.

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Just five states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Rajasthan — account for half of the deaths due to air pollution in 2019. The economic cost was equivalent to 1.36% of India’s GDP.

The only positive news is that in the past two decades, household air pollution has reduced by about 40% due to use of cooking gas instead of fire-wood.

Brown industries

There is an eight percentage point increase in polluting industries between 2019 and 2021, with 35% increase of such industries in Uttar Pradesh and 12% in West Bengal. Any industry which discharges waste water more than 100 kilolitres a day and/or 429 hazardous chemicals used by the industry as specified under the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules of 1989 under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 are considered polluting industries.

According to Jal Shakti Ministry, industries in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Bihar and Arunachal have poor compliance with environmental norms. With the rise in hazardous industries between 2017-18 and 2019-20, total waste generation has gone up by almost 7 %. Almost 50% of the hazardous units are in five states and generate 65% of the total waste, says the CSE report.

Unsustainable cities

Many Indian cities are environmentally unsustainable. Only 28% of sewage generated in India is treated to remove environmentally hazardously effluents before being released to water bodies. In the last 15 years, India’s sewage treating capacity has increased by only 15%. 10 states in India, including Bihar and Assam, have almost negligible facility for treating sewage. The water bodies have shrunk by about 20% in the last 20 years. This is just one facet of a larger decline in environmental standards across various parameters in Indian cities.

Biodiversity

India is one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries, with 7% of the world’s animal and plant species and 21% of its geographic area under forest cover. To pursue higher economic growth and meet aspirations of people, India is sacrificing a part of its biodiversity. And measuring the health of forest is the best way to understand country’s biodiversity status.

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According to CSE, timber and non-timber forest produce services in India are on decline, suggesting overexploitation of the forest resources. Another indicator of poor forest health is that 14 states have seen a fall in carbon retention services with diversion of forest for projects. The highest fall was reported in Jharkhand, followed by Karnataka and Telangana.

Forest fires

The warming of temperature and reduction in rainfall has also led to increase in forest fires in India. As of May 1, the number of fire alerts recorded by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) was 433,581. This is quite a jump, even though the official forest fire season of the country is from February to June. The year 2016, the hottest on record when India’s annual temperature rose 0.71°C over the annual average of 25°C, saw 541,135 forest fires—the most in a decade, CSE report said.

The Global Forest Watch report clearly shows that higher the variation in temperature from normal, more forest fires take place. 16 states have seen a significant rise in forest fires, including Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. However, the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala saw fewer fires than usual.

Wild species

India has over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. The IUCN Red List monitors 1,212 animal species in India, and over 12% of them are endangered. Of the 148 endangered species in India, 48 are mammals, 56 reptiles and 23 amphibians.

Of the world’s top 35 biodiversity hot spots, four are in India — Western Ghats, Himalayas, Sunderbans and Indo-Burma region. Less than 10% of these hot spots are protected and the vegetation in these hot spots has fallen by up to 50% in the last four decades or so. Despite the increase in climate-induced weather events, spending on disaster resilience measures was either reduced or not increased significantly by most states in 2019-20.

Energy

To save the environment, India has tried to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy and has met almost 55% of its ambitious target of installing 175 GW of renewable capacity by 2022. With one year remaining, the country is unlikely to meet the target, primarily because of small hydro and biomass projects.

The country is, however, lagging in meeting it’s solar (35% met) and wind energy (69% met) targets. India has decided to develop 39 solar parks but is yet to operationalise even one of them. Of 40,000 MW target for rooftop solar by 2020, India has only 4,324 MW, according to ministry of new and renewable energy.

India’s target of providing around the clock electricity is still elusive, even though agreements about this signed with all states in 2019. Despite stiff resistance from across the world, India’s dependence on thermal continues with 60% of electricity generated from coal based power plants. India will continue to depend on high carbon emitting coal for its electricity for at least another 30 years.

India has also refused to agree to net zero emissions aim being propagated by the developed world before Glasgow climate change conference to operationalise the Paris climate agreement. Net zero would mean India will have to set target to phase out usage of coal. Navigating the diplomatic challenge where India resists the target for its economic goals, but continues to shift to renewables, will be a challenge.

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