How can you make India environmentally friendly?


Ravi Agarwal

is an environmentalist and founding director of Toxics Link, one of India's leading environmental NGOs.

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

Is the country's economic growth sustainable?

The Indian economy is growing, the country is developing. The energy demand increases. More and more people live in cities, and more and more vehicles are rolling on the streets. Infrastructure and environmental legislation, however, are lagging behind, which is why India is struggling with massive environmental problems in many places. The follow-up costs could be gigantic if the country fails to reconcile the necessary coexistence of economic development and environmental protection.

Smog in New Delhi. Air pollution in India is among the worst in the world. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified India's capital New Delhi in a report in May 2014 as the most polluted metropolis in the world, ahead of Beijing in China. The annual Environmental Performance Index at Yale University in America had come to the same conclusion a few months earlier. According to the Indian Central Pollution Control Board, the authority responsible for environmental issues, the limit values ​​for fine dust are regularly exceeded in the country's major cities. In most cases, only the PM10 standard is determined (particles with a diameter of less than 10 micrometers). The much more dangerous PM2.5 standard (smaller than 2.5 micrometers) is not measured at all in many places. Regardless, it's not difficult to see and feel air pollution. Anyone who flies to Delhi, for example, plunges into a yellowish smog bell when landing, which is particularly dense in the winter months. After getting out the heavy smoky air bites into the nose and eyes. In the city itself, the streets are clogged with cars and motorcycles. Traffic jams are the order of the day, which further increases the emission of toxic fumes. According to official information, there are around 7.45 million vehicles in the city of 17 million people alone. If you add Delhi's suburbs, the time spent living in the capital region rises to 25 million people - and with it the number of two- and four-wheelers.

High costs due to environmental degradation

India is changing rapidly, and as industrialization and urbanization increase, so too does pollution. According to government figures, 30 percent of the 1.2 billion Indians looking for work have moved from the countryside to the cities in the past few years. This number is expected to increase to 40 percent by 2030. The metropolises are centers of growth and in 2011 contributed 58 percent of the gross domestic product with their economic output; by 2030 it is expected to be 70 percent. But is it possible to live healthy in the cities? Air pollution is not the only problem. Indian cities suffer from tons of toxic industrial waste and massive amounts of household waste. The rivers are polluted because wastewater is discharged untreated. Again and again there are reports of vegetables contaminated with heavy metals, because many farmers irrigate their fields with the contaminated river water. In 2013, the World Bank put the annual costs of environmental destruction in the report Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India at around 5.7 percent of the gross domestic product.

"Environmental pollution, the exploitation of natural resources, inadequate measures for environmental protection, such as inadequate sewage and waste disposal, impose massive follow-up costs on society in the form of health risks and increasing poverty," says the World Bank report. For example, 22 percent of the deaths among children under the age of five can be traced back to the consequences of environmental degradation.

Climate change threats

In addition, India is confronted with the dangers of climate change. Although per capita greenhouse gas emissions (1.7 tons annually) are only a fraction of those of the United States (17 tons annually), India is behind China, the USA and the European Union because of its population size the fourth largest air polluter in the world. A government paper stated that "climate change is affecting the ecosystem and is expected to have a significant impact, particularly on agriculture." Irrigation in particular could become a problem in the future. Many rivers in northern India are fed by Himalayan glaciers, which are melting due to climate change. In the long term, this could lead to less water in the rivers, which in turn would have an impact on the water table. India is already one of the regions of the world that have been severely affected by natural disasters. Many of the 1.2 billion Indians, especially members of the poor, live in areas where the risk of cyclones, floods and droughts is very high. If, for example, the sea level were to rise by only one meter as a result of global warming, it is estimated that around 7.1 million Indian coastal residents would be threatened. Added to this are the effects of climate change on the supply of food and water as well as on people's health.

One of the main causes of climate change is the generation of electricity with the help of fossil fuels such as coal, which in addition to greenhouse gases, also releases sulfur dioxide and other toxic substances. On the other hand, more than 400 million Indians have no access to electricity, which is why coal-based power generation is considered the most cost-effective solution to the problem. In rural India, 80 percent of the people use wood for heating and cooking, which also releases large amounts of carbon into the air. The widespread practice of cutting off harvested fields is also a problem. The cities suffer mainly from exhaust fumes. Against this background it becomes clear that environmental management is a huge challenge that affects almost all areas of the Indian economy.

Pollution as a violation of the right to life

India put environmental protection on the political agenda as early as 1972 when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave a speech at the world's first United Nations conference on the human environment in Stockholm. The promises made there led to the passing of a Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act in 1974 and the establishment of a corresponding regulatory authority. In 1981, the Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act followed.

The chemical disaster in Bhopal in 1984, which killed around 20,000 people and is considered the largest industrial accident in history, led to the adoption of an overarching Environmental Protection Act in 1986. At the same time, India is involved in all multinational environmental agreements within the framework of the United Nations and has transposed them into national law - from the Basel Convention (regulations on cross-border waste disposal) to the Stockholm Convention (dealing with long-lived organic pollutants) to the Minimata Agreement (dealing with mercury ).

Regardless of this, the environmental crisis in India escalated after the economic liberalization in the early 1990s, because neither existing environmental laws nor regulatory and control mechanisms could keep pace with the growing economic output. The increasing environmental problems and their effects on the health of the population soon led to a wave of lawsuits before the courts. As a result, numerous companies were closed by the judiciary, and industrial projects were put on hold.

In a groundbreaking ruling, India's Supreme Court ruled pollution as a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to live. In addition, a special court on environmental issues (National Green Tribunal) with chambers in five parts of the country has been set up to deal with the vast number of environmental cases pending before ordinary courts. Nevertheless, the environmental protection system in India is de facto barely functional to this day.

Economic resistance

As a way out of the crisis, a comprehensive guideline on environmental policy - National Environmental Policy - was launched in 2006, which aims to reconcile the needs of economic development and environmental protection. In 2010/2011, the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh also suggested the establishment of a new independent regulatory authority. However, this failed because of resistance from the ministries responsible for economic issues, who viewed environmental regulations as an obstacle to investment and who did not want to give up their own control instruments in the environmental sector.

The problems were exacerbated by the inefficiency of existing regulatory authorities, which, in addition to mismanagement, are also accused of incomplete collection of environmental data. Air quality is measured in real time in just twelve cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. In addition, the Central Pollution Control Board collects data on pollution in just 24 other cities, whereby the harmful PM2.5 fine dust standard is only collected at a few measuring stations. The air is also not regularly tested for the carcinogenic benzene.

Production of renewable energy as a key task

In the area of ​​vehicle emissions, India has adopted particularly strict standards in international comparison. In many places - for example in Delhi - local public transport has also been switched to natural gas operation. However, the transport industry with its huge fleet of trucks continues to rely on diesel. Its price is subsidized by the state in order to keep the costs for the transport company low. One consequence of this is that more and more passenger cars with diesel engines are being bought in India, which emit more exhaust gases and particulate matter compared to gasoline engines.

Waste disposal is also problematic, because only a small part of urban waste is collected. This is then mostly disposed of in unsecured landfills, from which toxins can seep unhindered into the groundwater. The poor wastewater infrastructure and the lack of sewage treatment plants are also problematic, which is why wastewater from industry and households is discharged directly into rivers and lakes or seeps into the groundwater. In addition, there are the numerous backyard operations that are responsible for around 90 percent of urban recycling and do not properly dispose of toxins from old electrical appliances, plastics or car batteries. Toxins such as mercury, lead or dioxins can get into the air and soil unhindered. The poor who live and work in the vicinity of the farms suffer most from the consequences of pollution.

It would therefore be important to introduce environmentally friendly processes and technologies in order to avoid or reduce pollution from the outset. Air pollution control in cities not only includes emission control, but also the expansion of local public transport in order to reduce individual traffic and thus the number of cars on the streets. However, too little attention has been paid to this in India so far.

The expansion of the production of renewable energies is another key task. So far, the actual costs of coal-fired power generation in India have not been taken into account in the price calculation. In addition to the environmental damage caused by emissions, this also includes the negative effects of fly ash on agriculture or the damage caused by the improper disposal of remains from mining. Without including these negative effects, however, solar energy, for example, has little chance of prevailing against coal. All of the above go beyond the environmental domain, as they concern urban planning, transportation, power generation, industry and consumer rights. It is more about the question of a sustainable economic and development policy and less about classic environmental policy.

Politics has recognized the environmental challenges

It is not that Indian politics did not recognize the challenges. The National Plan on Climate Change is headed by none other than the Prime Minister. There are also eight other action plans that recognize the cross-sectoral effects of climate change and address issues such as energy production, habitat or agriculture. There has also been an independent Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) for more than two decades. Renewable energies currently have a share of 12 percent in electricity generation. This corresponds to a production volume with which around 60 million people could be supplied with electricity in 2012/13. However, investments in this area fell from the equivalent of 9.5 billion euros in 2011 to 4.8 billion euros in 2012. Observers attribute this to political failure within the MNRE.

There are also environmental initiatives in other ministries. The Ministry of Urban Planning is financing public-private partnership projects in the field of infrastructure such as water, transport and waste management through a fund equivalent to the equivalent of 14.7 billion euros. The Ministry for the Environment and Forests has passed new regulations for handling batteries, plastics and electronic waste, which oblige producers to take back hazardous waste and dispose of it in an environmentally friendly manner. As early as 1984, a rivers protection authority (National Rivers Conservation Directorate) was set up to clean rivers such as the Ganges and to build sewage treatment plants. However, the results have so far not been satisfactory in all areas.

Lack of political will to enforce environmental laws

Against this background, the question arises: Are laws and measures taken sufficient? The answer to that is no. This is also clear from the fact that the Indian economy, which aims to grow by more than eight percent annually, and in which there are around 50 cities with more than one million inhabitants, just 0.012 percent of the gross domestic product with a total of Spends the equivalent of 1.3 trillion euros on environmental protection. Because despite the numerous ambitious programs, there is a lack of political will to enforce environmental laws in the sense of sustainable and long-term problem solutions.

One reason for this is that environmental aspects are considered "soft" and are not perceived as core tasks by the political leaders. Environmental laws and regulations also need to be revised to cope with the problems of the 21st century. So far, India has followed the classic development model in terms of poverty reduction, job creation and industrial growth. In order to switch to a sustainable path, not only new political approaches and investments are required, but the country must also understand that it is above all the poor who in the end suffer particularly from environmental degradation.