Improving India's Poor Environmental Performance
On June 8, Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network released a report of the Environmental Performance Index 2022. India ranked lowest among the 180 countries considered, lagging behind Myanmar at 179, Vietnam (178), Bangladesh (177) and Pakistan (176).
Issued every two years since 2002, the Environmental Performance Index uses 40 performance indicators to measure performance on environmental health, climate change prevention, conservation of ecosystem vitality (biodiversity and, their habitat) and ecosystem services. It also shows how close a country is to meeting environmental policies designed to cope with climate change.
Based on these criteria, Denmark ranked first with a score of 78 out of 100, while India was at the very bottom with a score of just 19.
The Indian government has rejected the index, stating that some of the indicators it used were "extrapolated" and are based on "surmises and unscientific methods". It drew attention to a new indicator in the climate policy objective, projected greenhouse gas emissions in 2050, and said it was computed from the average rate of change in emissions over the last 10 years, instead of considering a longer period, or the extent of renewable energy capacity and use, additional carbon sinks, energy efficiency etc. of respective countries. It also said that historical data on the lowest emission trajectory had been ignored.
It should be noted here that when India is ranked poorly in any of the international reports, our government generally rejects it outright.
India should not question the Environmental Performance Index. The rankings of past years in this regard show that it has never even been in the top 150 countries. Instead of denying these reports outright, we should look at our own performance.
This year India ranked 179 of 180 in the air quality indicator, which cannot be denied by anyone living in our country, especially in the northwestern region which is exposed to the most dangerous air pollution every winter. Even at the international level, every year one or other organization releases statistics on the rising air pollution in India and its health and living costs which are generally denied by our government.
The Yale University rankings were rejected in 2014 by Union Environment Minister Anil Dave, in 2016 by Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, and in 2019 by Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. Prakash Javadekar had even said that there was no Indian research to show that air pollution has anything to do with diseases or that people of India die prematurely, mocking critics. His statement was also discussed at the CoP25 conference.
Recent reports from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, first on March 22 and now on June 14, are the latest confirmation that air pollution is seriously affecting the health of the people of India. According to the report released on June 14, if the concentration of hazardous particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air of Delhi met the criterion set by the World Health Organization, the life expectancy of Delhi residents would be increased up to 10 years.
National organizations also report that air pollution in India is increasing rapidly. In January 2021 Greenpeace India reported that 80% of the country's cities have a higher concentration of PM 10 (larger particles) in the air than permitted even by the national standard. In September 2021 a joint study by Drs Sandeep Salvi and Arvind Kumar concluded that one in three children in Delhi suffer from asthma due to increasing air pollution. Greenpeace Southeast Asia found that around 17 million people died in India in 2019 from diseases related to air pollution, and a report by State of Global Air (Bloomberg and Hewlett foundations) estimated that 1.16 lakh children in India could not even complete the first month of their lives because of air pollution in 2019.
On water, the NITI Aayog of India in 2018 found that some 70% of the country's freshwater sources have been polluted as untreated water from industrial units and sewage systems is being discharged directly into water bodies. It estimates that by 2030 nearly half the country's population won't have access to safe drinking water.
Drinking polluted water already kills 2 lakh people in the country every year due to various diseases. And the area of rivers, lakes, ponds, and wetlands is steadily declining, many ecosystems are slowly disappearing, harming biodiversity which is crucial to our survival. Between 1970 and 2014, Mumbai alone had destroyed about 70% of its wetlands.
In our country, dense forests are also being cleared on a large scale in the name of economic development. Forests play an important role in recharging groundwater and maintaining the flow of water in rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and the like. Due to continuous deforestation, waterfalls and springs in mountainous areas are rapidly disappearing.
A report by the government's own Forest Survey of India found that forest cover had increased to 21.67% in 2019 from 21.54% in 2017. Even this slight increase of 0.13% is misleading as of this increased area, 82% was counted under crops, 4.4% under commercial crops (tea, coffee, coconut, and the like) and the rest under forests.
One also has to take a cursory look at what India is doing to tackle global warming which is also estimated in the Environmental Performance Index. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy from renewable sources (waste, wind and sun) should be used instead of energy from fossil fuels. Yet in the budgets of India from 2009-10 to 2021-22, more money was allocated for power generation from coal than renewable sources. In fact, India is the third largest producer of electricity from coal in the world, and the share of coal in power production in India has remained more or less the same in the past few decades.
The Indian government needs to work expeditiously and honestly on issues like clean energy, clean air and water, forest restoration and preventing global warming. This year's budget should have increased the amount allocated to improving air quality in the National Capital Region and surrounding areas, but instead of increasing it, our government reduced it by Rs 3 crore. The government has also failed to provide additional funding in the 2022-2023 budget to its Clean Air Programme to improve air quality in 42 cities across the country.
Under the National Coastal Mission, the environment ministry is responsible for the protection of coastal areas from natural disasters, protection of coastal people including fishermen, flora and fauna, and sustainable development, but this year the government has reduced the amount for this head as compared to last year's budget. By reducing the funding and changing the Coastal Regulation Zone rules in 2019, the government is leaving coastal areas to suffer more natural disasters. In many parts of the country inward migration has already begun.
In the north, governments and courts are pushing the natural environment to the brink of catastrophe by building four-lane roads in ecologically sensitive mountain areas and by setting up hydropower projects on rivers beyond their capacity. Instead the government of our country should increase the area under forests and prepare nature-friendly development plans to make the environment of the country clean, so that the status of the country's environment is raised and the quality of life of our people improved.
To do so, the government must adopt a pro-people and nature-friendly economic development model rather than a corporate-friendly model and take immediate measures.
Dr Gurinder Kaur is Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala
Cover image from Stolen Shorelines by K.A Shaji