Ask any industrialist and you will be told it is much cheaper to bribe the inspectors than to install and maintain pollution control equipment.
When the rich and powerful of the world gather at an alpine ski resort, and the conversation turns to topics like “Is Capitalism Failing?” and “Global Risks 2012: The Seeds of Dystopia”, you know there are no certainties any more.
At Davos, the have-yachts were discussing have-nots this year, and India glittering is now India dithering. The slide is not just in cricket. In survey after international survey that has been released over the past few months, India is slipping. Whether it be in education, ability to tackle corruption, press freedom, gender gap, human rights, you name it; we are trailing not only behind other emerging economies, like Brazil and China, we are even behind many poorer developing countries.
In a new blow to India’s reputation, this country has been ranked 125th in the world and last in the Asia-Pacific region in the 2012 edition of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) developed by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities. The report shows that India is doing very badly when it comes to the quality of air and water that affects our health as well as the health of the ecosystem in which we live. The researchers have placed India among the 12 weakest performers in the world. South Africa is the only large economy that ranks lower. Bangladesh and Pakistan both fare better. So does China, though it is also a poor 116th in the world.
Is economic growth necessarily disastrous for the environment? The answer is no. But there are difficult choices to make and countries whose economies are expanding rapidly need to be especially careful that economic success does not come at the cost of health and well-being of the people. India tried to ensure this with a plethora of laws and policies, but the problem lies with their implementation. We have had a specific law since 1981 to control air pollution but the air quality has gone down steadily, especially in our cities, because very little has been done to improve public transport so that the exploding number of private vehicles can be controlled. As for controlling pollution from factories, be they of the air, water or soil, ask any industrialist and you will be told it is much cheaper to bribe the inspectors than to install and maintain pollution control equipment. This is especially true of small and medium industries, and they are the overwhelming majority. Even the government acknowledges that it has not been able to clean up the river that is considered the holiest by the vast majority in this country, though there has been a specific Ganga Action Plan since 1986.
In 2009, the government set up the National Ganga River Basin Authority instead, but so far it has not shown any sign of success either.
China has similar problems in controlling air and water pollution, which is why it has done badly in the EPI rankings. The Beijing smog is perhaps the most notorious in the world now, and there are regular reports of rivers and streams being polluted by industrial effluents.But China — with which India is bracketed so often when people talk of emerging economies — is doing far better when it comes to handling global warming and taking a lead in the new “green” economy. It is now the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of renewable energy equipment such as wind turbines and solar panels. Its planners realised early that this will be a global market worth trillions of dollars. China now has the largest number of “green” projects under the clean development mechanism of the United Nations. Despite the severe pollution problem, it has done better than India in the EPI rankings — while maintaining higher economic growth — largely by planting many more trees all over the country through well-publicised afforestation drives.
In contrast, India has had an ambitious National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) since 2008 but only one of the eight missions identified under it has really got off the ground till now — the one for enhanced energy efficiency. As for the rest, there was much fanfare when the government announced that India would have the world’s largest solar energy-generation plan, and would generate 22,000 MW this way by 2022. But implementation has been slow. The state governments are supposed to draw up their own action plans on climate change under the NAPCC umbrella, but quite a few have not done so yet. Contradictions remain. Here’s one instance — the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem says only organic farming should be promoted in the Himalayas, but the Uttarakhand government continues its subsidies on the chemical fertiliser, urea.
In today’s topsy-turvy world, the bets are still on Asia remaining the engine for global growth, though at a slower rate. China will lead, with India and Indonesia following, goes the forecast. So despite hitting the “lows” in so many areas, we could still get on to the high ground. The dominant strain in the public discourse has been on how to get the economy moving at its earlier speed and that is important. But as the slide in global rankings are showing, there are many other areas where we need to move, and quickly.
Education, environment, health and gender equity are all priority areas and the national conversation needs to take them on board.
The Prime Minister’s Office appears to be stirring. Last heard, the PMO’s new point person, Pulok Chatterjee, was prodding the health ministry to work out a roadmap for universal healthcare based on a Planning Commission report. A February deadline has been fixed, according to media reports. Even as appalling instances of our failure to provide healthcare to the most vulnerable come to light every other day, the country has notched a major victory by being polio-free for the past 12 months. It is no reason for complacency, but the news inspires. There are other inspirations too. Dedicated NGOs have shown it is possible to increase farm yields and use water intelligently without poisoning the land with chemical pesticides — there are examples all over the country, from Rajasthan’s Alwar district where Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh and his colleagues have made global models for water conservation to the steaming Sundarbans where the World Wildlife Fund has taught farmers what kind of rice they can grow even when a rising sea invades their farm occasionally.
The problem is that these inspiring stories remain small scale. The big challenge is how to replicate them elsewhere. The writer Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at email@example.com
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on the mountain and climate related issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last two years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>