Workable plan imperative

Environmental Crisis

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Notwithstanding the pandemic this year, environmental concerns remain and are high on the agenda. Recent reports point that pollution and natural disasters have been the cause of serious environmental crisis and most countries, specially India, would face more grave problems if amends are not made. Moreover, the national capital, Delhi’s air pollution, at the onset of winter, if getting menacingly critical.

In two recent global reports, India has been found to face serious problems due to pollution, frequent disasters and use of high emission projects. The report ‘Global Air 2020’ with China (1.8 million) and India (1.6 million) together accounting for more than half of such deaths, air pollution has been found the fourth highest cause of death in India with fear of the risk growing.

Though the report commended the country’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) for initiating action on major air pollution sources in cities across India, it said the levels were stagnant for outdoor PM 2.5 as a result of which over half of these deaths were associated. Not only is the absolute death burden from PM 2.5 high but it has also increased the maximum with as much as 61 per cent between 2000 and 2019. This gets more complex with ozone-related deaths also recording the highest jump of 84 per cent.

Additionally, there is grave concern over the problem of stubble burning. It is estimated to be around 15-20 million tonnes of paddy in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, emitting PM 2.5 which is four to five times the annual PM 2.5 emissions from all vehicles plying on Delhi roads. Reports indicate that about 25 per cent of the paddy residues are burnt in Haryana and the number goes up to 50-60 per cent in Punjab!

There is no denying that though polluting vehicles have led to serious concern in big cities, efforts by government agencies have not yielded the desired results. The outdoor pollution problem has been compounded in spite of active intervention of the judiciary or the National Green Tribunal.

The environment crisis is further compounded by coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately, about three-fourths of India’s electricity is coal-based, and its dependence on coal is growing faster than any country in the world. Moreover, coal extraction in the country has doubled to 500 million tonnes since 1994. The coal complexes have significant health impacts through local air pollution, resulting in premature mortality, ranging from 80,000 to 115,000 deaths per annum, as per a study published in ‘Ecological Economics’ by Elsevier, October this year.

All this points to the fact that coal continues to dominate the energy mix, despite some success having been achieved with renewable, specially solar power. However, it cannot be denied that decarburization of power generation, which accounts for about 40 per cent of the total energy CO2 emissions, might occur sooner than later due to favourable levelized cost of electricity using solar photovoltaic, pace of deployment and political support for the transition. Solar power capacity in the country is 30GW, and taking over from thermal power would mean considerable amount of time, at least in India.

Another worry in the looming environmental crisis is the occurrence of natural disasters. A recent study by UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) pointed out that China (577 events) and the US (467) reported the highest number of disasters followed by India (321) and Philippines (304). The study warned how global warming is causing more climate related disasters in these countries, the frequency of which increased by more than 83 per cent in the last two decades compared to the previous two.

As regards floods in India, the study by UNDRR found that Asia accounted for 41 per cent of all floods worldwide and India stands second-worst affected after China with 17 floods every year compared to China’s 20. It found that 345 million Indians were affected by floods during that period. India’s June 2013 flood has been recorded as the worst since the past two decades with over 6000 deaths.

Sadly, most politicians and policy makers are not genuinely concerned with the devastating effects of environmental problems as these primarily impact the poorer and impoverished sections, some of whom don’t have the basic means for getting treatment. Whether it is the slum dweller or those living in squatter settlements in cities or the rural poor, impact of floods or droughts or emission from vehicles or power plants, resulting in air pollution, hits them the hardest. .

Even the wanton increase in cancer is no doubt an off-shoot of pollution and this disease is increasing at a rapid pace. Pollution undeniably has an all-pervading effect on human life as not just air but water, soil and sound pollution have entered our lives, whether we like it or not. The severity of water pollution — whether it is arsenic of fluoride ion and impact on masses for years together is no secret.

The situation may not have deteriorated to such an extent had national governments, including that of India, initiated measures as per a plan of action. Floods as well as droughts in India are a source of great human misery, specially among the poor and the EWS, which policy-makers, mostly urban-oriented, are unable to comprehend. It is a known fact that governments, both Central and States have not seriously contemplated or worked out a long-term solution to natural disasters, which result in not only loss of life, but crores of rupees every year.

While conflict between development and environment is well known, sustainability is a cry the world-over, though environmentalists believe it’s only a camouflage by vested interests to gain economic benefits. In India, the government’s shoddy approach to environment matters can be seen with finalisation of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) wherein grass-root environmental concerns of marginalised sections have unfortunately not been given due weightage.

Unless there is concern for the poor, the entire strategy geared to understand environmental problems and tackle the situation would have little result. It is imperative to strengthen the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and widen its powers and ensure presence across the country. Unfortunately, the independence of the CPCB leaves much to be desired as also its limited personnel who cannot make their presence felt in most States.

Finally, there is need to have a definite change in strategy if environmental concerns are to be tackled seriously. The government must make its commitment as per international stipulations and demands in the backdrop of what benefits its teeming poor. It must remember that action speaks volumes than mere words. — INFA