Fifty-five years of ‘development’ have spurred on unplanned urbanisation, extensive industrialisation, and the building of a series of big dams. In the process, India has landed bang in the middle of an ecological crisis. We have lost half our forests, poisoned our waters, eroded our lands and rendered millions homeless, resourceless and more impoverished. Three of our cities are amongst the 15 most-polluted cities in the world. Several of our plant and animal species are extinct. Why and how has this happened? And how can the situation be remedied? What is the difference being made by government legislation and people’s movements for the environment?
LAND AND SOIL DEGRADATION
Land is the most threatened resource in India. In 1980, the union ministry of agriculture admitted that 175 million hectares of the total landmass, ie 53 per cent of the total area, is degraded to some extent. In 1994, Sehgal and Abrol placed this figure higher at 187.2 million hectares, of which 162.4 million hectares are degraded by water and wind erosion and 21.7 million hectares by salinity and waterlogging. The remaining 4 million hectares are affected by the depletion of nutrients.
According to the National Remote Sensing Agency and Forest Survey of India, 80 million hectares of the 142 million hectares under cultivation are substantially degraded and about 40 million hectares of the 75 million hectares controlled by the forest department have canopy cover of less than 40 per cent (Gadgil, 1993). Nearly 12 million hectares of pasturelands are also substantially degraded. Thus, a total of 132 million hectares representing 40 per cent of the country’s total landmass have productivity well below their potential (Tejwani & Yadav, 1998).
Causes of land degradation
The main causes of land degradation are deforestation, ignorance of soil conservation practices, extension of cultivation to marginal lands, improper crop rotation, imbalanced fertiliser use, surface irrigation ironically designed to increase land productivity, rapid growth in population, paucity of land, economic pressures and poverty.
The dimensions of deforestation in India are staggering. The forest cover in the country is estimated at 637,293 sq kms, which is 19.39 per cent of the total geographical area (dense forest 11.48 per cent, open forest 7.76 per cent and mangrove 0.15 per cent). According to the State of Forest Report (1999), the dense forest cover has increased by 10,098 sq kms. since 1997. However, this apparent increase in the forest cover is due to plantations by different agencies. The State of Forest Report does not differentiate between natural forests and plantations. Therefore these reports fail to deliver accurate information about actual loss of natural forests.
Till 1980, India’s forest cover was being lost at the rate of 144,000 hectares per year. This slowed to 23,533 hectares between 1981 to 1995. Between 1975 and 1982, India lost a total of 1.4 million hectares of forest cover. According to a FAO report (1994), the annual rate of deforestation in India is 0.6 per cent (0.34 million hectares). In 1990, the total forest area was 70.6 million hectares, of which 27 per cent was under commercial plantation, especially of eucalyptus, teak and pine. The area allotted for forestry plantation is increasing by 15.5 per cent a year since 1981. As a result of this, the total area under forests is increasing even as the extent of natural forests is decreasing.
Causes of degradation of forest resources
- Over-exploitation by communities residing in the vicinity of forests for subsistence or economic use such as collection of fuelwood, fodder, non-timber forest produce, etc.
- Over-grazing by livestock
- Commercial extraction of timber and non-timber forest produce by State agencies.
- Unregulated urbanisation and increased consumption needs of urban populations.
- Rapid industrialisation.
- Diversion of forestland to non-forest use such as mining industry, timber-based industry, paper and pulp industry, and so on.
- Submergence of forest land in river valley projects.
- Conversion of forest land for agricultural purposes, including encroachments.
According to a study by Engelman and Roy (1993) per capita water use in the country has decreased from around 5,277 cubic metres in 1955 to 2,464 cubic metres in 1990. Per capita availability of water, which was 6,008 cubic metres in 1947, has fallen to 2,266 cubic metres in 1997. This gives a broad indication of the growing water scarcity in the country since Independence and consequently, the serious drought situation year after year in various parts of the country.
According to the Eighth Five-Year Plan document (1992-97), the total irrigation potential of the country was 71.8 million hectares. However, according to landuse statistics, the net area irrigated is less than one-third of the net area sown. To irrigate this one-third of the total area, the government has spent over Rs 3 trillion during the Eighth Plan (Chitale, 1998).
Of all natural resources, freshwater resources have been exploited the most. Deforestation and changes in land use are major causes of imbalance in the hydrological cycle. Industrial pollution, rapid urbanisation and agricultural runoff have worsened this problem.
Indian rivers are a classic example of rapid, unplanned development at the cost of an important natural resource. For example, from the time the River Yamuna enters Delhi, about 1,700 million litres of untreated sewage are discharged in it per day. This was, till recently, in addition to the industrial waste from about 93,100 small- and large-scale industries (CSE 1999). The situation is similar in almost all large urban centres. Twenty-five large towns on the banks of the Ganga generate 1,340 million litres of sewage every day, which was directly discharged into the river till the Ganga Action Plan was started in 1985 to clean it up (CSE 1999). Therefore, river systems passing through major cities and towns serve as open sewers to carry untreated effluents (domestic and industrial).
Over 70 per cent of India’s surface water is seriously polluted. The Economic Survey of 1995 stated that 95 per cent of the water in India’s 241 class II towns was polluted. Recent surveys show that more than 50 per cent of industries may be discharging effluents above the prescribed standards.
Causes of degradation and pollution of water resources
- Many industries in India have obsolete pollution control technology. They still follow the ‘dilute and disperse’ principle for treating effluents. Very few industries in India have in-built techniques for pollution prevention and waste minimisation.
- Serious degradation of water resources is caused by excessive water withdrawal for various reasons such as irrigation, industry, domestic consumption, etc. The effect of this is compounded by the fact that the catchments of these water resources are now seriously degraded, hampering groundwater recharging.
- The natural drainage and water flow of many important rivers has been altered due to the withdrawal of water and construction of big dams. In the absence of optimum water flow, river systems lose their capacity of self-cleansing.
AIR AND ATMOSPHERIC RESOURCES
The air in most of our cities is dangerously polluted. Average levels of suspended particulate matter in the four metropolitan cities (Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata) is over 360 micrograms per cubic metre, while the World Health Organisation has stipulated a safety level of 150 mg/ cubic metre. Pollutants in India’s urban areas include oxides of nitrogen (NO2), sulphur (SO2) and carbon (CO and CO2) and suspended particulate matter (soot and dust). In addition, there is a range of toxic and carcinogenic substances such as benzene, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), ozone, lead, etc. The main sources of these pollutants are vehicular exhaust and industrial activity (energy sector, refinery and petrochemicals, iron and steel industry and others). Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are among the 15 most polluted cities in the world.
To add to these hazards are the mushrooming chemical industries and nuclear power plants, both of which have shown terrible safety records in India. The Bhopal disaster of 1983, in which several thousand people died inhaling toxic gas, was only the most visible sign of the dangers posed. Smaller accidents of that kind happen frequently in the country. Though no major accident has so far taken place in nuclear facilities in India, the possibility is certainly not remote. Most Indian nuclear power plants have been plagued by small reactor accidents. The Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant has perhaps the most radioactively contaminated interiors in the world.
Pesticides are another category of environmental contaminators. Many pesticides are known to have a biomagnifying character, ie having a cumulative effect after many years of accumulation in the body or magnifying in concentration while entering from prey to predator in the foodchain. The use of seriously poisonous pesticides has resulted in the decline of many bird species and caused serious ailments among humans.
Causes of air pollution
- Various regulatory legal provisions exist for emission levels from industry and vehicles. However, malpractice and a lack of political will render their implementation ineffective.
- Lack of a sense of responsibility and awareness of the direct impact of pollution among the people.
- Use of bad fuel quality for short-term gains.
- Use of obsolete technology for energy production in vehicles and industry.
THE BIODIVERSITY CRISIS
The Indian subcontinent has been identified as one of the top 12 hotspots of biodiversity in the world. India harbours 8 per cent of the total number of species in the world, estimated to be 1.6 million, with possibly twice or thrice that number still to be discovered. However, conservative estimates suggest that at least 10 per cent of India’s recorded wild flora and 20 per cent of its mammals are on the threatened list. Many of these would now be categorised as ‘critical’, ie on the verge of extinction. In fact, no one can say how many species have already been lost. According to one estimate, 23 species of different animals and plants are extinct, including the cheetah, lesser one-horned rhino, pink-headed duck, mountain quail, forest spotted owlet, and plants like the Hubbardia heptaneuron. The latter disappeared when a hydroelectric dam was built upstream of its riverine habitat. Many species have gone extinct either because they were not ‘glamorous’ enough to attract attention like the larger mammals or because their existence was simply not known to us.
India’s domesticated biodiversity suffers the same plight. The Indian sub-continent is recognised as one of the world’s major centres of crop and livestock origin and diversity. For example, till not so long ago, Indian farmers grew about 50,000 to 60,000 varieties of rice. The use of a diverse range of crop species and varieties ensured that several human needs (food, fodder, thatching, medicines, ritual uses, etc.) are fulfilled, and that there are back-up crops if some are affected by disease, pests or natural calamities. Hundreds of varieties of cattle, chickens, camels, goats and sheep are still bred and used by communities all over the country
Threats to Indian biodiversity
Ever-increasing market pressures, poaching, smuggling of timber, over-exploitation of natural resources, widespread pollution in combination with habitat destruction and large-scale introduction of exotics have endangered a large portion of our biological diversity.
IMPACT OF ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: THE POOR ARE WORST AFFECTED
The localised and national impact of environmental degradation is now becoming increasingly clear. Loss of topsoil, salinity, pollution, shortage of water and biomass have caused serious declines in agricultural productivity in many areas, making the food security situation bleak. A World Bank study reported that the cost of environmental damage due to pollution is 4.5 per cent of the GDP. Polluted air poses serious threats to human life, the short-term effects of which can be seen as health hazards and diseases. India is spending about Rs 4,600 crore every year to make up for health damages due to ambient air quality. The Centre for Science and Environment’s Fifth Citizen’s Report (1999) states that in the 33 Indian cities for which air quality is available, deaths particularly due to particulate air pollution went from 40,000 to 52,000, an increase of 30 per cent in just three to four years. Noise levels are so high that certain areas record over 90 decibels for the better part of the day.
While environmental degradation ultimately affects everyone, the immediate and most severe impact is felt by the poor. Millions of workers in India are exposed to unhealthy occupational environments, full of dust, heat, noise, dirt, gases and dangerous machinery. Perhaps 70 per cent of the diseases in India (in terms of the number of people affected) are caused by polluted water. These diseases hit the poor more than the rich because of the unhygienic conditions in which they live. Annually, hundreds of thousands of industrial workers, especially contract labourers, fall prey to environmentally degraded working conditions. Agricultural labourers, the poorest rural strata, are most exposed to the dangers of threshers and pesticides.
When land productivity declines, rich farmers manage to sail through in the short-term by increasing external inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. Marginal farmers, however, are fighting a losing battle and many end up taking their own lives, like the cotton farmers of Andhra Pradesh in recent times. Marginal farmers are further affected by the loss of various indigenous varieties and knowledge of crops and livestock as they are left with no fallback systems.
Loss of biodiversity has increasingly marginalised and impoverished many tribals and other forest-dependent communities which directly depend on various components of biodiversity for food, drink, medicine, culture, spirituality, etc. Even among the poor, women are affected more than men. In many societies, women bear the major responsibility of collection of fuel, fodder, water and such basic subsistence needs. As these resources are depleted, the drudgery of women increases and sometimes they have to walk for more than 10 kms to collect these resources. This causes serious health problems for women. Neglect of the home and children because of increased hours of work often has serious social implications.
The indirect impact of degradation — such as severe drought or deforestation-induced floods — also hits the poor hardest. Poverty in these cases is a direct outcome of environmental destruction.