Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Unhealthy planet

The latest and sixth edition of the Global Environment Outlook from the United Nations Environment Programme does not paint a very rosy picture of the industrial development projects in India which are producing unmanageable quantities of waste material. It is not only the question of producing unlimited waste material but also the non-biodegradable garbage, which is hazardous for the human beings in the country. In fact, the economic development of the country is not being calculated in terms of the progress made in various fields but also focuses on the waste that is posing serious threat and danger to the life and property of the common masses. Despite the warnings of the international organizations on the development projects that are becoming unsustainable, the Indian policy planner need to recognize the human cost of the poorly enforced environmental laws which are currently in force. It is unfortunate that the world is unsustainably extracting resources and producing unmanageable waste material and India is following the same model despite the fact that alternate sources of energy and development are available in this country. The current model of economic growth depends on the extraction of ever-higher quantities of materials, leading to chemicals flowing into air, water and land. This process is causing ill-health and premature mortality, and affects the quality of life, particularly for those unable to insulate themselves from these effects. The UN report, GEO-6, on the theme ‘Healthy Planet, Healthy People,’ has outlined sharp pointers for India. It notes that East and South Asia have the highest number of deaths due to air pollution; by one estimate, it killed about 1.24 million in India in 2017. As India’s population grows, it must worry that agricultural yields are coming under stress due to increase in average temperature and erratic monsoons. The implications of these forecasts for food security and health are all too evident, more so for the 148 million people living in severe weather ‘hotspots’. Somehow, the task before India is to recognize the cost on human capital due to poor implementation of environment laws. The policy-planners have to demonstrate the political will necessary to end business-as-usual policies. That would mean curbing the use of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals across the spectrum of economic activity that is being considered central to development process. The centre has haphazardly implemented some of the schemes in the urban areas on pollution related industrial units, which have been causing air pollution, described as one of the main factors killing human at an alarming rate compared to the rest of the world. It needs to make targeted interventions that only require the resolve to reduce air and water pollution, and which in turn promise early population-level benefits. Aggressive monitoring of air quality in cities through scaled-up facilities would bring about a consensus on cutting emissions of green house gases, and provide the impetus to shift to cleaner sources of energy. It is significant that GEO-6 estimates that the top 10% of populations globally, in terms of wealth, are responsible for 45% of green house gases emissions, and the bottom 50% for only 13%. Pollution impacts are, however, borne more by the poorer citizens. Combating air pollution would require all older coal-based power plants in India to conform to emission norms at the earliest, or to be shut down in favour of new and renewable energy sources. Transport emissions are a growing source of urban pollution, and a quick transition to green mobility is urgently required. In the case of water, the imperative is to stop the contamination of surface supplies by chemicals, sewage and municipal waste. As the leading extractor of groundwater, India needs to make water part of a circular economy in which it is treated as a resource that is recovered, treated and reused. But water protection gets low priority, and state governments show no urgency in augmenting rainwater harvesting in many areas, which have been facing severe shortage of clean drinking water during the past two decades or so. There is also need to create new storage areas that can act as supply source when monsoons fail, and help manage floods when there is excess rainfall.