Environment : Background & Perspective

By Ashish Kothari, KaustubhMoghe, Neema Pathak

Environment 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 / Vanishing forests / Water resources / Air and atmospheric resources / The biodiversity crisis / Impact of environmental degradation: The poor are worst-affected / Causes of environmental degradation / Environment and development / Towards solutions: Governmental efforts / People's movements


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

  1. 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.
  2. Over-grazing by livestock
  3. Commercial extraction of timber and non-timber forest produce by State agencies.
  4. Unregulated urbanisation and increased consumption needs of urban populations.
  5. Rapid industrialisation.
  6. Diversion of forestland to non-forest use such as mining industry, timber-based industry, paper and pulp industry, and so on.
  7. Submergence of forest land in river valley projects.
  8. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



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



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.



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.



Inappropriate technologies and the mismanagement of resources are certainly responsible for environmental degradation. But they are not the root of the crisis. At the root is the socio-political structure of the country.

One important cause of environmental destruction is inequitable consumption of resources and sharing of responsibility for environmental well-being. Over-population in third world countries is often cited as the root cause of environmental degradation. However, an average American consumes 40 times more resources than an average Somalian. Similarly, the richest 5 per cent of Indian society probably cause more ecological damage because of the amount they consume than the poorest 25 per cent. The question is: who is consuming what, from where and how much?

On the other hand, how the environment should be treated and how natural resources should be managed and used is decided by a handful of powerful people in various walks of life. Forest degradation began when large tracts of forest were nationalised by the British in the 19th century to establish control over valuable resources. Large-scale forestry operations were started, which continued even after Independence. Such extractions are, however, at the cost of the local people in these areas: their access to resources is severely restricted. These people have to buy life-sustaining resources at ever-increasing prices. The local people are left with small stretches of forests, which get quickly degraded. The pressure then falls on the government-controlled forests where people resort to quick and illegal means to meet their needs, turning hostile to the surrounding ecosystem.

For instance, bamboo forests in most parts of India have been nearly wiped out by the paper industry. Till not so long ago the paper mills in Karnataka were paying Rs 15 per tonne of bamboo while the poor tribals for whom it is a basic necessity could only buy it at Rs 1,200 per tonne. In Andhra Pradesh, the government is now intending to hand over to industry even forests conserved and managed by local communities under the state-sponsored Joint Forest Management Programme!

Millions of hectares of land are utilised for dams or mining or urban growth and other 'development' projects. This is because those who benefit from these projects, mostly urban consumers, industrialists, contractors, politicians and big farmers, have greater control over land than small farmers, pastoralists and others whose land is taken over and who are displaced by these projects, often with minimal or no compensation. Hundreds of local communities have local, cost-effective, time-tested means of water harvesting and watershed management. However, the mandate is still in favour of big dams, as the local communities have no political or economic powers.

There is little political will in favour of environmental well-being because the exploitation of nature yields instant and high gains. Hence, there is no comprehensive town, rural or regional plan which integrates environmental needs with developmental needs. Local welfare schemes are externally conceived and driven and are rarely born out of local needs and knowledge. These invariable work in conflict with the local environmental needs.



India's entire development process has been distorted by the structure of inequality outlined above. Adapted almost wholesale from the West and characterised by unrestricted, large-scale industrialisation, urbanisation, consumerism and materialism, today's path towards progress is quite evidently causing severe environmental destruction and resource depletion. It is a process that greatly benefits small sections of Indian society, has some trickle-down effects on a somewhat larger section, but almost leaves out a large section that becomes more and more impoverished.

Millions of people today are worse off than they were when our modern development process was started. Tribals have been alienated from their land and forests, nomadic communities have had their pastures taken away by mega-projects, marginal peasants and the landless have become economically more insecure. Between 20 to 30 million people have been displaced by development projects, rendered refugees in desperate search of shelter and jobs, because they had no say in the development planning of the country. For these people, "development or destruction?" is not a cliché, it is a burning question.

The process of liberalisation and structural adjustments, which India embarked upon in the 1990s, has only served to intensify the environmental and social crisis. There are at least four aspects to it:

  1. The drive towards an export-led model of growth is rapidly depleting natural resources in order to earn foreign exchange, particularly in the fisheries and mining sectors.
  2. The move towards liberalisation is resulting in a free-for-all atmosphere, with industries increasingly ignoring environmental standards and state governments sacrificing natural habitats, including their own wildlife protected areas, to make way for commercial enterprises.
  3. Directives to reduce the government's expenditure are resulting in cuts in social and environmental sectors. This is leading to a stagnation or reduction in programmes for the conservation and regeneration of natural resources.
  4. Opening up of the economy is bringing in companies with a notorious track record on the environment (including pesticide manufacturers who had almost wound-up in their parent country), and wasteful consumer goods and toxins, which are adding to the country's garbage and health problems.

The debate on the new economic policies of the 1990s has highlighted another vital aspect of the environmental crisis: the role of international organisations. Much as inequities within the country have fuelled the crisis, those between countries have resulted in considerable environmental degradation. Unequal trade regimes are forcing Southern countries to over-exploit their resources to compete in the international market and reduce their financial debt burdens. Foreign aid from multilateral and bilateral donors (notably the World Bank) primarily finance environmentally destructive projects, and aid packages (notably IMF) drive macro-economic policies further towards unsustainable and inequitable resource use.



Governmental efforts

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972 was a turning point in the history of environmental legislation in India. After the Stockholm Conference, the Indian government became more aware of environmental issues. One outcome was the creation of the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Co-ordination (NCEPC), established in the department of science and technology. Subsequently, the environmental situation of the country featured as a prominent issue under the Fourth and Fifth Five-Year Plans.

The department of environment and forests was created in the central government, which subsequently became the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) by the mid-1980s. The MoEF is a focal point and a nodal agency in the administrative structure for planning, promotion and implementation of environment, conservation and forestry-related programmes. The mandates of the ministry include conservation and survey of flora, fauna, forests and wildlife, prevention and control of pollution, afforestation and regeneration of degraded areas and protection of the environment. These tasks are being fulfilled by the ministry through environmental impact assessment, eco-regeneration, assistance to organisations implementing environmental and forestry programmes, promotion of environmental and forestry research, extension, education and training to augment the requisite manpower, dissemination of environmental information, international cooperation and creation of environmental awareness among all sectors of the country's population.

In and after the '70 a number of old acts were amended and new ones passed: these included the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, the National Environment Tribunal Act, 1995, the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forests (Conservation) Act, 1980. Besides the legislative measures, a National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, 1992, National Forest Policy, 1988 and a Policy Statement on Abatement of Pollution, 1992 have also been evolved (http://envfor.nic.in/report/report.html).

Several autonomous agencies, offices and institutions have also been set up by the government to implement environmental programmes and policies.



Equally important has been the peoples' response to the environmental crisis. Literally thousands of citizens' groups have sprung up in the last two decades or so. There are two broad categories of groups: those who challenge and oppose environmentally destructive activities, and those who carry out regenerative work or work towards alternatives.

In the '70s, a major World Bank-funded project to replace a massive area of natural mixed forests in central India by industrial pine plantations was abandoned after strong local tribal opposition. A move to hand over thousands of hectares of common lands to a private industry in Karnataka was contested and won in court. The National Fisherfolk Federation has managed to stop destructive trawling off parts of the Indian coast and to enforce seasonal fishing restrictions in marine waters. Several major dams have been stopped before or during the planning stages by local opposition: these include the Bhopalpatnam and Inchampalli in Madhya Pradesh, Silent Valley in Kerala and Vishnuprayag in Uttar Pradesh.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan against the Sardar Sarovar Project has redefined the contours of the environment-development debate the world over and shown that even as powerful an agency as the World Bank can be challenged. The Andolan has combined massive grassroots mobilisation with incisive critiques of the project to generate awareness of the conflict between elitist development and sustainability of resource use.

Meanwhile, the famous Chipko movement in the Himalayas has not only successfully resisted deforestation in several areas but shown that community afforestation with indigenous species can be enormously successful. Attempts at reviving traditional, or developing new methods of ecological farming are now widespread. Farmers and citizens' groups like the Beej Bachao Andolan in Tehri and Navdanya have shown that adequate levels of diversified crop production without the use of synthetic chemicals is possible and economically viable. Energy experts are working on alternative sources of energy in various states.

Several experiments with watershed management and simple rainwater harvesting techniques have achieved with much less ecological, social and financial cost, what big dams cannot. Ralegan Siddhi (Maharashtra), Sukhomajri (Haryana), Gopalpura (Rajasthan) and Jardhar (Uttar Pradesh) are just some of the villages across the country that have reversed ecological degradation and shown alternative development models.

Social equity and decision-making by as many of the members of the village as possible have been essential features of these efforts. Water scarcity in arid tracts of Maharashtra has been tackled by Pani Panchayats, an innovative structure of decision-making in which villagers ensure the equitable distribution of irrigation water. Van Panchayats in the Himalayan foothills are attempting the same with forest resources.

The clear lesson from the dynamics of both environmental destruction and reconstruction in India is that people -- local communities everywhere -- have to be involved in any kind of natural resource management. But there is still a long way to go before local communities are centre-stage in decision-making. And just as long to go before the development process becomes truly environment-friendly.