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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Agricultural policy cannot be extricated from water use; indeed, about 80% of India's fresh water is used for agriculture (Bhaskar et al 315). A growing population is placing increasing stress on India's water supply, a situation likely to be exacerberated by climate change. According to the WorldWatch Institute, "in India, the demand for water in urban areas is expected to double and industrial demand to triple by 2025," relative to 2006 (Lemmer 287).

India's major water sources "are rainfall and the melting snows and glaciers of the Himalayas-these are what ultimately feed the rivers, canals, and groundwater tables" (Bhaskar et al 312). Best management practices are undetermined; a heated debate over the impact of deforestation on Himilayan water remains unresolved (Wasson). Furthermore, fresh water that moves through its cycle away from its sources does not always remain fresh; a portion suffers from urban and industrial pollution. According to a 2002 source, "a staggering 70% of the available water in India is polluted" (Nagdeve 11).

river, city and bathers
Climate change could shrink the Ganges river by melting its glacial source. This possibility threatens Varanessi, a 3,000-year-old city known as the Jerusalem of India.

India's major river, the Ganges, long regarded as holy, is polluted with, among other things human waste, garbage, industrial output, and human remains. Global warming also threatens the river: "the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of the Ganges could disappear by 2030" (Wax). The degradation of the Ganges has become prototypical for an India that one analyst characterizes as replete with "water bodies unfit even for bathing, recreation and other social uses that Indians have been used to for thousands of year" (Pachauri 705). Indeed, bodies of water throughout India face severe pollution. As of 1999, Nacharam Lake, in Andhra Pradesh, had dangerously high levels of barium, nickel, copper, and zinc (Govil et al 23), most likely from nearby steel, chemical, and other industrial plants. However a plan to restore the lake, employing sewage treatment and diversion of industrial effluents, seems to have been effective (Hindu).

Water shortages, exasperated by intermittent droughts, are a recurring problem in India. Water is often distributed by wells, with distribution determined locally according to land ownership: "Property rights under the law entitle anyone to pump any amount of water from a well dug on his own land, even if this reduces the water table below the reach of neighboring wells" (Bhaskar et al 316). The stage is set for a classic tragedy of the commons, in which individual short-term benefit hurts the long-term needs of all. The problems are not severe everywhere, however. For instance, "in the Gangetic plain it is estimated that less than 20 per cent of potentially useable groundwater is currently drafted" (Bhaskar et al 318).

To alleviate India's looming water crisis, better governance is needed, with integration of local and national policies. Unfortunately, governance is divided into "at least four different central departments responsible for water-related issues: the ministries of water resources, rural development, agriculture, and urban development" (Bhaskar et al 321). A coherent policy is lacking, while divisions remain at national and local levels. Problems are likely to worsen "if current practices remain in force, given the extent of pollution, waste and misuse of water, and the lack of incentives for efficient use and conservation," (Bhaskar et al 326).

With poor implementation of national policies, local solutions and education may be one key to tackling the looming water crisis and other environmental challenges. One economist believes that, "the failure of formal regulation to control pollution has highlighted the significance of informal regulation for achieving environmental goals" (Kathuria 403).

One local solution occurred in Tumkur, Karnata, where the major water reservoir started to fail in the 1990s. However, a local farmer and engineer, B. J. Kumara Swamy, implemented a number of techniques, including rainwater harvesting, creation of ponds to contain run off, and conservation measures, that have greatly improved the situation (Padre). Regarding the local farmers, Swamy exclaims, "Many of them haven't realised that groundwater decline and loss of topsoil is the root cause of our crisis. For them, this is destiny" (Padre 46). Instead, Swamy is working to educate farmers as to the long-term causes of the water crisis and what can be done to alleviate it.

A problem of the commons even more pervasive than water is the air. Like China, India has relied upon an old-fashioned, crude, and highly polluting energy infrastructure: "direct combustion of large quantities of coal . . . and solid biomass such as fuelwood and agricultural wastes, both of which tend to be burned inefficiently and with large amounts of pollution" (Flavin & Gardner 8). Coal releases large quantities of sulfur and nitrogen, major causes of "cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, chronic bronchitis, increased morbidity, etc."( Mukhopadyay et al 236). Although fossil fuel use has been far lower than in developed countries, it is increasing fast. Increased energy demands are mainly being met with coal plants, which release SO2 and other pollutants. Furthermore, local energy use has been inefficient and unclean: "The use of low quality fuel, inefficient methods of energy production and use, the poor condition of vehicles and traffic congestion are the major causes of increasing emission of gases that contain sulphur and nitrogen" (Mukhopadyay et al 243). Current and future trends indicate a rise in air pollution, suggesting the need for more aggressive policies (Mukhopadyay et al 246). Delhi, for instance, has been found to have two to three times the total suspended particulate level of developed countries, harming long-term lung function (Chhabra et al).

While the current outlook for Delhi may seem grim, it has actually improved since the early 1990s, when it was judged the fourth most polluted city in the world. Much of this improvement took place due to the authority of the Indian Supreme Court, which mandated actions to comply with 1980s laws which had not previously been enforced (Bell et al). Still, India is far behind developed countries in reducing local air pollution, and will probably remain so until more systematic compliance mechanisms are developed.

policeman with mask
A traffic police officer with a mask on his face controls the traffic during the rush hour on Chowringhee, Calcutta, Saturday, Dec. 20, 1997
On the broader level of global greenhouse gasses, India discharges far less than China and the United States, but otherwise it is one of the major emitters. According to a 2002 source, India is "the world's sixth largest and second fastest growing producer of greenhouse gases" (Nagdeve 3). A development much in recent news may accelerate these emmisions. The Tata Nano, a tiny car produced in India and costing only $2,500, has made its debut. For those in developed countries driving such a car, which gets 54 miles to the gallon, would seem environmentally conscientious (Renner). Yet should a large percentage of Indians, starting from a far lower individual environmental footprint, adopt the Nano, the result would be a noticeable uptick in global warming emissions. The Nano, then, raises crucial issues regarding the rights of developed nations to reduce their greatly disproportionate use of the global commons, but also of developing nations to control their population and to seek alternative avenues to development. Still, avoiding responsibility often seems the default option. In international climate negotiation India and China plead that they are still developing and have relatively low per capita emissions. Clearly, though, climate trends indicate the danger should India continue on the high-emissions route to development that was common in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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