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

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Regarding the environment (and many other things), all of the technology and knowhow in the world is useless without strong implementation of policies. In many ways, India should be poised for an effective environmental governance program. According to the World Bank, "India has a strong environment policy and legislative framework and well-established institutions at the national and State [sic] level" (7). Furthermore, democratic countries with strong public participation are often considered best at identifying and reacting to environmental problems. And, India's growing prosperity is leading to "an increase in public demand for better environmental quality from the growing and increasingly assertive urban middle class, as demonstrated by drastic measures to improve air quality in Delhi, which now has the largest compressed natural gas-driven public bus fleet in the world" (World Bank 9).

seated villagers
A village community and Forest Department staff discuss forest management plans: Datanpalli village, Andhra Pradesh

Despite the advantages of a functional democracy in the sense of holding regular elections, India lacks other widespread mechanisms for public participation. Poverty is one encumbrance to having a large, vocal public effectively able to make its needs known; combined with this is a lack of technological infrastructure. Moreover, "barriers of distance, language, literacy, and connectivity - all the factors of particular relevance to India due to the remoteness of many habitations, multiple languages, and significant illiterate population - can also prevent full participation" (World Bank 23). In addition, corruption (often in the form of kickbacks to government officials) is seen as strongly hindering the implementation of environmental policies. According to one commentator, "Indian democracy permits great freedom of activity and association, and the pursuit of ddifferent ideas and interests. But rules and laws in this democracy are violated, or manipulated, perhaps as often as they are obeyed" (Kapoor 637).

Thus, the tension is growing between increased demands for environmental protection and lack of implementation. The World Bank sees a "growing dissatisfaction with the state of environmental management in India by an increasingly vocal, active and impatient 'green' constituency. Some successes notwithstanding, the situation on the ground is considered inadequate by a broad variety of stakeholders. Much of the problem is credited to weak implementation of laws and regulations" (12).

One crucial instrument of environmental policy is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which analyzes the likely impact of various actions on the environment. EIAs originated in the United States in 1969 and have become one of the most successful legal mechanisms for protecting the environment globally (Lemmer 276). At the heart of EIA is public participation, the belief that local people know best their own needs and understand the impact of environmental degradation upon their lives. With its democratic traditions, India would seem well poised to enact EIA. Yet, local participation is limited; furthermore, like China, India's short-term economic growth often depends on ineffective local enforcement of environmental laws. In practice, economic growth is often seen as trumping environmental concerns.

old industrial plant
A leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas at the Union Carbide Pesticide Factory at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, caused one of the worst industrial disasters in history, spurring stronger environmental laws
Still, India has strong basic laws in place protecting the environment. Following the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when more than 2,000 people died and tens of thousands were injured by the accidental release of poisonous gas from a pesticide plant, the country enacted new environmental laws. In 1986, the Environmental (Protection) Act aimed at "protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution" (Lemmer 296). In 1994, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), India's main environmental agency, enacted EIA to strengthen environmental protection. Initially, protection was weak, failing to cover numerous activities such as deforestation and waste disposal (Lemmer 296) and lacking in public participation. The law has been amended, however, to strengthen these areas.

Complicating matters is that India has often proved unable to enforce environmental policy through government institutions, leading to litigation as a primary means of enforcement. In 1985, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the closing of limestone quarries that were harming the water supply, setting a strong precedent. Consequently, "In most countries, the courts have been viewed as a last resort in resolving environmental conflicts. In India, however, it has often become the first resort because of the perceived inabilities or lack of political will of the regulatory agencies to enforce environmental laws and regulations" (World Bank 19). Another alternative used in India is informal regulation in which social pressures, such as negative media coverage or direct community action, enforce local environmental goals. Mechanisms of informal regulation include "demands for compensation by community groups, social ostracism of the polluting firm's employees, the threat of physical violence, and efforts to monitor and publicise the firm's emissions/discharges" (Kathuria 404). Such tactics, while they may catch some of the worst offenders when it comes to local pollution, are obviously piecemeal. They do not offer a substitute for an effectively policed governance regime.

While poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can hinder environmental laws, some critics point to a very different impediment Globalization, they believe, has spurred pressure from international business to lower environmental standards. Vandana Shiva, for instance, argues that the movement of water rights from small farmers to corporations leads to "over-exploitation and misuse of water, since those who deplete water resources do not have to suffer the consequences of water scarcity" (717). Similarly, Coca Cola has faced charges that its operations have led to local groundwater shortages (Kysar 2110). Critics see a conflict between local rights and international business, or even more broadly "competing theoretical conceptions of sustainable development and market liberalism" (Kysar 2114). This analysis is probably simplistic. Clearly, corporations have done much to harm the environment, yet increasingly they are working toward "green" solutions, partly through a feeling of moral obligation and even more through self-interest. Corporations, as well as local practices, can be both part of the problem and part of the solution. Integrating these various levels is a function of social expectations and of governance.

trains & crowds
Transport in Mumbai, Maharashtra (formerly known as Bombay)

Many critics of India's current environmental policy advocate local solutions, often arguing that strong local governances and practices will tackle justice and environmental issues simultaneously. Yet, in a globalized world such solutions, while laudatory, can only be partial. Global technology sharing, for instance, is crucial, but localities will often resist new technology. The paradox is that economic growth should provide a growing population with an improved standard of living, yet environmental stress needs to simultaneously lessen. Social expectations regarding quality of life are certainly important, yet, given India's dilemma, these must be implemented in concert with technological change. As Dennis Anderson explains, "the technologies are available to reduce and sometimes eliminate pollution at costs that are small in relation to output" (259). Wind and solar power, biofuels, and rain catching are just a few of these. Identifying the government agencies responsible for encouraging (or mandating) these technologies is part of the governance riddle. Tax policy, for instance, could end its subsidy of oil and coal and encourage the use of renewable energy.

If India's growing economy still produces less pollution-and certainly fewer global warming emissions-than either China or the United States, its swelling population makes it an object of special global concern. Still, technology, good governance, and social practices offer at least the possibility of an escape from the seeming trap of growing population, growing expectations, and environmental degradation. As Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, and Leela Visaria conclude, "even if the population grows to 1.5 billion people India can become a more prosperous country, with less poverty and better health and education, and a better conserved environment" (Overview 14). Of course, stabilizing the population at or below 1.5 billion is itself a challenge. And, finding the right balance between a modernist ethos of growth and technological change and an ethic of sustainability, which itself might draw on India's Hindu belief in moderation, will not be easy. Yet great challenges may bring great opportunities; if India can achieve the right mixture to help itself, it might also act as a leader in a new world facing unprecedented environmental threats. As Flavin and Gardner argue, "China, India, and the United States have a special responsibility to avoid a new round of self-defeating great power competition and to instead cooperate on creating a better future" (22).

See the related Discovery Guide China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability

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List of Visuals


  1. Acharya, S., Cassen, R. & McNay, K. 2005. The Economy-Past and Future. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, Leela Visaria. Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 202-227.

  2. Appropriate Technology. June 2007. Lighting up Rural India 34: 2, p. 11.

  3. Anderson, D. Modelling the Environment: The Production and Use of Energy. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 254-283.

  4. Bell, R., Mathur, K., Narain, U., Simpson, D. April 2004. Clearing the Air: How Delhi Broke the Logjam on Air Quality Reforms. Environment. 46:2, pp. 22-39.

  5. Bhaskar, V., B., Iyer, R., & Cassen, R. Water. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 312-327.

  6. Bradsher, K. September 28, 2006. The Ascent of Wind Power. New York Times.

  7. Chhabra, S., Chhabra, P., Rajpal, S., Gupta, R. January, 2001. Ambient Air Pollution and Chronic Respiratory Morbidity in Delhi. Archives of Environmental Health.

  8. D'Souza, C. & Peretiatko, R. 2002. The nexus between industrialization and environment: A case study of Indian enterprises. Environmental Management and Health 13: 1, pp. 80-97.

  9. Dyson, T. 2005. India's Population: The Future. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, Leela Visaria. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 74-108.

  10. Dyson, T., Casson, R., & Visaria, L. Lessons and Policies. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 344-369.

  11. Dyson, T., Cassen, R., & Visaria, L. Overview. 2005. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, Leela Visaria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-14.

  12. Dyson, T., & Pravin V. Migration and Urbanization: Retrospect and Prospects. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-129.

  13. The Economist. Jan 17th 2008. Power play: India plugs into the biggest IPO in its history.

  14. Esty, D.C., Levy, M., Srebotnjak, T., & de Sherbinin, A. 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index: Benchmarking National Environmental Stewardship. New Haven: Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

  15. Flavin, C. & Gardner, G. 2006. China, India, and the New World Order. State of the World 2006: Special Focus, China and India. Washington: Worldwatch Institute, pp. 3-23.

  16. Global Wind Energy Council. Global Wind Energy Markets Continue to Boom - 2006 Another Record Year. Press release.

  17. Govil, P.K., Reddy, G.L.N., Rao, T.G. April 1999. Environmental pollution in India. Journal of Environmental Health, pp. 23-28.

  18. Gundimedaa, H., Sukhdevb, P., Sinhac, R., Sanyalb, S. 2007. Natural Resource Accounting for Indian States-Illustrating the Case of Forest Resources. Ecological Economics 61, pp. 635-649.

  19. Haripriya, G., Sukhdev, P., Sinha, R.K., Sanyal, S. 2007. Natural Resource Accounting for Indian States - Illustrating the Case of Forest Resources. Ecological Economics 61, pp. 635 - 649

  20. Hanchate, A., & Dyson, T. Prospects for Food Demand and Supply. 2005. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 228-253.

  21. Guilmoto, C., & Rajan, S.I. Dec. 2001. Spatial Patterns of Fertility Transition in Indian Districts. Population and Development Review 27:4, pp. 713-738.

  22. The Hindu. Aug 11, 2007. Peddacheruvu Gets a New Look.

  23. Kapoor, R. 2004. Plural Dreams: India in the 21st century. Futures 36, pp. 637-653.

  24. Kathuria, V. 2007. Informal Regulation of Pollution in a Developing Country: Evidence from India. Ecological Economics 63, pp. 403-417.

  25. Kysar, D.A. Jun 2005. Sustainable Development and Private Global Governance. Texas Law Review 83: 7, pp. 2109-2166.

  26. Mukhopadhyay, K., & Forssell, O. 2005. An Empirical Investigation of Air Pollution from Fossil Fuel Combustion and Its Impact on Health in India during 1973-1974 to 1996-1997. Ecological Economics 55, pp. 235- 250

  27. Lemmer, J. Winter 2007. Cleaning up Development: EIA in Two of the World's Largest and Most Rapidly Developing Countries. Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 19:2, pp. 275-301.

  28. Nagdeve, D. June 2002. Environment and Health in India. International Institute for Population Sciences. Paper presented at the IUSSP Regional Population Conference on Southeast Asia's Population in a Changing Asian Context at Bangkok, Thailand.

  29. Pachauri, R.K. 2004. The Future of India's Economic Growth: The Natural Resources and Energy Dimension. Futures 36, pp. 703-713.

  30. Padre, S. Mar 2006. Harvesting Success in a Troubled Region. Appropriate Technology 33:1, pp. 45-47.

  31. Rao, M. 2005. India's Population Policies: Untouched by the Cairo Rhetoric. Development 48, pp. 21-27.

  32. Renner, M. January 16, 2008. Analysis: Nano Hypocrisy? Worldwatch Institute.

  33. Ringskog, K., & Chow, N. 2002. Environmental Sustainability in the 1990s. World Bank, Washington, DC.

  34. Shiva, V. 2004. The Future Of Food: Countering Globalisation and Recolonisation of Indian Agriculture. Futures 36, pp. 715-732.

  35. Singh, T. Dec 2000. Green Revolution, Food Security and Agricultural Sustainability in India: The Conflicts and Solutions. Asian Profile 28:6, pp. 487-498.

  36. Suzlon. Identity.

  37. Thankappana, S., Midmoreb, P., Jenkins, T. 2006. Conserving Energy in Smallholder Agriculture: A Multi-Objective Programming Case-Study of Northwest India. Ecological Economics 56, pp. 190-208.

  38. United Nations Population Division. 1994. Report of the International Conference on Population and Development. Cairo, Egypt.

  39. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Country Analysis Briefs. India.

  40. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural Gas.

  41. Vaidyanathan, G., & Sankaranarayanan, R. Sep 2007. Biodiesel - No Conflicts Here! Appropriate Technology 34:3, pp. 12-14.

  42. Veron, J. May 2006. Stabilizing India's Population: Easier Said than Done. Population & Societies No. 423, pp. 1-4.

  43. Visaria, L. The Continuing Fertility Transition. In Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. Eds Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen , Leela Visaria. 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 57-73.

  44. Wasson, R.J. Summer 2006. Upstream-Downstream in the Himalaya: An Old Debate Revisited. ICIMOD Newsletter No. 50, pp 23-24.

  45. Wax, E. June 17 2007. A Sacred River Left in Peril by Global Warming; Glacier that Feeds Ganges Is Vanishing. Washington Post.

  46. Westley, S., Retherford, R.. October 2000. New Survey Measures Fertility and Family Planning Trends in India. Asia-Pacific Population & Policy No. 55, pp. 1-4.

  47. World Coal Institute. Coal Info: India.

  48. World Bank. 2007. India: Strengthening Institutions for Sustainable Growth. Washington, DC.

Note: All webpages cited here have been downloaded in January or February of 2008