India’s twin environmental challenges

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

In the past 10 years, India’s environmental movement has had a rebirth. It was first born in the 1970s, when the industrialised world was seeing the impact of growth on its environment. In that decade the air and rivers of London, Tokyo and New York were full of toxins. The world was learning the pain of pollution. The first major global conference on the environment, the Stockholm meet, was held to find ways to deal with this growing scourge. India’s key pieces of environmental legislation were enacted in this period—the water pollution Act of 1974 and the air pollution Act of 1981. But we were innocents in the world of pollution. We had not yet witnessed the intensification of growth that would, in turn, destroy our environment.

imageIt was also in the 1970s that the second environmental challenge—issues of access and sustainable management of natural resources—emerged. In the remote Himalayas, the women had prevented the timber merchants from cutting their forest. But their fight was not to protect the forest. Their fight was to assert their right to the resources of the forest. It was an environmental movement because the women of this village in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand knew they had to protect the forest to protect their livelihood. It was a call to redefine development and growth.

But it is only now that these two sides of the environmental challenge have truly come home to India. Importantly, this is a time when environmental issues have taken centre stage in the country. Yet matters are going from bad to worse. The pollution in our rivers is worse today than it was three decades ago. The garbage in cities is growing by the day, even as governments scramble to find ways of reducing plastic and hiding the rest in landfills in far-off places. Air pollution in cities is worse, and toxins are damaging our lungs.

This, in spite of efforts to contain the problem. We have invested in building sewage treatment plants to deal with water pollution. We have improved the quality of fuel that runs our vehicles; changed emission standards and set up institutions to regulate industrial emissions. But still we find we cannot catch up in this game of growth and its toxic fallout.

In this decade as well, the struggles for the control over resources have intensified. In every nook and corner of the country where land is acquired, or water sourced for industry, people are fighting even to death. There are a million pollution mutinies happening. The fact is in India a large number of people—and it is indeed a large number—depend on the land, the forests and the water around them for their livelihood. They know that once these resources are gone or degraded their survival will be at stake.

We must recognise that across the world, the environmental movement is based on the idea that people do not want anything bad in their vicinity: not in my backyard or NIMBY. Ordinary people, but with power because they are part of the voting middle-class, take up these issues because they affect their lives. The fight is personal. It is another matter that their fight has national policy ramifications, often for the better. But there is also a downside to NIMBY: if it is not in my backyard, then in whose backyard should it be? This is not an issue that is asked or answered. But it must be.

When the urban and middle-class India—as across the world—faces an environmental threat it does not stop to ask in whose backyard it should be allowed. The fact is garbage is produced because of our consumption. The richer we get, the more waste we generate and the more we pollute. This consumption is necessary because it is linked to the economic growth model we have decided to adopt. But we forget that the more we consume, the higher the cost of collection and disposal of waste which we cannot afford. So, we look for band-aid solutions. In middle-class environmentalism there is no appetite for changing lifestyles that will minimise waste and pollution.

The Western environmental movement began after societies there had acquired wealth. The movement was a response to the mounting garbage, toxic air and polluted water resulting from the growth of their economies. They had the money to invest in cleaning and they did. But because they never looked for big solutions, they always stayed behind the problem—local air pollution is still a problem in most Western cities, even if the air is not as black as ours. It is just that the toxins are smaller, more difficult to detect or smell.

In India, we want to emulate the disastrous ways of the already rich, with much lesser resources and much more inequity and poverty. The fact is we cannot find answers in the same half-solutions they invested in. This is the biggest challenge of India’s environmental movement. We can do things differently to reinvent growth without pollution. But only if we have the courage to think differently. I hope we will.

Compendium of environment statistics India 2012

Living planet report 2012: biodiversity, biocapacity and better choices

Global outlook on sustainable consumption and production policies: taking action together

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  • Hello, Really the exact

    Really the exact description of the situation about India's Environmental Movement. Appreciate the approach of 'positive & scientific' environmentalism.

    I feel there is a gap of credible economic model based on eco-friendly development initiatives and achieving economic as well as social (well being) growth.

    An alternative economic model needs to be developed and debated in public domain. This model needs to be clear and simple to engage more common people. If such a model is developed the movement can really become a mainstream movement which the policymakers will not be able to ignore.

    The alternative model needs to answer how human related issues like employment, well being and security would be addressed in a better way as compared to present model of free market capitalism.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Very important. It is easy to

    Very important. It is easy to say NO to a mine nearby, but that might also mean a NO to computers and smartphones which need those metals to be built. So a re-evaluation of what we actually need, and how/where that could be produced, is urgently needed!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Environmental problems have

    Environmental problems have appeared because of the inappropriate notions about development, such as the following: -
    1. Infrastructure is taken to represent development.
    2. Consumption, e.g., energy consumed per person per annum, is taken as a measure of progress achieved.
    3. Increase in demand is seen as an achievement in mass communication and social growth.
    4. Rise in the standard of living, as distinct from quality of life, is taken as the goal of planning and development.
    It is rightly concluded in the editorial that we have to reinvent growth without pollution. Another ill-effect of development to be avoided is inequity in the return for comparable efforts. --- Paritosh Tyagi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Well, What I think is that,

    Well, What I think is that, we need to recognize our hidden potentials within us, within a Indian Common man. In modern era of development, Human beings have bent their life style with the problems existing around. Not appreciable mass is bothered to talk about Be the change or introspect in purview of tech-social innovation and green interventions. We have to introspect and act much more in the field of Green Innovation and Technology. India today invests less than 1% of it's GDP on R&D whereas China intends to step up it's R&D to GDP ratio from 1.76 in 2010 to 2.5 by 2020.

    For decades, the trajectory of innovation has reflected the priorities of the developed worlds: focusing more on the desires of the rich and directing ecosystems of talent and capital to satisfy them. India cannot follow that path. Our innovation must instead focus on the poor and their more essential work, given the sheer scale of out needs and our vast population: instead, our innovation needs to be frugal with scare resources, affordable for our poorest citizens and environmentally sustainable.

    Here is one of my attempt to answer this issue. Link:


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita, I heard you speak

    Hi Sunita,
    I heard you speak on this topic at CSE earlier this year, and I'm glad you wrote it down! You mention that Western countries had wealth and used it clean up pollution, but I would add that pollution had been exported to other nations. Part of "never look[ing] for bigger solutions," they took an easier route by exporting or outsourcing production to countries with cheaper labor wages and less stringent environmental regulation. So, despite their wealth, they opted for a cheaper strategy which did not lower pollution on a global scale. Pollution simply shifted... just, as you say, not in their own backyard. Please do write more about this subject in the future.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • There are two kind of needs

    There are two kind of needs human beings have. One is called tangible need and the other is called intangible needs.Tangible needs means materialistic need while intangible need have no physical appearance(like love,true friendships,trust and many other human values).These days basket of needs of most of the human being comprises of tangible needs(materialistic needs) mostly.So,there exists cut throat competition between humans to achieve the tangible things.Tangible things diminishes by sharing while intangible needs increases due to sharing.So there is urgent need for society to diversify their basket of needs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Your post sums up the scenario pretty well. India need not ape the West completely, but must learn to apply its mind. Our courts and institutions for example, jump to apply new Emission standards every time someone approaches the courts or the courts impose a ban on 10-15 year-old vehicles from plying in our metros. This only means we are shifting the problem elsewhere. Not everyone who owns a vehicle can purchase a new one, every decade or so. The old vehicles will be sold and will continue to ply elsewhere. Can the courts and environmentalists guarantee that the emissions and pollutions will not reach some other areas like our metros?
    What about the resource costs, production costs and environmental costs in producing new vehicles.

    In such situations, the environmentalists, governments and courts appear to be blind do-gooders oblivious to the greater harm their quick decisions cause to the environment and people. The need of the hour is to see how we utilise existing resources- be they mobiles, cars, products we use at home - to the maximun potential. We must ensure manufacturers, producers provide kits, service points that extend life of their goods.

    Simply banning vehicles after a certain age is a lazy environmental solution. We must not create situations, which add to the mountains of dump and rivers of filth that we leave as a legacy to the coming generations.

    Posted by: Sharad | 2 years ago | Reply