State of India’s Environment 2021: People and planet in peril

COVID-19 may become endemic, or will continue to erupt but in limited ways in certain geographies. But its trails are already disrupting the world

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 24 February 2021

February 24, 2020 — this day last year — was exactly a fortnight since the world first got to know about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) termed the outbreak a pandemic. Since then, the virus has been pervasive, impacting every aspect of our existence. A year has passed by. In reckoning, 2021 is going to be a year of importance.  

This is the context to the annual State of India’s Environment 2021, to be released jointly by over 60 environmentalists of India February 25, 2021.

The pandemic is a default template for every assessment; such has been its impact on our lives. As Sunita Narain, editor of Down to Earth, writes in her opening appraisal of the year just passed by: “The crisis has no precedent. But it is a result of our progressively worsening dystopian relationship with nature.”

“Resetting our relationship with nature.” This has become an expression of mea culpa in the age of Anthropocene.

This is also the theme that runs through the report’s 14 chapters: From the pandemic to sustainable development goals to poverty. From energy to rural development.

The disease may become endemic, or will continue to erupt but in limited ways in certain geographies. But its trails are already disrupting the world.

As the report’s special chapter on the pandemic points out:

  • The world is going to face a pandemic like the current one more frequently. We know just 0.1 per cent of potential zoonoses. In other words, the world remains ignorant of 99.9 per cent of potential zoonotic viruses.
  • The adult generation of 2040 would be stunted, with a lower human capital. This would be the toughest development challenge for the world due to the impacts of the pandemic.
  • The pandemic has demonstrated another brutal reality: A crisis’s impacts trickle faster to the poor. It is estimated that 12,000 more people would die every day due to hunger extended by the pandemic.

In one chapter titled Habitat, researchers have elaborated on how the pandemic brought out aspects of unnoticed urban lives. It said: “While the government aims to build 11 million houses for the urban poor by 2022, it must ensure that their new addresses do not render work, health services and education inaccessible.”

The “clean air and blue sky” during the country-wide lockdown became a reminder of our abuse of the nature. But as the State of India’s Environment 2021 says, this remained just a blip. It was probably the nature’s way of reminding us how it could be without the human-induced pollution.

The report also charts out how pollution levels have increased. It also talks about how the Union government in 2020 took up a series of policy decisions that effectively diluted India’s environmental regulation regimes.

One assessment in the chapter Industry says, “The draft Environment Impact Assessment notification 2020 is an extremely lenient version of its predecessor.”

The report carries a special section on the state of the Indian states, particularly on their performance on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Only a decade away from meeting these globally committed development goals, India occupies 117th position among 192 countries on the progress list.

No state was found to be on track to meet all the SDGs by 2030.

On India’s nagging challenge of bringing safe water and sanitation to all citizens, the report offers a word of caution. In 2019, India declared itself open-defecation free.

But the report warns: “Providing toilets to every household in rural India was just the first step in India’s quest for safe sanitation.”

Similarly, on the government's promise to provide all household safe water, the report says:

 “Launched in 2019, with a huge budget of Rs. 3.60 lakh crore, the Jal Jeevan Mission targets to provide drinking water to all rural households by 2024. That said, this is the 12th time India has set such a deadline and the country has been falling miserably in keeping its promise.”

The other special feature in the State of India’s Environment 2021 report is a state of art on the global and national biodiversity. The United Nations Decade of the Biodiversity ended in 2020. This chapter evaluates how much we lost in terms of flora and fauna and how much of our promises to conserve nature have been kept.

Taking note of the Sixth Mass Extinction (Holocene extinction), the report says, “Before an extinction phase sets in, there are two signs: Loss in population and shrinking distribution areas. These two signs are evident among all species currently.”

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