Acursory perusal of the draft National Environment Policy (nep), 2004 indicates that we are inching towards a scientific approach in managing environmental matters in the country. Keeping aside sectoral considerations, the document stresses that poverty alleviation is essential for environment protection. But despite attempts to study the environment holistically, the draft nep disappoints us on many counts.
Take the case of managing coasts. The Coastal Regulation Zone Act of 1991 -- with a number of amendments -- does not promote either sustainability or hazard mitigation efforts. And, nep does nothing to redeem affairs. Coasts have not been categorised as per their resource potential, pollution threats or vulnerability to natural hazards. Considering the vastness of the problem -- including intricacies of various coastal stretches, fisheries exports, plight of the people who live around coast and prospects of natural hazards -- scientific management of coasts is the need of the hour. Shelters in the Florida coast, usa have helped millions during cyclonic storms. Do we have similar structures to protect the 250 million who live along the country's coasts? India with a mainland coastline of 5,422 kilometres (km) and islands with a coastline of 2,094 km can ill-afford such negligence. The recent tsunami has again showed the perils of leaving people to nature's ravages.
Also ignored: lands Mapping landscape alterations and land use/land cover changes should be key concerns of any national environment policy. But not for the draft nep. It ignores the ominous symptoms of desertification: for example, even in interior areas, winds have become the main agent of denuding land. These are serious omissions. Let us not forget that large scale land use/land cover changes and landscape alterations are projected to cause the "sixth extinction" in Earth's history. But all is not lost. India's degraded landscapes (after scientifically defining the term) and changes in land cover/land use should be mapped urgently. The Central Ground Water Board and the Geological Survey of India, which have a wide functional network, should combine in this effort.
What about rivers? Systematic and long-term monitoring of rivers (their physical, chemical and biological parameters) is essential to identify the changes in their water quality as a result of human interventions -- for example, effluent discharge. This should have been the first item on the agenda of the National River Conservation Authority. But precious little has happened on that score. Consequently, major river pollution abatement plans such as the Ganga Action Plan have not yield the desired results. In fact, pollution levels have not been brought under control even after two decades of the plan's implementation. It would be worthwhile to assign river water quality monitoring to the Geological Survey of India.
nep also has precious little on the nutrient loading problem in our water bodies and the surge of new diseases in the country's coastal-marshy belts. And this not all: there is nothing substantial to address the country's groundwater problem. Those looking for guidelines to characterise groundwater basins -- both in terms of quality and quantity -- and for some schemes to recharge groundwater by monsoon water, are also likely to be sorely disappointed.
Despite constant emphasis on a holistic approach to manage the environment, the draft nep ignores a critical fact: poverty alleviation and protection of the 'environment' cannot be achieved without reducing population. In other words, population policy is also necessary for a 'healthy environment'.
But then why cry hoarse over a document ? T he country lacks an agency that can manage the environment, scientifically. The union ministry of environment and forests (moef) is ill-equipped for this job. Matters can, however, be mended if the moef functions along lines of the us Environmental Protection Agency. It can take support of the national laboratories. Let us hope our authorities get into the act soon.
K Soman is a geologist with the Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala