Science & Technology

‘Tighter regulations needed on nutrient effluents’

Here’s N Raghuram, chairman of International Nitrogen Initiative, speaking with Down To Earth about the viability of United Kingdom’s project to tackle nitrogen pollution

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Monday 28 January 2019

Image: Getty ImagesN Raghuram, chairman of International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), talks to Down To Earth about the United Kingdom’s investment of £20 million (Rs 187.51 crore) for research on nitrogen pollution and its consequences for the South Asian region.

Since India is the only south Asian country to have produced a nitrogen assessment last year, will other countries be encouraged to do the same? If yes then is there a plan in place?

Yes, certainly. The very premise of this project is that regional (nitrogen) assessment provides the much-needed depth and well-grounded policy underpinnings for global processes (both science and policy processes), which should facilitate global cooperation. This is something that I have been insisting at every international forum for about a decade and this project is the second instance of mainstreaming this idea. The first instance is the ongoing Global Environment Facility project (through the United Nations Environment Programme) on International Nitrogen Management System (INMS), which significantly focuses on regional assessments. This regional emphasis also makes the global nitrogen process fundamentally different (and reflects the lessons learnt) from the carbon and other global processes.

Has India made any progress on the study of the consequences of nitrogen pollution on our environment and health since the nitrogen assessment was published?

There is a whole chapter in our Indian nitrogen assessment book on health impacts of dietary and respiratory exposure to various reactive N compounds. Much of it is a very useful review of global literature from animal and human studies, but we can benefit a lot by following it up with a more specific or epidemiological assessment of the ‘public health’ impacts of reactive nitrogen on the Indian population.

What is the current stand of the Indian government, especially the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, on the issue of nitrogen pollution and its impacts?

The Indian government has started taking it fairly seriously, both in terms of recognising reactive nitrogen pollution as a problem and also the Indian assessment as an opportunity to start addressing it, not only in domestic terms but also globally. The first evidence of that is the Indian govt holding a special dialogue session on reactive nitrogen on the World Environment Day in Delhi. The evidence of domestic interest is the inclusion of reactive compounds in the National Air Pollution Control Plan released by MoEFCC last month. Nitrogen pollution in water is already monitored, but it would be nice to see tighter regulations on nutrient effluents, especially from livestock farms, municipalities and hotels near water bodies, especially keeping in mind that different ecosystems have different levels of sensitivities to nutrient pollution. For example, the requirements for coral reefs, mangroves, and other marine/freshwater ecosystems are very different, as are potable water bodies and recreational water bodies.

What’s the significance of the fact that India is leading a resolution on reactive nitrogen at the UN environment assembly?

It is a historic move since India has generally played defensive diplomacy in international environmental fora, which was perhaps justified then, as we did not have our own data ready and the overall scenario was different for both India and the world. Things have changed significantly since then, with the growing Indian economy and contributions to UN, as well as the growing international expectations from India in a troubled world. India is now able to leverage its own nitrogen assessment and its strong support to south Asian and other regional assessments as a part of its highly respected legacy of inclusive approach globally, to lead a process for faster global consensus and a more realistic programme of action. I think Indian scientists would be quite happy to help countries that are in need of capacity development to address such issues.

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