India is home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population. It is the land of beautiful and diverse landscapes, rich in natural resources, and an attractive tourist destination. Yet, outside India it is not widely known that on a daily basis the country faces the grave challenge of large-scale environmental pollution.
In November 2016, the Indian government declared air pollution in Delhi an emergency¹. The level of concentration of some of the most dangerous pollutants in the air exceeded the safe limit almost sixteenfold. The smog in the streets from power plants, vehicle exhaust, and seasonal fires burning agricultural waste was dense and visible in the streets of the city. The government closed the coal-burning plants for three days and advised the citizens to work from home.
One year earlier, scientists from India’s top cancer institute revealed alarming statistics ²: almost half of the 44 million of Delhi’s schoolchildren are growing up with irreversible lung damage.
The worst environmental health risk
Despite the government’s efforts to regulate polluting emissions from the industry and use alternate traffic mechanisms, the air condition continues to deteriorate. Delhi competes with Gwalior (central India) for the title of the city with the most polluted air in the country, according to a recent World Health Organization report³. Other major areas with high levels of air pollution in India are Mumbai and Kolkata. The issue of air pollution poses the world’s worst environmental health risk and remains the leading cause of environmentally related deaths. As a recent UNEP report states, between 2005 and 2010, the death rate from outdoor air pollution rose by 4 per cent worldwide and by 12 per cent in India⁴. The sources of air pollution are traffic, power plants, industry, burning waste, cooking, and heating.
In the global environmental governance circles, India is known for the high levels of air pollution in major cities. At the United Nations, the issue has been raised repeatedly, including at the Paris climate talks in 2015, when scientists urged Indian government a ten-point plan to improve air quality⁵. Among other measures, the report proposes to prevent seasonal agricultural burning by using crops residue to generate electricity.
Waste, waste, waste
However, other sources of environmental pollution are also worth mentioning. The problem of waste in India is similar in magnitude to that in South-East Asia (we wrote about it recently). Massive landfills and dumps remain the main place for garbage disposal, and, despite regulations concerning waste treatment, little over ten per cent of waste is currently treated in bioreactors⁶. Apart from occupying vast spaces and having an unpleasant sight (and smell), landfills attract the poorest to pick, sort, and sell valuables from the trash. These are often children, who work without protection and are vulnerable to disease and injuries at the dump.
Limited access to clean drinking water
There is also an important problem of water pollution. According to an assessment by WaterAid, as much as 80 per cent of India’s sewage flows untreated into country’s rivers and groundwater⁷. As a result, laboratory tests reveal, almost the whole country has higher nitrate levels than safe benchmarks (particularly dangerous to infants, children, and pregnant women). WaterAid found that India is the country with the worst access to clean drinking water, the issue affecting the most poor and vulnerable population.
Uranium contamination of soils
Finally, the soil pollution is also a problem in India. A case of uranium poisoning in Punjab⁸ in 2009 was a major incident that drew attention from around the world. Caused by fly ash from nearby coal burning power plants, contamination with uranium in soil and ground water exceeded the safe limits by fifty per cent in Malwa district of Punjab. As a result, children in several districts of Punjab were affected with severe birth defects, including physical deformities, neurological and mental disorders.
Pollution is a matter of environmental justice. Those who suffer the most from the negative effects of environmental pollution are often those who cannot leave the contaminated area and have little say in the state of affairs, those from a disadvantaged economic and social background. At a global level, transboundary nature of air and water pollution pose particularly difficult challenges. It is, thus, crucial to address the issue of environmental pollution at all levels, engage into cooperation, and tap into networks for resources, expertise, and successful examples.