At the beginning of this century, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) gave new imputes to the developing economies for achieving the basic standard of living for all. Across the economies, and particularly in India, the end outcomes accrued at the end of MDGs period, it was still a leapfrogging and many miles to go.

Subsequently, the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) gave another new leaf of strives for taking forward the initiative of MDGs and other aspects for leveraging the shared minimum standard of living for humanity. While in the MDGs, the focus on environmental sustainability was the general focus, whereas, in the SDGs, the focus was more specific and become targeted to ensure the sustainable elements of each major sector like sustainable cities, water, sanitation, clean energy, eradication of poverty, etc.

Thus, of late the comprehensive focus on environmental protection measures has become a buzzword in every sphere of public policy debate relating to air, water, land, and groundwater. However, the discourses are too narrowed with the focus on the climate change agenda and it’s not always fruitful in adopting the framework of public policies given the ground realities of contamination of environmental resources differently. 

The latest report on Environmental Performance Index (EPI)-2022 has heaped the debate to even broader lenses. But the documentation for scientific evidence with the blending of technologies seems to be still at nascent stage. India has been ranked as the bottom and worst performer (ranked at 180th with a score of 18.9) due to various indicators. 

On June 1, 2022, the Report was released by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Yale University, USA, and Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University, USA. The Report ranks 80 countries on “40 performance indicators covering climate change, environmental public health, and ecosystem vitality”.

Among the broad categories of sub-parameters, the environmental health indicator (India ranks 178th with a score of 12.5) includes air quality, water quality, and heavy metals; the ecosystem vitality indicator (India ranks 178th with a score of 19.3) includes biodiversity & habitat, forests, fisheries, climate and energy, air pollution, water resources, and agriculture. 

In the broad climate change indicator, India ranks slightly better at 165th with a score of 21.7. As compared to previous reports for 2016, 2018, and 2020, the indicators and their sub-indicators along with their weightage given for each were varied which are major criticism put forth by India. 

On June, 8, 2022, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, Government of India has responded promptly defending the country’s performance by providing a list of activities such as policy initiatives on Vehicular Emission, Industrial Emission, Air Pollution due to dust, and burning of waste, and Monitoring of Ambient Air Quality. The Ministry has highlighted the key steps taken to move toward a greener economy through renewable energy, and several key indicators which were not given due diligence in the ranking of the index were major criticisms. 

The Ministry specifically hit back at the international agencies as the ranking was “extrapolated and based on surmises and unscientific methods”. This is something that needs to be pondered over the debate of developed vs developing or emerging economies for years to come. The country-level data essentially indicate the average status of the performance of a particular subject. 

The explanations given by the Government of India have merit and are pertinent for further sustainability of the initiatives undertaken already or underway since the last decade. Although, the country is getting back from the historic pandemic of COVID-19 and being ranked at the bottom seems too exaggerated beyond comprehension.  

However, it is still worth considering the key points highlighted in the Report in respect of India’s ranking both globally and in the South Asia region. 

  • For the first time, India ranks at the bottom of all countries in the 2022 EPI, with low scores across a range of critical issues. Deteriorating air quality and rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions pose especially urgent challenges. 
  • Over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 will come from just 4 countries: China, India, the United States, and Russia. India may not achieve the target of making the country’s greenhouse gases neutral by 2050.
  • While India’s 2021 emissions were 4.4% greater than 2019 values.
  • Many countries with low scores in the overall EPI also place near the bottom of the Air Quality issue category, including India.
  • China and India are projected to be the largest and 2nd largest emitters of greenhouse gases in 2050, despite recently promising to curb emissions growth rates.

Besides, these scenarios, India has the following fundamental issues which are the real cause of concern for millions of people especially, the poor people who are deprived of safe sanitation and hygiene, for basic environmental protection:  

  • According to the annual report (2020-21), the country generates total sewage of 72,368 MLD, and wastewater treatment capacity available through 1,631 Sewage Treatment Plants was only 36,668 MLD (50.66%). Between 2014-2020, total sewage generation increased by 17%. 
  • During the year 2019-20, the estimated generation of E-waste was 10,14,961.2 tonnes. Only 21.91% or 2,22,436.34 tonnes e-waste were recycled through 400 approved dismantlers/recyclers. The e-waste generation increases at a rate of 40% every year during the last three years.
  • The country has a total of 69,308 Hazardous Waste generating units and about 8.78 million tonnes of hazardous waste were generated during 2019-20. Out of 8.78 million tonnes, only 5.26 million tonnes (59.90%) were recycled. A total of 1,857 recyclers with an authorized capacity of 75,25,637 tonnes processed the hazardous waste in the country. After Gujarat and Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu is 3rd highest state with a share of 10.99% of hazardous waste generation. Strangely, the country imports 0.42 million tonnes of hazardous waste. 
  • The country generates total municipal Solid Waste of 1,50,847 tonnes every day (TPD). However, only 70,973 TPD or 47% of Solid Waste Collected were processed. The remaining solid waste was landfilled (27.08%) and unaccounted for (25.8%). 
  • The country generates plastic waste of 34,69,780 tonnes per annum. Only 15.62 lakhs of TPA or 45% were recycled by 20 major states. Tamil Nadu is the 2nd largest state with a 12% share in the generation of plastic waste in the country after Maharashtra. 

The status of a country’s environmental performance is gauged upon the above key area parameters which are most severely affecting the poorest of the poor people in the country besides other species through the air, water, water bodies, and groundwater. 

Though, there are numerous public policies and regulatory measures which are not effectively implemented at the ground level cutting across the nook and corner of the country. Moreover, MDGs and SDGs have developed a vibrant ecosystem for innovative technological solutions for every pollution to protect the environment

In India, the two most innovative but also cost-effective sustainable technologies which are being implemented on large scale at the ground level from lab tests are DRDO’s Bio Septic Tank for decentralised sewage wastewater recycling either to use clean water for irrigation of plants/gardens or to recharge the groundwater. 

The other innovative technology fast coming up is the indigenous scientific disposable of municipal solid waste through patented and the government’s approved MAK Green Incinerator which converts waste to wealth by way of by-products’ for the construction sector. This technology ensures zero waste in a matter of twenty-four hours. It is time-tested, and well documented about the processing system and efficiency in operation and maintenance.  

Without making effective steps to correct the key challenges in sewage treatment, municipal solid waste, electronic waste, hazardous waste, and plastics waste, the country’s environment cannot be said as safe. Moreover, the climate change indicators alone are not sufficient to measure environmental performance. 

Thus, it can be summed up that neither the international environmental index ranking is correct nor the steps taken by the Governments of India at the national and states level. They both need a nexus of the mix of ground realities that are quite different from what they see and debate for the sake of their short-term fulfilments instead of the long-term environmental safety of people. Therefore, it’s high time to make innovative technological solutions for the real challenges and concerns putting aside the headlines of media bites.

Featured image source: iStock

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research. 

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Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan is Research Fellow (Urban Eco-system and Skill Development) with CPPR. His areas of research interest are economics of education, vocational education and skills development, economic reforms, liberal vision for India, water management, regional development, and city development. Chandrasekaran has an MA in Economics (University of Madras) and an MPhil in Social Sciences (Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya University, Indore).

Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan is Research Fellow (Urban Eco-system and Skill Development) with CPPR. His areas of research interest are economics of education, vocational education and skills development, economic reforms, liberal vision for India, water management, regional development, and city development. Chandrasekaran has an MA in Economics (University of Madras) and an MPhil in Social Sciences (Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya University, Indore).

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