Environment And Sustainable Development
Environment – Definition And Functions
The economic development that we have achieved so far has come at a very heavy rice—at the cost of environmental quality.
As we step into an era of globalisation that promises higher economic growth, we have to bear in mind the adverse consequences of the past development path on our environment and consciously choose a path of sustainable development.
To understand the unsustainable path of development that we have taken and the challenges of sustainable development, we have to first understand the significance and contribution of environment to economic development.
What is the environment?
Environment is defined as the total planetary inheritance and the totality of all resources. It includes all the biotic and abiotic factors that influence each other –
- all living elements—the birds, animals and plants, forests, fisheries etc.—are biotic elements;
- abiotic elements include air, water, land, rocks, sunlight etc. are all examples of abiotic elements.
A study of the environment is the study of the interrelationship between these biotic and abiotic components of the environment.
Functions of the Environment
The environment performs four vital functions –
- (i) it supplies resources – resources here include both renewable and non-renewable resources;
Renewable resources are those which can be used without the possibility of the resource becoming depleted or exhausted. That is, a continuous supply of the resource remains available. Examples of renewable resources are the trees in the forests and the fishes in the ocean.
Non-renewable resources, on the other hand, are those which get exhausted with extraction and use, for example, fossil fuel.
- (ii) it assimilates waste;
- (iii) it sustains life by providing genetic and bio diversity;
- (iv) it also provides aesthetic services like scenery etc.
The environment is able to perform these functions without any interruption as long as the demand on these functions is within its carrying capacity. This implies that –
- the resource extraction is not above the rate of regeneration of the resource and
- the wastes generated are within the assimilating capacity of the environment.
When this is not so, the environment fails to perform its third and vital function of life sustenance and this results in an environmental crisis. This is the situation today all over the world. The rising population of the developing countries and the affluent consumption and production standards of the developed world have placed a huge stress on the environment in terms of its first two functions. Many resources have become extinct and the wastes generated are beyond the absorptive capacity of the environment.
The results –
- We are today at the threshold of environmental crisis.
- The past development has polluted and dried up rivers and other aquifers making water an economic good.
- The intensive and extensive extraction of both renewable and non-renewable resources has exhausted some of these vital resources and we are compelled to spend huge amounts on technology and research to explore new resources.
- Added to these are the health costs of degraded environmental quality –
- decline in air and water quality (seventy per cent of water in India is polluted) have resulted in increased incidence of respiratory and water-borne diseases;
- the expenditure on health is also rising;
- Global environmental issues such as global warming and ozone depletion also contribute to increased financial commitments for the government.
Thus, it is clear that the opportunity costs of negative environmental impacts are high.
Global warming is a gradual increase in the average temperature of the earth’s lower atmosphere as a result of the increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. Much of the recent observed and projected global warming is human-induced –
Some of the longer-term results of global warming are –
Other factors that may be contributing to global warming are –
A UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, resulted in an international agreement to fight global warming which called for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialised nations.
Are environmental problems new to this century? If so, why?
The answer to this question requires some elaboration.
In the early days when civilisation just began, or before this phenomenal increase in population, and before countries took to industrialisation, the demand for environmental resources and services was much less than their supply. This meant that pollution was within the absorptive capacity of the environment and the rate of resource extraction was less than the rate of regeneration of these resources. Hence environmental problems did not arise.
But with population explosion and with the advent of industrial revolution to meet the growing needs of the expanding population, things changed. The result was that the demand for resources for both production and consumption went beyond the rate of regeneration of the resources; the pressure on the absorptive capacity of the environment increased tremendously — this trend continues even today. Thus what has happened is a reversal of supply demand relationship for environmental quality — we are now faced with increased demand for environmental resources and services but their supply is limited due to overuse and misuse.
Hence the environmental issues of waste generation and pollution have become critical today.
Ozone depletion refers to the phenomenon of reductions in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere.
The problem of ozone depletion is caused by high levels of chlorine and bromine compounds in the stratosphere. The origins of these compounds are chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), used as cooling substances in air-conditioners and refrigerators, or as aerosol propellants, and bromofluorocarbons (halons), used in fire extinguishers.
As a result of depletion of the ozone layer, more ultraviolet (UV) radiation comes to Earth and causes damage to living organisms –
A reduction of approximately 5 per cent in the ozone layer was detected from 1979 to 1990.
Since the ozone layer prevents most harmful wavelengths of ultraviolet light from passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, observed and projected decreases in ozone have generated worldwide concern. This led to the adoption of the Montreal Protocol banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) compounds, as well as other ozone depleting chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethane (also known as methyl chloroform), and bromine compounds known as halons.
State Of India’s Environment
India has abundant natural resources in terms of rich quality of soil, hundreds of rivers and tributaries, lush green forests, plenty of mineral deposits beneath the land surface, vast stretch of the Indian Ocean, ranges of mountains, etc.
- The black soil of the Deccan Plateau is particularly suitable for cultivation of cotton, leading to concentration of textile industries in this region.
- The Indo-Gangetic plains — spread from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal — are one of the most fertile, intensively cultivated and densely populated regions in the world.
- India’s forests, though unevenly distributed, provide green cover for a majority of its population and natural cover for its wildlife.
- Large deposits of iron-ore, coal and natural gas are found in the country.
- India alone accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the world’s total iron-ore reserves.
- Bauxite, copper, chromate, diamonds, gold, lead, lignite, manganese, zinc, uranium, etc. are also available in different parts of the country.
However, the developmental activities in India have resulted in pressure on its finite natural resources, besides creating impacts on human health and well-being. The threat to India’s environment poses a dichotomy –
- threat of poverty-induced environmental degradation and,
- threat of pollution from affluence and a rapidly growing industrial sector.
Air pollution, water contamination, soil erosion, deforestation and wildlife extinction are some of the most pressing environmental concerns of India.
The priority issues identified are –
- (i) land degradation
- (ii) biodiversity loss
- (iii) air pollution with special reference to vehicular pollution in urban cities
- (iv) management of fresh water and
- (v) solid waste management.
Chipko or Appiko — What’s in a Name?
The Chipko Movement aimed at protecting forests in the Himalayas.
In Karnataka, a similar movement took a different name, ‘Appiko’, which means to hug.
On 8 September 1983, when the felling of trees was started in Salkani forest in Sirsi district, 160 men, women and children hugged the trees and forced the woodcutters to leave. They kept vigil in the forest over the next six weeks. Only after the forest officials assured the volunteers that the trees will be cut scientifically and in accordance with the working plan of the district, did they leave the trees.
When commercial felling by contractors damaged a large number of natural forests, the idea of hugging the trees gave the people hope and confidence that they can protect the forests. On that particular incident, with the felling discontinued, the people saved 12,000 trees. Within months, this movement spread to many adjoining districts.
Indiscriminate felling of trees for fuel-wood and for industrial use has led to many environmental problems. Twelve years after setting up of a paper mill in Uttar Kanara area, bamboo has been wiped out from that area. “Broad-leaved trees which protected the soil from the direct onslaught of rain have been removed, the soil washed away, and bare laterite soil left behind. Now nothing grows but a weed”, says a farmer. Farmers also complain that rivers and rivulets dry up quicker, and that rainfall is becoming erratic. Diseases and insects earlier unknown are now attacking the crops.
Appiko volunteers want the contractors and forest officials to follow certain rules and restrictions. For instance, local people should be consulted when trees are marked for felling and trees within 100 metres of a water source and on a slope of 30 degrees or above should not be felled.
Do you know that the government allocates forestland to industries to use forest materials as industrial raw material? Even if a paper mill employs 10,000 workers and a plywood factory employs 800 people but if they deprive the daily needs of a million people, is it acceptable? What do you think?
Source: Excerpts from ‘State of India’s Environment 2: The Second Citizens’ Report 1984-85’, Centre for Science and Environment, 1996, New Delhi.
Land in India suffers from varying degrees and types of degradation stemming mainly from unstable use and inappropriate management practices. Some of the factors responsible for land degradation are –
- (i) loss of vegetation occurring due to deforestation
- (ii) unsustainable fuel wood and fodder extraction
- (iii) shifting cultivation
- (iv) encroachment into forest lands
- (v) forest fires and over grazing
- (vi) non-adoption of adequate soil conservation measures
- (vii) improper crop rotation
- (viii) indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides
- (ix) improper planning and management of irrigation systems
- (x) extraction of ground water in the competing uses of land for forestry, agriculture, pastures, human settlements and industries.
All this exert an enormous pressure on the country’s finite land resources.
The per capita forestland in the country is only 0.08 hectare against the requirement of 0.47 hectare to meet basic needs, resulting in an excess felling of about 15 million cubic metre forests over the permissible limit.
Estimates of soil erosion show that soil is being eroded at a rate of 5.3 billion tonnes a year for the entire excess of the recharge capacity.
India supports approximately 16 per cent of the world’s human and 20 per cent of livestock population on a mere 2.5 per cent of the world’s geographical area. The high density of population and livestock and country as a result of which the country loses 0.8 million tonnes of nitrogen, 1.8 million tonnes of phosphorus and 26.3 million tonnes of potassium every year. According to the Government of India, the quantity of nutrients lost due to erosion each year ranges from 5.8 to 8.4 million tonnes.
Pollution Control Boards
In order to address two major environmental concerns in India, viz., water and air pollution, the government set up the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 1974. This was followed by states establishing their own state level boards to address all the environmental concerns. They investigate, collect and disseminate information relating to water, air and land pollution, lay down standards for sewage/trade effluent and emissions. These boards provide technical assistance to governments in promoting cleanliness of streams and wells by prevention, control and abatement of water pollution, and improve the quality of air and to prevent, control or abate air pollution in the country.
These boards also carry out and sponsor investigation and research relating to problems of water and air pollution and for their prevention, control or abatement. They also organise, through mass media, a comprehensive mass awareness programme for the same. They also prepare manuals, codes and guidelines relating to treatment and disposal of sewage and trade effluents.
They assess the air quality through regulation of industries. In fact, state boards, through their district level officials, periodically inspect every industry under their jurisdiction to assess the adequacy of treatment measures provided to treat the effluent and gaseous emissions. It also provides background air quality data needed for industrial sitting and town planning.
The pollution control boards collect, collate and disseminate technical and statistical data relating to water pollution. They monitor the quality of water in 125 rivers (including the tributaries), wells, lakes, creeks, ponds, tanks, drains and canals.
In India, air pollution is widespread in urban areas where vehicles are the major contributors and in a few other areas which have a high concentration of industries and thermal power plants. Vehicular emissions are of particular concern since these are ground level sources and, thus, have the maximum impact on the general population. The
number of motor vehicles has increased from about 3 lakh in 1951 to 67 crores in 2003. In 2003, personal transport vehicles (two-wheeled vehicles and cars only) constituted about 80 per cent of the total number of registered vehicles thus contributing significantly to total air pollution load.
India is one of the ten most industrialised nations of the world. But this status has brought with it unwanted and unanticipated consequences such as unplanned urbanisation, pollution and the risk of accidents. The CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) has identified seventeen categories of industries (large and medium scale) as significantly polluting.
The above points highlight the challenges to India’s environment.
The various measures adopted by the Ministry of Environment and the central and state pollution control boards may not yield reward unless we consciously adopt a path of sustainable development.
The concern for future generations alone can make development last forever.
Development to enhance our current living styles, without concern for posterity, will deplete resources and degrade environment at a pace that is bound to result in both environmental and economic crisis.
Environment and economy are interdependent and need each other. Hence, development that ignores its repercussions on the environment will destroy the environment that sustains life forms.
What is needed is sustainable development – development that will allow all future generations to have a potential average quality of life that is at least as high as that which is being enjoyed by the current generation.
The concept of sustainable development was emphasised by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which defined it as –
‘Development that meets the need of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs’.
The term ‘needs’ and the phrase ‘future generations’ in the definition are the catch phrases.
The use of the concept ‘needs’ in the definition is linked to distribution of resources.
The seminal report – Our Common Future – that gave the above definition explained sustainable development as ‘meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life’.
Meeting the needs of all requires redistributing resources and is hence a moral issue.
Edward Barbier defined sustainable development as –
- One which is directly concerned with increasing the material standard of living of the poor at the grass root level — this can be quantitatively measured in terms of increased income, real income, educational services, health care, sanitation, water supply etc.
- In more specific terms, sustainable development aims at decreasing the absolute poverty of the poor by providing lasting and secure livelihoods that minimise resource depletion, environmental degradation, cultural disruption and social instability.
- In this sense, sustainable development is a development that meets the basic needs of all, particularly the poor majority, for employment, food, energy, water, housing, and ensures growth of agriculture, manufacturing, power and services to meet these needs.
The Brundtland Commission emphasises on protecting the future generation.
This is in line with the argument of the environmentalists who emphasise that we have a moral obligation to hand over the planet earth in good order to the future generation; that is, the present generation should bequeath a better environment to the future generation. At least we should leave to the next generation a stock of ‘quality of life’ assets no less than what we have inherited.
The present generation should promote development that enhances the natural and built environment in ways that are compatible with –
- (i) conservation of natural assets;
- (ii) preservation of the regenerative capacity of the world’s natural ecological system;
- (iii) avoiding the imposition of added costs or risks on future generations.
According to Herman Daly, a leading environmental economist, to achieve sustainable development, the following needs to be done –
- (i) limiting the human population to a level within the carrying capacity of the environment. The carrying capacity of the environment is like a ‘plimsoll line’ of the ship which is its load limit mark. In the absence of the plimsoll line for the economy, human scale grows beyond the carrying capacity of the earth and deviates from sustainable development
- (ii) technological progress should be input efficient and not input consuming;
- (iii) renewable resources should be extracted on a sustainable basis, that is, rate of extraction should not exceed rate of regeneration;
- (iv) for non-renewable resources rate of depletion should not exceed the rate of creation of renewable substitutes; and
- (v) inefficiencies arising from pollution should be corrected.
Strategies For Sustainable Development
Use of Non-conventional Sources of Energy
India is hugely dependent on thermal and hydro power plants to meet its power needs. Both of these have adverse environmental impacts.
- Thermal power plants emit large quantities of carbon dioxide which is a green house gas. It also produces fly ash which, if not used properly, can cause pollution of water bodies, land and other components of the environment.
- Hydroelectric projects inundate forests and interfere with the natural flow of water in catchment areas and the river basins.
Wind power and solar rays are good examples of conventional but cleaner and greener technologies which can be effectively used to replace thermal and hydro-power.
LPG, Gobar Gas in Rural Areas
Households in rural areas generally use wood, dung cake or other biomass as fuel. This practice has several adverse implications like deforestation, reduction in green cover, wastage of cattle dung and air pollution.
To rectify the situation and/or to minimise energy wastage –
- subsidised LPG is being provided;
- liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is a clean fuel;
- it reduces household pollution to a large extent;
- it also minimise energy wastage.
- gobar gas plants are being provided through easy loans and subsidy;
- For the gobar gas plant to function, cattle dung is fed to the plant and gas is produced which is used as fuel while the slurry which is left over is a very good organic fertiliser and soil conditioner.
CNG in Urban Areas
In Delhi and other metropolitan cities, the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as fuel in public transport system has significantly lowered air pollution and the air has become cleaner in the last few years.
In areas where speed of wind is usually high, wind mills can provide electricity without any adverse impact on the environment. Wind turbines move with the wind and electricity is generated. No doubt, the initial cost is high. But the benefits are such that the high cost gets easily absorbed.
Solar Power through Photovoltaic Cells
India is naturally endowed with a large quantity of solar energy in the form of sunlight.
We use it in different ways –
- We dry our clothes, grains, other agricultural products as well as various items made for daily use.
- We also use sunlight to warm ourselves in winter.
- Plants use solar energy to perform photosynthesis.
Now, with the help of photovoltaic cells, solar energy can be converted into electricity. These cells use special kind of materials to capture solar energy and then convert the energy into electricity. This technology is extremely useful for remote areas and for places where supply of power through grid or power lines is either not possible or proves very costly. This technique is also totally free from pollution.
In mountainous regions, streams can be found almost everywhere. A large percentage of such streams are perennial. Mini-hydel plants use the energy of such streams to move small turbines. The turbines generate electricity which can be used locally. Such power plants are more or less environment-friendly as they do not change the land use pattern in areas where they are located; they generate enough power to meet local demands. This means that they can also do away with the need for large-scale transmission towers and cables and avoid transmission loss.
Traditional Knowledge and Practices
Traditionally, Indian people have been close to their environment. They have been more a component of the environment and not its controller. If we look back at our agriculture system, healthcare system, housing, transport etc., we find that all practices have been environment friendly.
Only recently have we drifted away from the traditional systems and caused large-scale damage to the environment and also our rural heritage. Now, it is time to go back.
One apt example is in healthcare. India is very much privileged to have about 15,000 species of plants which have medicinal properties. About 8,000 of these are in regular use in various systems of treatment including the folk tradition. With the sudden onslaught of the western system of treatment, we were ignoring our traditional systems such as Ayurveda, Unani, Tibetan and folk systems.
These healthcare systems are in great demand again for treating chromic health problems. Now a days every cosmetic produce — hair oil, toothpaste, body lotion, face cream and what not — is herbal in composition. Not only are these products environment friendly, they are relatively free from side effects and do not involve large-scale industrial and chemical processing.
In our quest to increase agricultural production during the last five decades or so, we almost totally neglected the use of compost and completely switched over to chemical fertilisers. The result is that large tracts of productive land have been adversely affected, water bodies including ground water system have suffered due to chemical contamination and demand for irrigation has been going up year after year.
Farmers, in large numbers all over the country, have again started using compost made from organic wastes of different types. In certain parts of the country, cattle are maintained only because they produce dung which is an important fertiliser and soil conditioner.
Earthworms can convert organic matter into compost faster than the normal composting process. This process is now being widely used. Indirectly, the civic authorities are benefited too as they have to dispose reduced quantity of waste.
With the advent of green revolution, the entire country entered into a frenzy to use more and more chemical pesticides for higher yield. Soon, the adverse impacts began to show; food products were contaminated, soil, water bodies and even ground water were polluted with pesticides. Even milk, meat and fishes were found to be contaminated.
To meet this challenge, efforts are on to bring in better methods of pest control. One such step is the use of pesticides based on plant products. Neem trees are proving to be quite useful. Several types of pest controlling chemicals have been isolated from neem and these are being used. Mixed cropping and growing different crops in consecutive years on the same land have also helped farmers.
In addition, awareness is spreading about various animals and birds which help in controlling pests. For example, snakes are one of the prime group of animals which prey upon rats, mice and various other pests. Similarly, large varieties of birds, for example, owls and peacocks, prey upon vermin and pests. If these are allowed to dwell around the agricultural areas, they can clear large varieties of pests including insects. Lizards are also important in this regard. We need to know their value and save them.
Sustainable development has become a catch phrase today. It is ‘indeed’ a paradigm shift in development thinking. Though it has been interpreted in a number of ways, adherence to this path ensures lasting development and non-declining welfare for all.
Bibliography : NCERT – Indian Economic Development