Environment and Society in India – The Challenges Ahead

In this article, the authors provide an overview of the environmental challenges that India faces and how the civil society has stood up to the challenge. 

by Tamanna Adhikari and Anusha Ghosh, 11th November, 2013

Society and environment are intricately intertwined, linked together by societal habits that determine the relationship between a certain community and the environment. With growing urbanization India has witnessed an increase in environmental problems such as land degradation, deforestation, air and water pollution and climate change. Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased between pre-industrial period and 2005. Air quality data has shown that air pollution and its resultant impacts can be attributed to emissions from vehicular, industrial and domestic activities. Air quality has been, therefore, an issue of social concern in the backdrop of various developmental activities. The total forest cover of the country, as per the 2005 assessment, constitutes 20.60 per cent of the geographic area of the country. Between 2003 and 2005, the total forest cover had decreased by 728 sq. km. With resource needs having remained unchanged, forests have come under increased pressure of encroachment for cultivation, and unsustainable resource use rendering the very resource base unproductive.

Another key environmental issue in India is that of water pollution. Almost 70 percent of its surface water resources and a growing percentage of its groundwater reserves are contaminated by biological, toxic, organic and inorganic pollutants. Severely polluted stretches on some of India’s major rivers were identified in and around large urban areas. The high incidence of severe contamination near urban areas indicates that the industrial and domestic sector’s contribution to water pollution is much higher relative to rural areas. Besides water pollution, the problem of water shortage compounds to India’s water problems. With the rapidly growing population, along with industrial and urbanization activities, the demand for water is expected to increase even faster. Estimates indicate that by the year 2025, the total water demand will be very close to the total utilizable water resources of the country. Therefore it is evident that the country may have to face an acute water crisis unless clear and strategic measures are adopted now. These patters reflect the urgency of debate with respect to the impact of societal and developmental changes on the environment.

The field of research on environment and society is growing rapidly and becoming of ever-greater importance in policy circles and for the public at large. More recently the term ‘Eco Socialism‘ has found a place in the environmentalist’s jargon. It primarily focuses on restoration of the commons and community participation in environmental conservation.

Chipko andolan of the 1970’s was a cornerstone movement in community engagement in Uttarakhand. A group of peasant women in Uttarakhand acted to prevent cutting of trees and reclaim their traditional forest rights that were threatened by the contractor system of the forest department. The movement created a precedent for non violent protests and viability of human power. Their actions inspired hundreds of such actions at the grassroots and stakeholder levels throughout the region. By the 1980s the movement had spread throughout India and and led to several similar movements in regions as far as Vindhyas. Gradually the Chikpo movement took a new shape. By 1977 the villagers particularly women set up cooperatives to guard local forests, and also organized fodder production at rates conducive to local environment. They joined in land rotation schemes for and helped replant degraded land. The success of the movement went on to become a rallying point for future environmentalists.

In 1968 Garett Hardin propounded his celebrated “tragedy of the commons” theory in which he explored the social dilemma of overusing common property. When applied to an environmental context, Hardin recommended that the tragedy of the commons could be prevented by either more governmental control or by privatizing common property. This view however is contested in the Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom. She suggests that handing control of these local areas to National or International regulators can create further problems. Locals have to come up with solutions themselves because the problems affect their lives more than any one else’s. She further argues that when commons are taken up by regulators these local solutions can no longer be used.

In India, policies that have a bottom-up approach, involving the locals at the planning stage have been successful in the past. One such programme is the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme. JFM aims to empower the locals to participate actively as partners in the management of forest resources. It does this by guaranteeing the locals an equal share of benefits derived from forest protection. Policies that encourage state community partnership should be introduced on a wider scale.

As pointed out earlier, local communities have certain environmental ethics that stood the test of time. It is important that the Government an other institutions recognize and provide assistance and finance to these communities to start their own institutions unique to their region. In rural regions, what is required is the protection and incentivization of the use of traditional knowledge and techniques of environmental conservation. In an urban setting, policies that require RWA’s and other community level institutions to appoint watchdogs at a community level to check environmental degradation in their vicinity can be employed.

Environmental awareness at the consumer level can go a long way in checking degradation. Eco-labels and Green Stickers are labelling systems for food and consumer products. They are forms of sustainability management directed at consumers, intended to enable consumers to take into account the impact of their consumption behaviour on the environment. Globalization has led to a shift in paradigm from government imposed demand and control measures to self regulatory policies like eco-labelling. It is important in a country like India to educate and encourage consumers to buy sustainable products.

Building awareness is the key to the successful implementation of any self-regulatory policy. Therefore it is important to introduce environmental education and create environmental consciousness at the primary school level.

As Kofi Annan said, “In an age where community involvement and partnerships with civil society are increasingly being recognized as indispensable, there is clearly a growing potential for cooperative development and renewal worldwide”. Therefore, key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events as possible.

Tamanna Adhikari is a student of Economics in the University of Delhi. Her interests include Environment and Financial Inclusion and she aims to study these in a public policy context in the future.
Anusha Ghosh is a student of Economics in the University of Delhi. Her interests are development and environmental economics in an environmental context, and she aims to pursue these fields further.

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