Environmental Protection : Challenges and Responses

tudies carried out on the state of environment in the country indicate a dangerous situation which might reach disastrous proportions. The reasons for such an impending calamity are not difficult to assess. A burgeoning population having crossed the billion mark coupled with large scale rural – urban migration has put unbearable strain on the already over – stretched infrastructure of towns and cities. The civic agencies cannot cope up with the increasing demands for water and power supply, sanitation, sewage and waste management, etc., Depleted Children on their march to save the Earthwater availability, shortage of power, non-availability of land for garbage disposal, increase in the number of vehicles, non-effective controls on emissions, absence of water conservation schemes, depletion of tree cover due to mushrooming commercial and housing complexes, add up to the complexities which urban areas face. Lowering of water table, selected cultivation of cash crops which are water intensive, destruction of trees for wood as construction material, extensive degradation and salination of agricultural land are some aspects which need to be addressed and ameliorative mitigation actions taken. Environmental protection is an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it. This involves a holistic approach and understanding of issues which are best handled with the participation of all concerned. It also involves changing of attitudes and lifestyles, such that we minimise and reduce the impacts on environment.

Depleting and Deteriorating Water

Most of the cities and towns in India are situated near water bodies like rivers, lakes and streams. These are slowly drying up or getting contaminated. Some statistics of Delhi are pointers to the present situation of water quality and availability in urban areas. Out of an average total of 3324 million litres per day of Delhi’s require-ment of water for domestic use the installed capacity is 2634 million litres. During the peak summer months, the shortage is 75 crore litres per day. The water table is also steadily receding. At present at Mehrauli, Najafgarh and East Delhi it is 20, 15 and 30 metres deep respectively. Almost half of the watershed area of the world’s fresh water system is estimated to have been lost in the last century as land has been converted to urban use or agriculture.

As regards sewage and contamination, it has been established that 1.3 billion litres of sewage is discharged into the River Yamuna every day. This holds good for other towns and cities. Out of 22 drains which spew effluents in the river, 20 have not met water quality standards. Out of 16 sewage treatment plants which were to be set up through a Supreme Court order in 1995, only 8 have been completed so far and out of these only 5 are operational (Parliament Standing Committee on Environment, reported in Times of India, 30 April 2001). In the capital, only 2 pollution monitoring stations have been set up although 19 were sanctioned four years ago.

In order to solve these problems a concerted effort and effective strategy has to be formulated. This would involve creation of satellite townships and shifting of small scale industries from the city limits, conservation and harvesting of water, treatment of effluents, cleaning up of water bodies, adoption of cleaner technologies to eliminate toxic effluents, regular, continuous monitoring and enforcement. It is essential to understand the economics of water harvesting. Statistics indicate that an investment of Rs.5 lakhs in water harvesting brings out a yield of Rs.45 lakhs. Water harvesting should be obligatory in all new co-operative housing societies and residential plots of 500 sq. yards and above. Commercial buildings, discharging more than 10000 litres of waste water per day, should be made to install recycling systems. For domestic use, the cisterns having 12 litres capacity should be replaced by those with 5 litres capacity. For example, Delhi has around 2 million toilets each being used at an average of 8-10 times a day. This alone would result in a saving of 140 million litres per day. It would also reduce the quantity of waste water to be treated and the expenditure of pumping the additional treated water for domestic use. Cases of Namibia and Holland are good examples of water treatment. In Namibia, direct reuse of treated waste water for drinking purposes is being practised extensively. Nearly 50% of the normal supply is from treated sewage, which is given a high degree of treatment before blending with fresh water. In Holland, water from the highly polluted Ruhr River is treated, pumped underground into sand dunes, then pumped up and retreated before use as drinking water. All these measures are cost effective if expenditure on health are taken into account and where government expenditure on treating water-borne diseases like hepatitis, cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery take a huge toll on the exchequer.

In the rural scenario, water conservation methods have to be extensively employed to prevent run-offs. Small scale check dams, creation of tanks and reservoirs would not only ensure water supply through the lean dry months but will be instrumental in raising the water table. The Johad experience is a case in point. Johads or mud and rubble check dams were constructed by villagers of Bhaonta-Koyala in Alwar District of Rajasthan under the guidance of Tarun Bharat Sangh. The check dams raised the water level by 20-50 feet (Anuradha Thakur in Yojana, May 2001). TARAGram near Orchha, the field research unit of Development Alternatives has pioneered check dams in the Bundelkhand region resulting in perennial water supply in the area from the reservoir and plentiful supply in nearby wells. Water harvesting, both in the rural and urban scenarios assume great significance. Storage of rainwater in lakes and depressions, abandoned quarries, paleochannels, village ponds, rooftop harvesting, eco-parks and ground water sanctuaries would eradicate the constant thirst for water. Anil Agarwal of Centre for Science and Environment is of the view that "If rain water is captured in the area of the Union Territory of Delhi, there would be enough clean water to meet drinking and cooking needs of every individual in India". Although the monsoons occur once during the season, the rainfall is adequate. It is how we utilise it. Annual rainfall in Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhatisgarh is 1326, 1667 and 1338 mm respectively, each state getting more than Punjab and Haryana. Yet, the irrigated land in these three states is 75% less in case of Jharkhand, 56% less in Uttaranchal and 16.6% less in Chhatisgarh as compared to the two agrarian states of North India.

The Dirty Air

Almost all the Asian cities have airborne particulate levels twice the standards set by WHO. Vehicles have taken over industries in contributing to the air pollution load. In January, 1999 Delhi had 2.6 million vehicles and the number is increasing by 500 per day and raising the Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) load to 5 times that of WHO norms. Poor quality fuels provided by filling stations has further aggravated the problem. SPM produced by diesel fumes, which remain in the atmosphere and can be easily inhaled, have become a major health hazard due to its carcinogenic effect. Although lead content at traffic intersections have reduced by 60% after introduction of unleaded petrol, high levels of benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are cause for concern. The statistics of emissions for the year 1996 are:

wSPM – Kolkata 200000 tons and Delhi 116000 tons annually

Sulphur Dioxide – Mumbai 157000 tons and Delhi 46000 tons annually

Carbon Monoxide – Mumbai 470 tons, Delhi 810 tons and Kolkata 188 tons daily.

Besides vehicles, thermal power plants, industries and domestic emissions contribute 16, 12 and 7% of the total air pollution load as it pertains to Delhi. Deforestation has led to loss of green cover, open dessiccation, moisture loss and soil textural adversities. The depletion of tree cover is responsible for high levels of dust in the air leading to diseases like bronchitis, asthma and acute respiratory infections. Pesticides in air effect the liver and cause neuropathy. Intestinal pneumonitis, chronic kidney disorder, diabetes, hypertension and atheroma in blood vessels are some of the ailments due to oxidant effect of nitrogen dioxide, presence in air of aldehydes and hydrocarbons.

The strategy to check air pollution are:

wCleaner fuels for vehicles. Use of CNG is a step in the right direction. In addition, rigorous measures need to be taken to minimise content of benzene and sulphur, especially for diesel vehicles.

wImprove public transport system by introduction of an alternative like underground or elevated high-speed rail transit facility. Delhi is one of the few capitals in the world where no alternative transport system is available. With improved technology of underground tunnelling without disrupting the existing surface transport system, work can be accelerated. The rail link should cover the entire area with feeder or subsidiary links to enable a commuter to reach the destination without having to transfer to road transport and vice-versa. In the long run the fares will not only cover the construction cost but also enable enough accruals for maintenance, expansion and periodic modernisation.

wImproved traffic management by introduction of computerised traffic signalling to avoid congestion and delays at traffic intersections, flyovers on major highways and bypasses at major towns and cities.

wRigorous vehicle inspection and certification. At present pollution control checking centres are an eyewash and the certificates which they give every three months after charging Rs.30 to Rs.50 are not worth the paper on which they are written. A vehicle with a chimney – like exhaust, clearly visible to the eye, can get away with a Pollution Under Check (PUC) certification by methods known to one and all.

wPhasing out of outdated vehicles. Although these measures are becoming effective, especially in the metropolitan cities, a total ban is not being imposed. The outdated/discarded vehicles are sold or sent to other towns where they continue to run, thus creating high air pollution levels. A glaring example of vehicular pollution is the three wheeler "phat phat" taxi service plying in most of the district towns. The government has to take hard decisions on promoting livelihoods for a small group of taxi operators vis-à-vis the health of a large section of urban population. Holding it to ransom by organising union-led strikes should not be permitted in the interest of maintenance of essential services.

wIncreasing of tree cover reduces dust and smog in air. In Delhi, although green cover has increased from 26 sq kms to 60 sq kms in the last five years, much has to be done. A joint, concerted effort has to be made by the forest and horticulture departments to provide tree saplings, selecting denuded areas and planting carried out with the help of communities. What is important, however, is the careful nurturing of saplings and maximising their survival rate.

The Rising Heap of Solid Waste

A research study carried out at Princeton University in the USA said that the country’s annual solid waste, if loaded in tractor-trailors and parked one behind the other would reach half way to the moon. The total waste generation in urban areas of India is estimated to exceed 39 million tons a year by the year 2001 (Solid Waste Management in Class I Cities in India Report, March, 1999).

The most widely used method of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management in India is the practice of land filling. However, landfills here are nothing but open dump yards. Uncontrolled dumping has created overflowing landfills that are not only difficult to reclaim because of the haphazard and unscientific manner of dumping, but also have serious environmental impacts such as water pollution due to leaching, methane emissions and soil degradation. Ministry of Environment and Forests has issued "Draft Rules on MSW" by a notification of 27 September, 1999, laying down all the specifications required for managing MSW. Salient features of the document are:

wLandfill construction shall be done after an environmental impact assessment (EIA)

Provision for future landfilling shall be included in the land use plan of the town.

The landfill site shall comply with the norms for control of air and water (ground and surface) pollution and other environmental norms as per prescribed standards.

wWaste at disposal site shall not be burnt.

Following and enforcing the above mentioned norms requires cooperation from one and all. In developed countries MSW is given high priority by way of waste minimisation, reuse, incineration with energy recovery and sanitary landfilling. For example, in Sweden, energy produced from waste incineration is meeting the heating requirements of 2,50,000 apartments corresponding to a saving of 5,00,000 tons of oil annually. In India it has been estimated that there is a potential of generating about 1,000 MW of power from urban and municipal waste and about 700 MW from industrial wastes in the country. Do we have the technology to efficiently utilise our MSW? Or we prefer to continue with the attitude of "business as usual? These are the questions, which need serious contemplation. We have to employ all technologies like composting, biomethanation, pelletisation, gasification, pyrolysis, incineration, sanitary landfilling and plasma arc fixed hearth process to gainfully treat MSW and put it to use. The different role players in MSW management should be:

wMunicipal Authorities – Establishing a separate Municipal Department with trained and skilled manpower for garbage collection and disposal like other utility services viz., Jal and Vidyut Boards.

wUrban Planning Department – for allocation of suitable land for landfills and treatment plants.

wLegal System – enforcing the "polluter pay principle" and imposing strict penal and fiscal sentences for defaulters.

wSocietal Level – for organising segregation at source, organising rag pickers for door to door collection, installing garbage processing equipment in multi-storeyed complexes and reducing waste by composting (including vermi-composting).

wNGOs – for generating awareness and mobilising all stakeholders to pitch in to the task of solid waste management.


There is a general awareness being created on the impact of environmental degradation on our day-to-day life. We understand, though a bit gradually, the need to live in harmony with nature. The importance of cleaner and greener technologies cannot be over-emphasised. All natural resources have to be harnessed in a sustainable manner to ensure the well-being of our future generations. Community Led Environment Action Network (CLEAN-India) Programme initiated by Development Alternatives addresses these specific issues in a systematic, scientific and in an evolutionary way for decent, productive and sustainable livelihoods for the country’s teeming millions.

by Col. Valmiki Katju (Retd)
      Manager, CLEAN-India
Development Alternatives


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