Industry & Environment

Industry & Environment So little done, so much to do THERE was a time when humans worshipped nature. Today, we voice concern over the state of the world's environment. For the layperson, concern for the environment boils down to deforestation or pollution, especially that of the air. Few realise that even the drinking water available to us comes from the environment. Which leads us to the question: Do we treat water as a resource which is precious or do we treat it as a commodity which can be used and wasted?

In the past, all resources were treated as scarce. Ancient communities gave due respect to the environment because they depended on it for their survival. Civilisations were born, reached their high point and died in the cradle of nature. Local communities depended on nature for fuel, fodder and medicine. In turn, they conserved and respected it. In ancient India, for example, nature worship was part of the pagan religions. This included the worship of rivers and water bodies.

Today, we pollute rivers with impunity. Domestic and industrial waste ends up polluting water bodies. What is worse, the contractor who raises revenue from woodlands has to pay nothing to those whom he has deprived of trees, scrub, and green cover the source of their daily requirements.

The cost of inaction
But all this has a cost. Today India is paying an enormous price as the mil- lennium draws to a close. According to a study conducted by the World Bank in 1996 (The cost of inaction: Valuing the economy wide cost of environmental degradation in India) environmental damages amounted in 1992 alone to Rs 34,000 crore or 4.5 per cent of the gross domestic product.

Environmental costs are measured in terms of health costs due to pollution and the cost of losses incurred in production due to degradation of resources. According to the World Bank study, the largest share of economic and health costs emerges from the increasing pollution of water and air, pegged at Rs 25,000 crore a year. Land degradation and deforestation result in foregone production costs of about Rs 9,500 crore annually. All other costs pale in significance compared to the impact of water pollution on health. Water degradation alone accounts for Rs 19,950 crore spent annually across the country on healthcare.

All surface water in India (both in urban and rural areas), save that in the mountains, is unfit for human consumption. The source of pollution is partly organic, a result of improper disposal and treatment of human waste, but a greater part of it consists of highly toxic run-off from agriculture containing pesticides and residues of fertilisers, and, worse, industrial wastewater. Polluted water leads to various gastrointestinal disorders, liver and stomach infections and even terminal diseases like cancer. Children and infants are often the worst affected, dying in large numbers because of diarrhoea.

Today, taps in Delhi provide a poisonous liquid to citizens, irrespective of the source river water or groundwater. The Yamuna carries pesticides from agricultural run-off from Haryana while the groundwater has traces of nitrates.

In most of the 23 Indian cities with populations exceeding a million, air pollution levels exceed those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). In almost every city, non-motorised means of transport such as the horse-drawn tongah and the cycle rickshaw are being phased out in favour of fume-belching vehicles. Fuel consumption has risen dramatically and industrialisation unleashed on city after city while urban planners turn a Nelson's eye towards environmental woes. Six of India's larger cities - Mumbai, jCalcutta, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kanpur and Nagpur - face severe air pollution problems, with the annual average levels of total suspended particulate matter at least thrice as high as the WHO standard.

The role of industry
In this scenario, industry has to play a pivotal role. Unfortunately, in the 50 years since Independence, attempts by the State to control industrial pollution have proved a complete failure. The role of pollution control boards has been reduced to issuing clean chits to companies concerned.

The United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environment Outlook 1997 (GEO- 1), marking the "For Life on Earth" theme, gives a clear indication that, based on demographic trends, India is one of the countries most likely to face severe environmental problems.

India figures among the countries suffering most from desertification largely brought on by human-induced soil degradation. As much as 12.62 million hectares (mha) of the total 32.77 mha of agricultural land has been affected by water erosion. Parts of the country suffer from chronic water shortages due to bad management of resources in high population density areas. India is projected to be among the countries which are likely to fall into a water-stress category before 2025.

Economic growth has seen an increased demand in energy; and the country's reliance on coal has resulted in a significant increase in air pollution. Flyash generated from the mining of coal is as serious a problem in India as acid rain is else- where. An estimated 35-40 million tonnes of fly-ash is generated by thermal power plants every year, and only 2-3 per cent is reused. Air quality in the country has seen a rapid deterioration, and, in 1990, northeast India was among the areas with an acid load heavily in excess of critical loads. These are areas of concern to industry as much as to the people. Business opportunities do not exist in vacuo, and industrialisation is dependent on the state of the physical and social environment as much as the economic and legal.

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