Environment on Ventilator

Environment

In the name of development, we are treacherously misusing and abusing the nature to an extent where even intervention of court has failed to stop damages being done to the nature

By Asit Manohar

It’s that time of the year when pollution in India’s capital becomes unbearable, courts upset people by restricting Diwali firecrackers, and the environmental authorities threaten draconian steps like banning cars.

This is also the season for hand-wringing over the practice of burning crop residue in states of Punjab and Haryana, when soot blows toward the city. Scientists estimate last fortnight, one-third of the Delhi National Capital Region’s overhang of harmful particulate matter, elements finer than a fraction of a human hair, were derived from stubble burning.

Including the capital region, India is home to nine of the world’s 10 most-polluted cities. Beyond the health risks, the smog crisis threatens to erode competitiveness just when the country is starting to boast of rapid improvements in its ease-of-doing-business rankings.

No matter how hard the authorities try to discourage private vehicles, shut down coal-fired power plants, or curb construction and heavy industry, Delhi’s air quality stands no chance as long as 30 million tons of paddy stubble goes up in flames over 15 to 20 days. In late October and early November, pollution alternates between very poor and severe.

The problem is typically identified as one of expensive technology and scarce labour: Mechanized harvesters generate a large volume of stubble and straw. This stuff is useless as cattle feed, but if left untreated it uses up the nitrogen in the field and reduces yields of the next crop, which is wheat.

A $1,900 Happy Seeder that plants wheat while mulching the paddy stubble isn’t cost-effective for small farmers. Gathering up the residue is also problematic. Rural labour in prosperous Punjab increasingly consists of migrants who return home to celebrate Diwali. Burning the waste seems like the most logical solution to farmers, even though the villagers themselves are blighted by pollution.

The issue goes deeper than technology and labor, though. Paddy isn’t a natural crop for the Punjab region. It guzzles too much water, and an over-reliance on groundwater (Punjab has more tube wells than farmers) has been rapidly depleting aquifers. But Indian policymakers want farmers to grow wheat and rice in order to feed a large and growing population without having to rely on imports.

It was only in the 2000s that the severity of a burgeoning water crisis was understood. Since 2008, the Punjab government has delayed sowing of rice by setting a mandatory start date. This year, it was postponed by another five days to June 20 to save 2.4 trillion liters of water. But later paddy sowing means even greater pressure after the harvest to clear the fields for wheat, and that’s made Delhi’s October-November air pollution even more concentrated, spoiling Diwali celebrations.

Put another way, Delhi’s air pollution is at least partly a water crisis in disguise. Weaning Punjab’s farmers off rice would be next to impossible, and given the primacy of food security, politicians won’t even seriously try. But it’s time to recognize that half-hearted measures such as forced delays in sowing have environmental and economic costs that also must be weighed.

COAL FUEL IN POWER PLANTS

Thermal power plants in India have been major power generators and they use coal as its fuel which emits huge amount of fume that damages the environment at larger extent. We have already witnessed that in the case of Badarpur Power Plant that was finally shut down. But, on one hand the government of India shut down the Badarpur Power Plant while on the other hand it announced to incept another Power Plant in Khurja, Uttar Pradesh. This decision, forced to chop-off near a million of trees in Khurja and once thepower plant would become operational, it would do the same damage that Badarpur Power Plant did in Delhi-NCR. So, coal-based thermal power plant damaging the ecology needs an urgent address by the central and state governments.

Coal-based thermal power plants are likely to suffer due to the twin issues of lower power demand from distribution companies and coal availability. However, the broad outlook is positive for wind energy, solar power and transmission sectors, research agency India Ratings says.

“For coal-based thermal power, non-pit head plants are facing irregular coal supply, leading to a high risk of declaring availability lower-than-required per normative level,” the agency said, adding the competition in the short-term market is likely to intensify if there are delays in addressing these issues and the absence of long-term power purchase agreements.

India Ratings maintained a forecast of stable outlook for the wind energy sector due to a diversified portfolio of bigger developers, sufficient buffer in the form of debt service coverage ratios, stabilizing receivable days and grid availability in some of the windy states.

The agency said outlook is positive for the solar power sector backed by stable operations, regular payments from most counterparties and manageable construction risk, especially for the capacity coming up in solar parks.

According to India Ratings, power transmission projects continue to exhibit high project availability. “Interstate projects exhibit stable receivable period, while exposure of intrastate projects to single counterparty risk continues as a major credit risk,” it said.

Analysts also forecast stable outlook on the overall transport infrastructure sector including toll roads, annuity roads, hybrid annuity model (HAM) projects and airports.

While HAM projects have enabled the revival of private participation, there is some pressure on the financial closure front, as lenders, especially public sector banks are going slow on financing these projects on account of lack of appetite and lending freeze on many of these lenders.

On the transactions front, the agency expects under construction HAM projects to garner a reasonable share in the acquisition market. Rising domestic interest rates and falling rupee (for dollar-denominated bonds) are dampening the interest of infrastructure companies in the bond market.

India Ratings expects stronger renewable energy projects with moderate operational history, strong counterparties and stable sponsor to be able to tap funds from the bond market on a standalone level, without external guarantees or pooling of cash flows.

DEFORESTATION V/S DEVELOPMENT

As mentioned above, to achieve development we have treacherously butchered our forests as we did in Khurja, UP. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, we are losing 130,000 square km of forest cover every day. Another study by the Center for Global Development shows that if the loss of vegetation continues unabated at this rate, forests covering an area nearly the size of India will be destroyed by 2050. This rapid loss of natural forest across the world is increasingly concerning.

The situation in India is no different. India has been trying to achieve its target of keeping 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover for decades, but the 2017 State of Forest report shows that it is still struggling to get above 22 percent. India has seen rapid deforestation in recent years, primarily due to its focus on economic development. According to government data, 14,000sq km of forests was cleared to accommodate 23,716 industrial projects across India over the last 30 years. While market-friendly reforms have succeeded in pulling millions of Indians out of poverty, economists say a significant proportion of the population is not reaping the benefits of economic growth.

From the colonial era to post-independence years, the forest policies of India were primarily focused on commercial forestry and exclusionary conservation. This approach changed only with the National Forest Policy (NFP) of 1988, which acknowledged for the first time the role forest-dwelling communities should play in sustainable forest management. Rather than focusing on economic benefits forests could provide, the NFP 1988 built a strong case for ecological security and conservation of biodiversity through a participatory model.

Since then, India enacted several important pieces of legislation to recognize the tribal population’s right to self-determination and to guarantee tenurial rights to forest-dwelling communities, such as Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (the Forest Rights)Act of 2006.

While it was expected that India will continue to implement forward-looking policies to strengthen the framework of community forestry and secure ecological security, the Indian government has now drafted a new policy aimed at revamping the NFP 1988. It turns this principle on its head and proposes to open up the forest to the private sector and promote production forestry.

In the garb of ecosystem security, climate change and environmental degradation, the draft is extremely regressive. The current draft policy appears to be a non-negotiated agreement that does not have the potential to benefit all of the many stakeholders, particularly, the forest dwellers and tribal communities who are directly dependent on forests for food, fodder and livelihood.

Barring an extremely meek mention of community forest resources management, this draft policy not just ignores the existence of over 200 million people who live near a forest and are dependent upon it, it simply turns a blind eye to the huge role they play in forest management.

In fact, these peoples’ rights have been bundled up into a proposed mission called National Community Forest Management Mission, which does not lay out any framework for the division of conservation and management roles and responsibilities between communities and authorities.

This seems a little misdirected and poorly planned, as even 10 years after the enactment of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, fewer than three percent of community forest rights have been recognized in India. In contrast, in Papua New Guinea, about 95 percent of forests are under community control while in Mexico, China, Bolivia and Brazil, these numbers are 70, 55, 35 and 13 percent, respectively.

PRODUCTION FORESTRY

The new draft policy proposes a Public-Private Partnership model and promotes production forestry to meet the market’s growing demand for timber. Examples from Latin America, South Asia and Africa point to the conflicts that occur when communities have no rights over resources which are diverted to private corporations.

In fact, various government studies, including the one by the erstwhile Planning Commission, clearly indicates that granting forest rights to tribal communities have potential to reduce conflicts as it ensures tenurial security and vests decision-making power over resources in the hands of forest dwellers.

The draft policy does not address harmonizing the different laws pertaining to forests. To enhance quality and productivity of natural forests, the first step is to conserve them, find ways to reduce the diversion of forest land and to ensure environmental safeguards. The government’s own records show that the largest threat to both forests and people is land diversion for mining and other infrastructural development projects; over 14,000sq km of forests have already been diverted.

The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the government has already signed the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme and enacted Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act 2013 (CAF), which is geared towards aggressive commercial plantation and tapping carbon markets.

The draft policy touches upon climate change, but only at a conceptual level. If the concern is about the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation and increasing their capacity to adapt to changing climatic variabilities, the strategies proposed in the later part of the document will support neither.

Increased number of ecologically unviable species will destroy the forest ecology and the ecosystem services that it renders. In order to enhance the forests’ mitigation capacities, impetus should have been given to tree species with greater carbon sequestration potential to increase the carbon stock in forests instead of promoting species with a low carbon footprint to lock carbon.

A forest policy should be a broad vision taking into account the varied political, socioeconomic, and ecological contexts of the country. We cannot return to the colonial-era commercial forestry that will stoke potential conflict through corporate forest grabs. Aligning the needs of the most vulnerable communities, including the tribal peoples, should be the priority. Any exclusionary measure will simply reverse the process, which began in 1988.

GARBAGE NOT GOOD

When it comes to waste management in India, nothing is quite right. Central Pollution Control Board in its report which was released in 2009 (after that no such report the board has published) indicates that around 62 million tons of solid waste is produced in our country every year, of which less than 20 percent or only 12 million tons are treated. This essentially means that the remaining 52 million tons of waste remain ‘untreated’ and contaminate land or make its way into rivers, lakes and wetlands. If we don’t take ‘Waste Management’ seriously now then there is no way for India to get itself out of this dump.

In 2017, The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has issued statutory notices to municipal commissioners of 184 towns to ensure proper management of domestic sewage and solid waste. But no serious action has been taken till now.

Another major issue is the overflowing landfills – there is literally no space to accommodate fresh garbage waste. An expert at the Centre of Science and Environment says, instead of constructing new landfill sites, the government should be really looking into innovative methods to dispose and recycle its waste. The reason why most landfill sites are over-flowing is because the current waste disposal system is flawed.

Nearly 20 percent of methane gas emissions in India is caused by landfills. The trashes dumped in the landfills are prone to catching fire due to the heat generated by the decomposition of waste. According to a study done by scientists at the School of Environmental Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University, high levels of nickel, zinc, arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals are part of the solid waste at landfills in many metro cities, especially in Delhi.

UN COMES FORWARD

A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) looks at science-based solutions to air pollution in Asia and the Pacific region. The release of the report comes on the heels of a major new report by the World Health Organization which says that at least 60,987 children in India, under the age of five, died in 2016 due to causes linked to air pollution. Both the WHO and UNEP reports were released at the WHO’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health.

The UNEP report has 25 solutions why they recommend tackling air pollution. UNEP says that implementing these measures would result in a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions, preventing up to a third of a degree Celsius in global warming. They estimate that these measures would help one billion people breathe cleaner air by 2030.

About seven million people worldwide die prematurely every year from air pollution related diseases. The Asia Pacific region accounts for two thirds of these deaths. India is struggling with 14 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world, according to the WHO. Premature deaths linked to air pollution in India, account for 25 percent of the global deaths.

SCIENCE BASED SOLUTIONS

The UNEP’s report has made the 25 solutions taking into account the diversity of the Asia and Pacific region. Their measures can be categorized into three types.

One set of measures looks at increasing emission standards for vehicles, power plants and industry. Another set looks at the reduction in burning of waste and proper management of livestock manure. A third set looks at renewable energy.

“The top 25 measures not only represent wins for cities and countries looking to improve air quality, but also provide next-generation business opportunities and boost economic growth,” says the report. As an example for this, the report cites the case of Mumbai.

Mumbai has announced it would push for increase the number of electric vehicles to 500,000 and that Maharashtra would be a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles and their components.

As conventional measures, the report suggests post-combustion controls (this means end-of-pipe measures to reduce sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions at power stations and in large-scale industry), industrial process emission standards (especially for iron and steel plants, cement factories, glass production, chemical industry) and emission standards for road vehicles, maintenance of vehicles and dust control.

In the second category of measures, the report suggests dealing with and regulating agricultural crop residues, residential waste burning, forest fires, livestock manure management, nitrogen fertilizers, brick kilns, international shipping, solvent use and refineries.

In the third category of measures the report discusses regulating cooking and heating fuels, power generation, energy efficiency in house and industries, electric vehicles, public transport, solid waste management, waste water treatment and Hydro Fluoro Carbon (HFC) refrigerants.

India’s place in the global air pollution debate

Several problems faced by India and measures taken to tackle pollution are cited in the report.

India is described as “leap-frogging” in the arena of pushing towards energy efficiency technologies “due in part to the ongoing implementation of increasingly stringent standards on old and new coal-fired power plants”. India’s National Clean Air Programme is also cited by the report, which has planned to expand the air monitoring network, improving the dissemination of data and public outreach, and calls for the prevention, control and abatement of air pollution.

The role of India’s Supreme Court also finds mention. “The impetus for regulatory change sometimes comes from institutions outside government agencies,” says the report, citing court orders such as the one that shifted Delhi’s entire public transport fleet on to compressed natural gas.

Other Indian laws that find mention include the Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act 1981, Motor Vehicles Bill of 1988, the Auto Fuel Policy of 2002, the National Environment Policy of 2006, and the National Green Tribunal Bill of 2009.

The report also talks about India’s efforts to deal with agricultural residue (where the government has been asking power companies to buy agricultural waste and convert it into biomass pellets) and the government’s efforts to reduce nitrogen based fertiliser usage (the government has started an initiative for coating urea-nitrogen with neem oil, a nitrification inhibitor that can reduce nitrogen loss by 10–15 percent).