Stepping back from an ecological abyss


1970s and 1980s India saw the rise of environmentalist movements like Chipko, Silent Valley, Narmada, Koel-Karo. The government too responded with a series of forest, wildlife, environment-related laws and policies. As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, we examine how this legacy is now being carried.

An earth under stress

  • The prospects today seem far gloomier than they did in the 1980s.
  • 480 million Indians face the world’s most extreme air pollution levels.
  • According to NITI Aayog, “600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress… with nearly 70% of water being contaminated; India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index”.
  • Land degradation and desertification are taking place over 30% of our land, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation.
  • Average levels of land productivity are one-fourth or one-fifth of what they could be; pumping in artificial fertilizers restores a bit, but at the cost of pushing the soil further towards death. Food items in most cities have pesticide residues well above human safety levels.
  • The World Bank reported in 2013 that India was losing 5.7% of GDP due to environmental damage.
  • The latest global environmental performance index (EPI) by Yale and Columbia Universities puts India at the bottom among 180 countries.

Environment Performance Index (EPI) :

  • EPI is an international ranking system that measures environmental health and sustainability of countries.
  • The EPI, a biennial index, was started in 2002 as Environmental Sustainability Index by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network.


  • The 2022 EPI leverages 40 performance indicators grouped into 11 issue categories, which in turn are aggregated into 3 policy objectives:
    • Environmental Health
    • Ecosystem Vitality
    • Climate Change.
  • These indicators provide a gauge at a national scale of how close countries are establishing environmental policy targets.
  • The EPI then transforms the raw environmental data into indicators that place countries on a 0–100 scale from worst to best performance.

India’s performance:

  • With a score of 18.9, India’s 180th ranking comes after Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar.
  • India has also scored low on rule of law, control of corruption and government effectiveness, according to EPI.

Opposition by Indian government:

Indian government has rejected the methodology and findings of EPI based on following grounds:

  1. The ‘projected GHG emissions levels in 2050’ is computed based on the average rate of change in emission of the last 10 years instead of modeling that takes into account a longer period, the extent of renewable energy capacity and use, additional carbon sinks, energy efficiency, etc. of respective countries.
  2. Forests and wetlands of the country are crucial carbon sinks but have not been factored in while computing the projected GHG emissions trajectory up to 2050 given by EPI 2022.
  3. The index computes the extent of ecosystems but not their condition or productivity. It did not include indicators like agro biodiversity, soil health, food loss, and waste even though they are important for developing countries with large agrarian populations.
  4. The weight of the indicators in which India performed well has been reduced and the reasons for such change have not been explained in the report.

Counter-arguments: India’s declining policy stand on environment:

Favouring corporate access

  • The policy-level obsession with economic growth — despite growing evidence of GDP being a very poor indicator of human well-being — treats the natural environment (and related livelihoods) as fodder for exploitation.
  • And despite public posturing about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the natural elements without which we would all be dead — land, water, biodiversity, air — continue to be ignored or mauled.
  • In fact, the Government is dismantling many environmental and social security policies to favour corporate access to land and natural resources, such as the latest proposals to amend forest and environment laws and the Environment Impact Assessment notification.
  • Its priority programmes include building massive physical infrastructure that only disrupts the natural infrastructure we desperately need to protect.

The socio-cultural cost of environment degradation:

  • With greater integration into the global economy after the LPG Reforms of 1991, the entry of multinational corporations into every sector, and increasing exports of natural materials and imports of toxic waste, the issue of environmental sustainability was relegated to the background. Mining projects crept into previously safe areas including wildlife protected areas and Adivasi territories.
  • While wildlife and biodiversity have been major sufferers, there are also severe socio-cultural costs. Over 60 million people have been physically displaced by ‘development’ projects in the last few decades with very poor (if any) rehabilitation, and according to the former Planning Commission, a disproportionately high percentage of these are Adivasis and Dalits.

Extreme events:

  • The climate crisis severely compounds all this. This year’s super-hot summer should be a warning, even if we have not yet learnt from earlier events of extreme temperatures, erratic rainfall, cloudbursts and cyclones.
  • A Lancet Planetary Health journal article says that extreme temperatures in India are responsible for 7,40,000 excess deaths annually. The majority of these are likely to be labourers, farmers, and other vulnerable sections who have to work, live, and commute in these temperatures without access to air-conditioning, appropriate clothing, etc.
  • And we are not at all prepared, with abysmally low budgets for adaptation measures. The Climate Action Plan got a meagre ₹30 crore in the 2022-23 Budget.

Enabling sustainability:

  • Ensuring ecological sustainability while generating livelihood security and dignity for more than a billion people can be emulated from the many successful models like Vikalp Sangam. Five thousand Dalit women farmers of the Deccan Development Society have demonstrated how organic, rainfed farming with traditional seed diversity can provide full food security and sovereignty.
  • Several hundred handloom weavers in Kachchh (Gujarat) have shown how dignified, creative livelihoods can be revived based on organic Kala cotton and a mix of traditional and new skills.
  • Community-led ecotourism, such as homestays in Uttarakhand and Ladakh and Sikkim, has combined increased earnings with ecologically sensitive visitation.
  • As advocated by the United Nations Environment Programme, public transportation, organic farming, land and water regeneration, renewable energy, community health, eco-friendly construction, ecotourism, and small-scale manufacturing can significantly enhance job creation.
  • Linking programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act with such activities, as happening in some States, also has huge potential.

Way forward:

  • Such an orientation entails fundamental restructuring of economy and governance. It will mean a shift away from large infrastructure and industrialisation, replacing mega-corporations with producer cooperatives, ensuring community rights over the ‘commons’ (land, water, forest, coasts, knowledge), and direct decision-making powers to gram sabhas and urban area sabhas while tackling gender and caste inequities. It will entail respect for both human rights and the rights of nature.
  • But since this will inevitably (and desirably) cut into the profits and consumerism of India’s ultra-rich, and reduce the centralised power of the state, it will not happen through government action alone.
  • It needs the collective mobilisation of industrial workers, farmers, fishers, craftspersons, pastoralists, urban and rural youth, women in all sectors and those speaking on behalf of wildlife, all of whom are marginalised by dominant elites. Then only will India finish its century of Independence as a nation that has achieved genuine well-being — a real ‘amrit kaal’.

India at 75 : A probe into the Nehruvian pledge


75 years of indian independence.


  • On 15th august 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru had said: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity… The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”
  • 75 years on, we examine how far we have redeemed the pledge.

State of affairs in India today:

  • Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen comprehensively examined the transformative process within their freedom-capability perspective keeping in mind the larger context of the demands of democracy and social justice.
  • If we look at some important health indicators, maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in 456 out of 640 districts is above 140 per lakh live births; in Assam, it is 215. Considering the global Sustainable Development Goals target, all countries are expected to have a MMR that is below 70.

Gender gap:

Reducing the inequality between men and women in their access to resources and opportunity is an important metric of civilisation. The Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum, with a stable methodology using four sub-indices — based on 14 indicators, provides a snapshot of where men and women in India stand globally.

Indices of GGGI:

  • economic participation
  • educational attainment
  • health and survival
  • political empowerment

Findings of Global Gender Gap report:

  • In 2006, India’s rank was 98 as against 13 for Sri Lanka and 91 for Bangladesh. India’s position fell to 135 in 2022, whereas Bangladesh improved its position to 71.
  • In the sub-indice of economic participation, India fell from 110 in 2006 to 151 in 2021. Worse, in health and survival, it slipped from 103 in 2006 to 155 in 2021.

Safeguards for the marginalised section:

  • Unless serious public interventions are made, inequality of opportunity will only widen where social disparities in gender, caste and class coexist. There are constitutional guarantees of reservation in employment and education for historically marginalised communities to expand their opportunities, but because these groups have had to contend with powerful groups with great initial endowments and an early start, these guarantees have proved to be largely ineffective.
  • Moreover, India has failed to seriously implement land reforms. The resounding slogan ‘land to the tiller’ of the pre-Independence struggle has quietly vanished. While the property-owning class have been winners, the landless Dalits, Adivasis and the poor have not been able to go forward.
Levels of inequality: trends in India:In a 2019 paper, Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel trace India’s journey ‘From British Raj to Billionaire Raj’ and show that the egalitarian achievements up to the early 1980s have been lost following the liberalisation turnaround. They estimate that the top 1% earners captured less than 21% of the total income in the late 1930s, 6% in the early 1980s and 22% in recent times. On the other hand, the share of the bottom 50% remained below 14%.
 The Oxfam India Inequality Report of 2021 says that the number of billionaires in India grew from 102 in 2020 to 142 in 2021, while the share of the bottom 50% in national wealth shrank to a low 6% in the worst pandemic times. These numbers prove that the sustained gains of economic growth have not been channeled to widen the access to education, health care, social security etc.

The practice of democracy

  • With growing social and economic inequality, Indian democracy is emerging into what Shankkar Aiyar calls the “Gated Republic”. His book under this phrase narrates why the privileged classes do not demand key public goods such as drinking water, electricity, and law and order; it is because they have bottled water, storage tanks, water purifiers, inverters, private security and the like. Many of the avoidable deaths, and disease, that happen in India are due to the public failure in providing water, public hygiene, education and the rule of law.
  • The Economic Survey 2021 (Chapter 4) asserts that economic growth and inequality will converge in terms of their effects on socioeconomic outcomes. The limits of the trickle-down thesis is well known by now. 


We must build India on a plank of economic development and social justice from the grass-roots level.


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