India’s Biggest Environment Problem is Poverty – Rahul Tripathi

Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.

-mohammed ali

Poverty is a manifestation of inequality and in turn this inequality is manifested in several other human activities be it our lifestyle, our consumption, our culture etc.. poverty is something that not only effects an individual but also effects his surroundings. It happens by the sheer virtue of his consumption pattern that poverty get realised in a poor.

Ours is a an economy wherein the government has opted for perspective planning which is a long term planning. From gareebi-hatao of the 4th 5 year plan to the inclusive growth of the 11th one no one cared to see why the slogans just got reduced to the lip-service and could not get materialised. Finally the planning commission realised to integrate the element of sustainability to this inclusive growth for its 12th five year plan.

Poverty is like a multi-headed hydra with no Hercules in sight to fight it down. It is cyclic in nature as poverty induced more of itself amongst the poor. One of its head is the casual agent for our environmental degradation and its rapid destruction.

We are a growing economy with a large number of poor below the poverty line. We got to have huge amount of food grains in order to sustain our social-benefit schemes. In addition to this we also need to have industries running employment programmes for the people to emerge out of poverty. We cannot curb our production programmes because we need to look after a large population. This way we can see that poverty has imposed structural limitations over our production programmes and we can opt for downscaling the scale of operations for any cause which also includes the environmental concerns also.

One famous quote goes like, “beggars can’t be choosers” and in the present scenario with millions grappling with poverty we can happily assume ourselves to be beggars and to minimum the costs involved for our social benefit schemes we are limited to use the inefficient and carbon intensive schemes. A person below the poverty line is still using cow-dung and wood as his fuel and cannot turn to smokeless chulha or LPG for cooking purpose. Meanwhile those who can pay are enjoying the subsidies that the government is paying for supplying LNG to the poor. A huge amount of carbon emmissions and that too the more dangerous form which is the soot is released from the conventional chulhas . This soot has the highest warming potential and is highly mobile. These chulhas also emit carbon monoxide which is not only poisonous but also warms the atmosphere. This is catch-22 situation as providing efficient chulhas in such huge numbers will put financial constraints on our purse to an extent that we will have to shut our social schemes down. That will defy the whole purpose of switching onto a clean technology as then the poor won’t even have the grains to feed their stomach. As aptly said by mahatma Gandhi “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
That a common poor man is forced to use wood as his fuel the trees are being cut and the forest cover is going down subsequently. The reckless cutting of trees in turn takes away the carbon sink and in fact once felled the trees themselves act as a carbon source instead of a carbon sink. Cleaner fuels like kerosene are still away from the reach of the poor people and hence their reliance over polluting fuels has not been budged. Though the kerosene is highly subsidised but still the price that he is expected to pay drains his resources pretty well. In a country where the poverty line is defined by 26 rupees daily how can he be spending around 10 rupees on a litre of kerosene?

Our social sector schemes run into crores of rupees. Even a cabinet minister had acknowledged that after subsidies and allocations for mammoth schemes like MGNREGA hardly anything is left for pursuing other things and this brings to the development of alternative schemes which are cost efficient and environment friendly at the same time. Though we are a tropical country and receive fairly large amount of solar radiations but still the high cost of manufacturing solar energy has kept its development slow. Same holds good for wind energy as well. We are not able to sponsor research and development in clean technologies fully and in turn cannot make the expected advances inspite of having a very large pool of talented engineers and scientists. Most of our research is stalled due to lack of funds. We are not able to have a fully grid connected solar power system under the Jawahar lal Nehru national solar mission due to the cost constraints only. Our premiere institutes are losing out on retaining the precious talent because they do not have adequate money to pay a lucid compensation to the budding scientists and they go out to foreign countries looking for greener pastures.

Growing paddy by conventional methods has been a source of methane emissions but still the same method is employed in the paddy fields of west Bengal because we haven’t produced a method that is cost effective to the extent that farmers who grow paddy mainly as subsistence agriculture can switch onto newer environment friendly techniques. Hence methane emissions keep on flourishing and we have to put up with it knowingly.

The land degradation has also been rampant of late because we have not been able to check it. The ignorant farmers driven by their want for money employ non-environment friendly techniques leading to fatal consequences over our environment. For instance rice cultivation in the water scarce areas of Punjab and Haryana has rapidly brought the level of water table down and the land desertification has been at alarmingly high levels. There has been a mismatch of the climatic conditions and the crops being grown by the farmers. This indicates that the cornerstone of our economy itself is not environment friendly.

Another problem that stems from poverty is the ever increasing urbanisation. Driven by a need to earn money the rural population is running towards urban installations and thereby creating a huge pressure on the urban infrastructures. The ever increasing population leads to problem of increasing waste productions that may not recycled and may in turn pose a threat to the environment. One such instance of increasing urbanisation taking its toll on the environment was Bhalswa horseshoe lake or Bhalswa jheel is a lake in northwest Delhi, India. It was originally shaped like a horseshoe however over the years half of the horseshoe was used as a landfill area, and now a low income housing colony, an extension of the nearby town of Bhalswa Jahangir Pur has been built on it, destroying the once excellent wetland ecosystem and wildlife habitat of the region which once played host to scores of local and migratory wildlife species, especially waterbirds, including waterfowl, storks and cranes.

Our industrialisation too has occurred around the urban centres and there have been frequent instances of pollution and emissions from the plants. In March 2009, the issue of Uranium poisoning in Punjab came into light, caused by fly ash ponds of thermal power stations, which reportedly lead to severe birth defects in children in the Faridkot and Bhatinda districts of Punjab. This holds a testimony to our technological shortcomings.

When it comes to overall emissions we rank after CHINA and US but our per capita emissions are very low and it somehow appears to the international world that we are hiding under the garb of a large population to avoid any commitments for binding emission targets at the international forums. The rationale that is put in says that a substantial chunk of our emissions come from those who are not poor and hence India should commit for a binding reduction in emissions.

To conclude we can safely imagine that poverty coming across our emissions target and has posed problems that need innovative solutions as it is a complex and a multi-dimensional problem. The conventional solutions have failed to deliver the needed goods and something extra ordinary needs to be pulled out of the closet. Poverty has not only been hampering our development but also the sustainable development which is the urgent need of the hour. For this the government needs to take a plunge into the problem and come out with answers to solve this puzzle which is defying solutions for itself.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin Roosevelt

(Essay Contributed by Target 2012 Member –Rahul Tripathi)