GS Paper 3 – An introduction to Environment protection in India

The regulatory and institutional decision-making framework for environmental protection in India is embodied in twelve major acts of the Indian Parliament enumerated below:

Most of the above Acts and Notifications are aimed at strengthening the command-and control regime. New initiatives, especially in the form of a mix of regulations and legislation, fiscal incentives for technology acquisition, voluntary agreements, educational programs and information campaigns are required.

Although the government has introduced some of these measures, more is required because the regulatory structure of a central authority, the ministry of environment and forests (and other ministries) and state-level implementation agencies have proved to be largely unsuccessful in effectively managing the protection of the environment.

The ministry of environment and forests is charged with the responsibility of planning, promoting, coordination and overseeing the implementation of various environmental and forestry programmes. Responsibilities include environmental management to promote health considerations, focus on poverty alleviation by enhancing access of the poor to natural resources for livelihood and heightening awareness regarding environmentally sound living process by focusing on nature-human synergy.

National Environmental Policy. 2006:

NEP, 2006 is a response to India’s national commitment to a clean environment, mandated in the Constitution of India in Articles 48A and 51A (g) and strengthened by the judicial interpretation of Article 21. For the purpose of better understanding, NEP, 2006 defines the term Environment to comprise all entities, natural or manmade, external to oneself, and their interrelationships, which provide value, now or perhaps in the future, to humankind. The NEP, 2006 is framed on three foundational aspirations. These are, Human beings should be able to enjoy a decent quality of life; Humanity should become capable of respecting the finiteness of the biosphere; and Neither the aspiration for the good life, nor the recognition of biophysical limits should preclude the search for greater justice in the world.

Principles of NEP, 2006: The National Environmental Policy, 2006 establishes the following fourteen principles as guiding principles for the protection of environment and conservation of nature and natural resources.

1. Human Beings are at the Centre of Sustainable Development Concerns.

2. The Right to Development Both the present and future generations have a right to development which must be respected while making provisions for environmental protection.

3. Environmental Protection is an Integral part of the Development Process

4. The Precautionary Approach: Sometimes we are uncertain about the full impacts of a developmental activity. NEP, 2006 provides measures to ensure that lack of scientific evidence will not be used as a reason for not taking suitable measures for environmental protection.

5. Economic Efficiency: An important guiding principle of NEP, 2006 is that economic efficiency will lead to greater environmental benefits. For ensuring this, NEP suggests that economic valuation of environmental resources and ecosystem service be carried out in a comprehensive manner.

5a) Polluter Pays: Sometimes the actions of one individual or company may have an impact on another individual or company even when they may not have any direct economic relationship with

each other. NEP, 2006 advocates that in all such cases the polluter must bear the cost of such externalities.

5b) Cost Minimization: When the economic valuation of the impact on environment of a development activity cannot be calculated, the economic costs of realizing the benefits of such a development activity must be minimized.

6. Entities with incomparable Values: There are some natural resources like unique landscapes or symbols of heritage like the Taj Mahal which cannot be included in the ambit of cost-benefit analysis. Such entities must be prioritised over any economic calculations.

7. Equity: All human beings must be given equitable access to nature and natural resources such as clean air, water etc.

8. Legal Liability Any person or company causing harm to the environment must be liable in the court of law and must be penalized as already discussed in the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

8 a) Fault Based Liability: In addition to the above, a person or company may be penalized for not following the set environmental standards.

8 b) Strict Liability: If the actions or inaction of a person or a company cause damage to another person or company, then the first person or company must compensate the second person or company even if the first person or company has not broken any law or duty.

9. Public Trust Doctrine: This is an important doctrine in the NEP, 2006 according to which the State is not an absolute owner but only a trustee of the natural resource wealth of the country.

10. Decentralization: Local environmental problems need local solutions.  The NEP, 2006 advocates such a decentralization and the transfer of powers for ensuring sustainable solutions to environmental problems.

11. Integration: The inclusion of environmental consideration in sectoral policymaking across all sectors and the strengthening of linkages between various agencies at the Central, State and Local levels is required for ensuring sustainable development.

12. Environmental Standard Setting: The setting of environmental standards goes a long way in protecting the environment. An environmental standard may be an upper concentration value of a certain pollutant beyond which a certain type of factory cannot pollute in a unit time.

13. Preventive Action: Preventing environmental damage is far times better than degrading the environment and paying up later on to restore the degraded environment.

14. Environmental Offsetting: There are exceptional cases where threatened or endangered species or natural systems required for supporting life cannot be protected for some reason. In this case, the policy advocates that cost-effective offsetting measures must be undertaken to restore and/ or reclaim the damages so that the lost environmental services are returned to the public.

Biodiversity profile of India: India, a megadiverse country with only 2.4% of the world’s land area, accounts for 7-8% of all recorded species, including over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. It is situated at the tri-junction of the Afrotropical, Indo-Malayan and Palaearctic realms, all of which support rich biodiversity.

Being one of the 17 identified megadiverse countries, India has 10 biogeographic zones and is home to 8.58% of the mammalian species documented so far, with the corresponding figures for avian species being 13.66%, for reptiles 7.91%, for amphibians 4.66%, for fishes 11.72% and for plants 11.80%.

Four of the 34 globally identified biodiversity hotspots, namely the Himalaya, Indo-Burma, the Western Ghats-Sri Lanka and Sundaland, are represented in India. India is an acknowledged centre of crop diversity and harbours hundreds of varieties of crop plants such as rice, maize, millets etc. The diverse physical features and climatic conditions have resulted in a variety of ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, desert, coastal and marine ecosystems which harbour and sustain high biodiversity and contribute to human well-being.

Biological diversity deals with the degree of nature’s variety in the biosphere. This variety can be observed at three levels; the genetic variability within a species, the variety of species within a community, and the organisation of species in an area into distinctive plant and animal communities constitutes ecosystem diversity.

Value of biodiversity:
Environmental services from species and ecosystems are essential at global, regional and local levels. Production of oxygen, reducing carbon dioxide, maintaining the water cycle, protecting soil are important services. The world now acknowledges that the loss of biodiversity contributes to global climatic changes.

Forests are the main mechanism for the conversion of carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen. The loss of forest cover, coupled with the increasing release of carbon dioxide and other gases through industrialization contributes to the ‘greenhouse effect’. Global warming is melting ice caps, resulting in a rise in the sea level which will submerge the low-lying areas in the world. It is causing major atmospheric changes, leading to increased temperatures, serious droughts in some areas and unexpected floods in other areas.

Biological diversity is also essential for preserving ecological processes, such as fixing and recycling of nutrients, soil formation, circulation and cleansing of air and water, global life support (plants absorb CO2 , give out O2 ), maintaining the water balance within ecosystems, watershed protection, maintaining stream and river flows throughout the year, erosion control and local flood reduction.

Food, clothing, housing, energy, medicines, are all resources that are directly or indirectly linked to the biological variety present in the biosphere. This is most obvious in the tribal communities who gather resources from the forest, or fisherfolk who catch fish in marine or freshwater ecosystems. For others, such as agricultural communities, biodiversity is used to grow their crops to suit the environment.

Urban communities generally use the greatest amount of goods and services, which are all indirectly drawn from natural ecosystems. It has become obvious that the preservation of biological resources is essential for the well-being and the long-term survival of mankind. This diversity of living organisms which is present in the wilderness, as well as in our crops and livestock, plays a major role in human ‘development’. The preservation of ‘biodiversity’ is therefore integral to any strategy that aims at improving the quality of human life.

1. Consumptive use value: The direct utilisation of timber, food, fuelwood, fodder by local communities. The biodiversity held in the ecosystem provides forest dwellers with all their daily needs, food, building material, fodder, medicines and a variety of other products.

Biodiversity of an area influences every aspect of the lives of people who inhabit it. Their living space and their livelihoods depend on the type of ecosystem.

Even people living in urban areas are dependent on the ecological services provided by the wilderness. We frequently don’t see this in everyday life as it is not necessarily overt. It is linked with every service that nature provides us. The quality of water we drink and use, the air we breathe, the soil on which our food grows are all influenced by a wide variety of living organisms both plants and animals and the ecosystem of which each species is linked with in nature.

While it is well known that plant life removes carbon dioxide and releases the oxygen we breathe, it is less obvious that fungi, small soil invertebrates and even microbes are essential for plants to grow. That a natural forest maintains the water in the river after the monsoon, or that the absence of ants could destroy life on earth, are to be appreciated to understand how we are completely dependent on the living ‘web of life’ on earth. The wilderness is an outcome of a long evolutionary process that has created an unimaginably large diversity of living species, their genetic differences and the various ecosystems on earth in which all living creatures live.

2. Productive use: The biotechnologist uses biorich areas to ‘prospect’ and search for potential genetic properties in plants or animals that can be used to develop better varieties of crops that are used in farming and plantation programs or to develop better livestock. To the pharmacist, biological diversity is the raw material from which new drugs can be identified from plant or animal products. To industrialists, biodiversity is a rich store-house from which to develop new products. For the agricultural scientist the biodiversity in the wild relatives of crop plants is the basis for developing better crops. Genetic diversity enables scientists and farmers to develop better crops and domestic animals through careful breeding. New crop varieties (cultivars) are being developed using the genetic material found in wild relatives of crop plants through biotechnology. Thus, these wild species are the building blocks for the betterment of human life and their loss is a great economic loss to mankind.

Preservation of biodiversity has now become essential for industrial growth and economic development. A variety of industries such as pharmaceuticals are highly dependent on identifying compounds of great economic value from the wide variety of wild species of plants located in undisturbed natural forests. This is called biological prospecting.

3. Social values: While traditional societies which had a small population and required less resources had preserved their biodiversity as a life supporting resource, modern man has rapidly depleted it even to the extent of leading to the irrecoverable loss due to extinction of several species. Thus, apart from the local use or sale of products of biodiversity there is the social aspect in which more and more resources are used by affluent societies.

The consumptive and productive value of biodiversity is closely linked to social concerns in traditional communities. ‘Ecosystem people’ value biodiversity as a part of their livelihood as well as through cultural and religious sentiments. A great variety of crops have been cultivated in traditional agricultural systems and this permitted a wide range of produce to be grown and marketed throughout the year and acted as an insurance against the failure of one crop.

In recent years farmers have begun to receive economic incentives to grow cash crops for national or international markets, rather than to supply local needs. This has resulted in local food shortages, unemployment (cash crops are usually mechanised), landlessness and increased vulnerability to drought and floods.

4. Ethical and moral values: Ethical values related to biodiversity conservation are based on the importance of protecting all forms of life. All forms of life have the right to exist on earth. Apart from the economic importance of conserving biodiversity, there are several cultural, moral and ethical values which are associated with the sanctity of all forms of life.

Indian civilization has over several generations preserved nature through local traditions. This has been an important part of the ancient philosophy of many of our cultures. We have in our country a large number of sacred groves or ‘deorais’ preserved by tribal people in several States. These sacred groves around ancient sacred sites and temples act as gene banks of wild plants.

5. Aesthetic value: Knowledge and an appreciation of the presence of biodiversity for its own sake is another reason to preserve it. Biodiversity is a beautiful and wonderful aspect of nature

Watch a spider weave its complex web. Observe a fish feeding. It is magnificent and fascinating. Symbols from wild species such as the lion of Hinduism, the elephant of Buddhism and deities such as Lord Ganesh, and the vehicles of several deities that are animals, have been venerated for thousands of years.

6. Option value: Keeping future possibilities open for their use is called option value. It is impossible to predict which of our species or traditional varieties of crops and domestic animals will be of great use in the future. To continue to improve cultivars and domestic livestock, we need to return to wild relatives of crop plants and animals. Thus, the preservation of biodiversity must also include traditionally used strains already in existence in crops and domestic animals.

Ecosystems and habitats: India has wide range of ecosystems and habitats, including forests, wetlands, grasslands, coasts, marshes and deserts. Almost all the major ecosystem types in the world can be found in India.

The most important among these are discussed below.

  1. Forests: India is among the top 10 forested countries in the world. The total forest and tree cover in the country is over 78 million hectares, or 23.8 percent of the country’s geographical area.
  2. Grasslands: India has a rich array of grasslands – semi-arid pastures in the western part; Banni grasslands in the Kutch salt desert; humid, semi-waterlogged tall grasslands in the Terai (plains just south of the Himalayas); rolling Shola grasslands on the Western Ghats hilltops; and high altitude alpine pastures in the Himalayas (Bugiyals).
  3. Wetlands: Wetlands in India exist across different geographical regions and have varied origins. They cover about 10 million hectares or three percent of the country’s geographical area and support a variety of life-forms including around 150 amphibian and 320 bird species (UNEP, 2001). Many wetlands serve as important wintering sites for migratory birds.
  4. Coral reefs: The Indian reef area is estimated to contain about 200 coral species belonging to 71 genera spread around 0.24 million hectares. Coral reefs primarily occur in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and Lakshadweep Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands alone have 179 coral species (UNEP, 2001).
  5. Mangroves: India has some of the finest mangroves in the world, nestled in the alluvial deltas of the Ganga, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri rivers and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Mangrove vegetation is spread over 0.47 million hectares or 0.14 percent of the geographical area. India accounts for around three percent of the world’s mangrove vegetation and almost half of it is located in Sundarbans in West Bengal.