India’s steady economic growth over the last decade has improved the country’s average income and has brought out millions above the poverty threshold. This remarkable economic growth has, however, been clouded by a sharp degradation of environment causing scarcity of natural resources. Considering the size and diversity of India’s economy, environmental risks are wide ranging and are both driven by prosperity and future poverty.
Poverty remains both a cause and consequence of resource degradation: agricultural yields are lower on degraded lands, forests and grasslands are depleted as livelihood resources declined. To subsist, the poor are compelled to mine and overuse the limited resources available to them, creating a downward spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation. Environmental degradation of air, soil and water, especially fresh water reserves’ depletion in India coupled with the impending resource scarcity are exacerbated by the climate change issues.
In a recent survey of 178 countries whose environments were studied by the International Labour Organization, India ranked 155th overall and almost the last in air pollution. Also according to another WHO survey across G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities were in India. These figures reflect the enormity of the problem, but how much India is actually loosing on economic terms due to environmental degradation? Environmental degradation costs India about & 80 billion a year or about 6% of its GDP said a recent World Bank report.
The report titled “Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India” – the first ever national level economic assessment of environmental degradation in India was prepared by the World Bank at the request of the country’s environment ministry. The report analysed the physical and environmental sustainability and provided a valuation of bio-diversity and ecosystem services in India. The diagnostic report, the first to assess the economic cost of environmental degradation for the whole of India and its 1.3 billion people shows that the biggest problems are air pollution, the degradation of crop lands, pastures, forests and poor water supply and sanitation. “India has performed remarkably economically, but that’s not reflected in its environmental outcomes” the report has observed.
The report finds the air pollution, the biggest culprit. It has focused on particle pollution (PM10) from the burning of fossil fuels which has serious health consequences amounting to about 3% of India’s GDP along with losses due to lack of access to clean water supply, sanitation and hygiene and natural resource depletion. Of this the impacts of outdoor air pollution account for the highest share of 1.3%. According to this report the higher costs of air pollution are primarily driven by an elevated exposure of the young and productive urban population to particulate matter pollution that results in a substantial cardiopulmonary and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Further, a significant portion of diseases caused by poor water supply, sanitation and hygiene is borne by children under five. About 23% of child deaths among Indians could be attributed to environmental factors, which means that some 3.50 lakh under-fives die each year due to bad air, contaminated water or similar problems, the report has warned.
The study shows that taking steps to cut air pollution would have a negligible effect on India’s economic growth, but would save a substantial amount of money now spent on medical care and would reduce country’s emission of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming.
Six per cent loss of GDP due to environmental degradation is a huge figure for India which is struggling to lessen the incidence of poverty. The only consolation probably is that the country is not an isolated example. Similar studies conducted by World Bank show that some countries did worse than India. China, for example, suffers annual looses of as much as 9% of GDP from degradation of its environment.