Emulate the e-rickshaw

Mild, unseasonal rains and thundershowers in an extremely hot summer season this year, have lifted the spirits of Delhiites as it brings down the elevated toxic ozone levels and improves the air quality which ranges from poor to severe in different parts of the city. It seems ironical that a stage has come when most of us have to rely on natural interventions like rains and thunderstorms for improving air quality, since there is little surety that the public institutions and agencies will be able to rigorously enforce the inspection and regulatory provisions for weeding out polluting vehicles. In view of tardy enforcement, the users with their uncaring attitude towards public safety and environment are hardly worried about following rules and regulations.

Almost all major Indian cities have been adjudged unfit for a pollution-free life as the availability of quality air and contamination-free water have deteriorated due to rising population, unhampered and unorganised growth of habitats and the phenomenal growth of transport vehicles. Existing emission norms and standards, though still not as stringent as in many countries in the world, are flouted in the absence of effective inspection and regulatory regime. The same sense of indifference pervades in cleaning up the slowly dying rivers, taking positive measures to recover the depleting forest cover and reducing land degradation.

The country is fast approaching the per capita water scarcity benchmark level. According to recent calculations while preparing the 12th Plan document, rising demands for water due to increasing population levels and economic growth may result in about half the demand for water being unmet by 2030. There are many areas with acute water shortages and problems of its poor water quality in the country. Groundwater, which accounts for nearly 66 per cent of India’s irrigation and 80 per cent of domestic water needs, at many places got contaminated by arsenic, fluoride and nitrates and is unfit for human and animal use. A similar condition is seen in the river waters which are badly polluted from the discharge of effluents from industrial units and untreated waste water.

The Energy and Resources Institute's Environmental Survey 2015 attempted to gauge the perception of people towards environmental issues in cities that are located on the major rivers. The findings show that a majority of citizens believe that the responsibility for the poor state of rivers is on the citizens themselves, followed by local, state and Central governments.

For arresting the declining forest cover because of mining, industrial and infrastructure development, the scheme of compensatory afforestation fund was created by the Supreme Court in 2002. Later in 2004, the government set up Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority to manage this fund. A CAG report in 2013 found "serious shortcomings in regulatory issues related to diversion of forest land, the abject failure to promote compensatory afforestation, the unauthorised diversion of forest land in the case of mining and the attendant violation of the environmental regime."

For achieving rapid economic development, which is essential for alleviating a very large proportion of population from hunger and poverty and improving their living condition, it was perhaps, necessary to follow the path of industrial growth that the West had followed. This strategy required massive deployment of natural resources leading to degradation of the environment, particularly when the consumption is inefficient and unregulated. Mahatma Gandhi realised it long back when he asked how many planets would be required for India to reach the development level of the Western world with its sizzling millions. The journey so far on the development path has become clearly unsustainable and needs a drastic change towards improving resource efficiency and bringing to use low carbon technologies for sustainable and inclusive development.

There cannot be extreme positions on economic growth and environment protection. The measures taken for improving resource efficiency, many of which are already in place but need constant evolution in the form of improved sustainable technologies for furthering resource efficiency, need to be implemented by all the regulatory agencies with close monitoring by the government.

Many a times, one feels a sense of helplessness when the government and other agencies are not able to sort out issues properly and swiftly. For example, the people of Delhi pleasantly welcomed the growth of environment-friendly e-rickshaws in the city to meet the requirement of first-mile and last-mile connectivity of commuters, purely governed by market demand and without any support. Then they had to be withdrawn since they did not conform to existing rules and regulations. After more than a year, despite all the right noises, they are still absent from the roads of the capital. It is time to review our governance mechanism to ensure that not only are right policies for environment protection and resource efficiency made but also effectively regulated and implemented.