Environmental Governance in India: Issues, Concerns and Opportunities

04 Jul 2022
Biba Jasmine

Environmental Governance in India

In this article, Biba Jasmine highlights how India maintains a cordial balance between its rich traditional heritage and modernity without negatively impacting the environment. But, she also feels that technological advances alone or smart governance alone may not be able to solve the fundamental problem that environmental governance must address. While environmental governance is becoming more comprehensive, it is clear that the path and pace of development are constantly redefining the problems it faces.

India has a long history and tradition of living in harmony with nature. Respect for nature is an integral part of the value system in this country. Historically, the protection of nature and wildlife was an important article of faith reflected in people’s daily lives and upheld in myths, folklore, religious beliefs, art, and culture. Some of the fundamental principles of ecology— the interrelationships and interdependence of all life—were conceptualized in the Indian ethos and reflected in an ancient scriptural text, the Ishavasyopanishad, over 2000 years ago. It states: “This universe is the creation of the Supreme Power for the benefit of all its creation. Each individual life form must therefore learn to enjoy its advantages by forming a part of the system in close relation to other species. No species may interfere with the rights of others.” This is an essential principle of sustainable development. We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and welfare without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. In this way, India maintains a “samanvay” between its rich traditional heritage and modernity without negatively impacting the environment.

India, which occupies 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area and 4 per cent of global freshwater resources, consumes only 6 per cent of the world’s primary energy while feeding about 18 per cent of the world’s population. India is a mega-diverse country both culturally and biologically. It hosts 7–8 per cent of all recorded species, four global biodiversity hotspots, the world’s largest tiger and Asian elephant populations, 10 biogeographic and 15 agro-climatic zones, 37 World Heritage Sites and 22 official languages with several local dialects. India’s emerging economy and young demographics offer many new, creative and fascinating opportunities to the 21st century world. The young critical mass is not only India’s hope, but also that of the whole world. Through it, India aims to promote multi-layered cooperation among the countries of the world for sustainable development. Against this backdrop, the country is committed to overcoming poverty, preserving the environment, and cultivating a sustainable lifestyle based on the lessons of our long and illustrious history and vibrant culture.

Since the 1760s, when industry blossomed and became the engine of development, forests have been ruthlessly cut down to feed the insatiable hunger for wood, and the earth’s mineral and metal resources have been exploited to the hilt to keep the industrial revolution going and sustain the lavish lifestyles of rich nations. Today, this form of development model is outdated and no longer appropriate. Today, nations have the choice to follow a cleaner, greener, and safer path of development without harming Mother Earth. Countries should strive to improve their natural resources while growing sustainably. And India has set an example for others to follow that growth and green can go hand in hand.

Understanding the complexity and importance of environmental issues requires a rigorous environmental management structure. A structure that should be guided by values such as transparency, accountability, public participation in decision-making, and freedom of association. A strong focus on environmental governance, broadly defined as formal and informal interactions between the state, the market and civil society, is crucial. These are values that are essential to the implementation and enforcement of substantive environmental law because they ensure that citizens are informed about and participate in decision-making processes and can effectively advocate for environmental protection. Environmental policy aims to formulate and implement policies in response to environmental issues in order to achieve environmentally sustainable development.

Transforming Good Governance into Smart Governance

India is in the early stages of a profound transformation that is putting the country at the centre of several areas of international engagement. India’s development is characterized by dynamic democratic values and is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population. It is gaining speed and implementing new strategies to unleash more development.

While increasingly stringent laws, rules, procedures, and regulatory measures are introduced over time, they fall far short of the intended goals and objectives in many respects due to political, social, economic, administrative, and capacity constraints. Notwithstanding the many effective measures taken by the government, it is also widely recognized that environmental performance has not fully kept pace with the pace of growth in a sustainable manner.

Technological advances can, of course, contribute analytically to effective governance or smart governance. Traditionally introduced earlier techniques and strategies in other countries might be overtaken by new smart alternatives. But technological advances alone or smart governance alone may not be able to solve the fundamental problem that environmental governance must address. While environmental governance is becoming more comprehensive, it is clear that the path and pace of development are constantly redefining the problems it faces.

Perhaps the key is not to see this as a shortcoming, but to make it part of a larger learning experience. This is especially important because growth is not always a concerted, predictable, or mechanistic process. Both its intensity and its trajectory are subject to considerable uncertainty, and this would mean that environmental policy must find a way to deal with all of these challenges as they arise over time.

However, what defines an environmental problem is often subject to metamorphosis—chemicals already in use turn out to be pollutants, use standards are tightened over time based on new scientific data, new information and data lead to new problems, or potential threats and problems evolve over time. Such changes often lead to significant alienation in environmental policy, especially in developing countries. Put simply, environmental governance can only be a dynamic system that adapts to rapidly changing and fundamentally new challenges. And because it is a dynamic process, it can only be mastered over time.

Key Sectoral Issues


Land is the main source of livelihood for about 50 per cent of India’s population. India is dominated by the peasant class, and land disputes are a frequent source of friction at various levels. Laws, especially those relating to land and taxation, are ancient and must be amended from time to time to adapt them to the prevailing situation in the country. In addition, rapid urbanization and the desire to grab more and more land for posterity are of great concern and need to be addressed in time through corrective measures. The Indian government has already taken steps to abolish outdated laws that no longer have meaning in today’s context. The issue of property registration has also already been given considerable thought.

The government has made the political decision to move to the conclusive property rights system in the country, but the states are not very confident about such a massive change in the legal system. The reason is that the states would have to make far-reaching changes in the administrative and legal system regarding land registers and land transactions.

Land reforms are necessary to solve the fundamental problem of access to land for crops and livestock. The inequality of land ownership is reflected in land tenure. In 1991–92, the bottom half of rural households owned only 3 per cent of all land, while the top 10 per cent owned as much as 54 per cent.


Cities have been the backbone of India’s economy for centuries. Today, cities generate nearly 65 per cent of the country’s GDP and 90 per cent of its tax revenues, and India is among the best economies in the world in terms of ease of doing business. In terms of sheer numbers, India is undergoing the largest urban transformation of the 21st century. The key flagship urban development programmes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swacch Bharat, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, etc., are a testament to the government’s commitment to sustainable urban development. India’s unique pattern of urbanization is not a side effect but a driving force of this growth story. With 70 per cent of India’s built environment yet to take shape by 2030, the impending urban transformation also offers significant opportunities for domestic and foreign investment. To achieve sustainable growth, cities must become more livable and safe, with clean air, adequate infrastructure, reliable utilities, and opportunities for learning and job creation. The solution, therefore, lies in inclusive urbanization processes that prioritize quality of life for all and focus particularly on the needs of disadvantaged urban groups in terms of employment, housing, sanitation, health care, and education. Most importantly, planning considers long-term resource sensitivity and community involvement at every step, while striving for smart and measurable outcomes for all stakeholders.

Air Pollution Population growth, urban development, industrial development and man-made activities have resulted in the release of pollutants into the atmosphere, causing environmental damage. India is facing environmental problems in dealing with water pollution, air pollution, and proper waste disposal. Air pollution is caused by the release of solid particles, liquid droplets, or gases into the surrounding air above a level that is harmful to humans, animals, and plants and can affect nature. Nitrogen, carbon monoxide, ammonia, ozone, heavy metals and volatile organic matter, are the major air pollutants for which ambient air quality standards have been notified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme, the CPCB has established an air quality network of 804 monitoring sites covering 344 cities in 28 states and 6 Union Territories of the country. In contrast, about 150 real-time monitoring stations have been established in 78 cities. The CPCB developed the Air Quality Index (AQI) as a tool to help people understand the state of air quality in an easy-to-understand way. It converts complex air quality data from various pollutants into a single value (index value), terminology, and colour. A web-based portal currently provides cities with current AQI levels, air quality status, and data on probable health effects associated with AQI levels. Air quality bulletins are also published daily. Based on air quality data from 2011 to 2015, the CPCB has identified 103 non-attainment cities in the country, and city-specific action plans are under development.


The country’s water resources are decimating due to increasing water demand in agriculture, population growth, industrialization, and rapid urbanization. The water quality of rivers and lakes is deteriorating due to the degradation of water flow, which is exacerbated by the discharge of pollutants from domestic sewage, industrial effluents, and agricultural wastes.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) supports the efforts of state governments in addressing pollution of rivers under the National River Conservation Plan and conservation and management of lakes and wetlands under a separate scheme for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems, on cost sharing between the central and state governments. To assess the exact nature of pollution control required in or on various water bodies, the CPCB, in collaboration with the State Pollution Control Boards, monitors the water quality of rivers and other water bodies, including in the state of Odisha, through a network of 4294 monitoring stations under the National Water Quality Monitoring Programme. In India, an estimated 62,000 million litres per day (MLD) of domestic wastewater is generated in urban areas. The wastewater treatment capacity developed until recently is about 23,277 MLD in 816 wastewater treatment plants, of which only 522 are in operation, limiting treatment to 18,883 MLD. In addition to these limitations, there are problems with the regular operation of these treatment plants and compliance with wastewater standards.

Ensuring India’s water supply and access to safe and adequate drinking water for all Indians is a government priority. An important step in this direction is the establishment of the Jal Shakti Mantralaya (Ministry), which combines the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rehabilitation and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The Jal Shakti Ministry addresses water resources management and water supply in an integrated and holistic manner, working with the states to ensure HarGharJal (piped water) supply to all rural households by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission.

Waste Management

India is experiencing rapid urbanization while being a country of physical, climatic, geographic, environmental, social, cultural, and linguistic diversity. India generates about 62 million tonnes (MT) of waste annually, including 5.6 MT of plastic waste, 0.17 MT of biomedical waste, 7.90 MT of hazardous waste, and 15 tonnes of e-waste per year. Per capita waste generation in Indian cities ranges from 200 to 600 grammes per day, of which 43 MT are collected annually and 11.9 million are treated.

The MoEFCC, in supersession of Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, has notified the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. The Rules direct waste generators to separate waste at source and hand over segregated waste to approved waste pickers or waste collectors. Waste Management Rules also establish the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR) to minimize a product’s impact on the environment during its development cycle. Under this approach, the manufacturer or producer assumes responsibility for the life cycle of the product, such as recovery, recycling, and final disposal.

Most important are the regulations for the disposal of e-waste. They are based on the idea of EPR and the reduction of hazardous substances. Producers are also required to fund e-waste scientific management systems and to label each product with a unique identifier so that it can be tracked in the e-waste management system. The E-Waste (Management) Amendment Rules, 2018 assign collection targets to manufacturers, starting with 10 per cent of total waste generated in 2017–18 and increasing to 70 per cent by 2023.

India and Climate Governance

India is one of the proactive countries in the world to address the various aspects of climate change both at national and international levels. Over the past four years, many clean and green development initiatives at both the state and national levels have contributed significantly to climate change adaptation and mitigation. A number of new policies and initiatives in various fields such as e-mobility, green transportation, renewable energy, waste management, reforestation, water, etc., have also been introduced to minimize the impact of climate change.

In the recent past, the Indian government has taken a number of initiatives to combat the challenge of climate change. Key initiatives of the Indian government include the National Action Plan on Climate Change, the National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change, the Climate Change Action Programme, and the State Action Plan on Climate Change.

The ambitious goal of 450 GW of renewable energy generation by 2030, smart cities, electric vehicles, energy efficiency initiatives, transition from Bharat Stage IV to Bharat Stage VI emission norms by April 2020, etc., have been proactively undertaken to minimize the impact of climate change.

Renewable energy capacity in India is more than 151.39 GW by December 2021, of which about 49.35 GW is solar energy. According to India’s State of Forest Report, forest cover has increased by 12,294 square kilometres in the last seven years. Programmes such as UJALA for distribution of LED have exceeded 320 million, while UJJWALA for distribution of clean cookstoves to women below the poverty line has covered more than 63 million households.

India submitted its third biennial update report to the UNFCCC in December 2021, as required by the reporting obligations under the Convention. The report highlights that the emissions intensity of India’s GDP decreased by 24 per cent between 2005 and 2016, despite India’s high level of accountability through its multilateral efforts and global cooperation.

Time to Amplify Collective Voices

May this World Environment Day 2022 remind us once again that we can no longer continue to cut down trees, turn agricultural land into vast urban agglomerations, decimate our corals, swamps, mangroves and grasslands, pollute existing freshwater bodies, increase ambient temperatures through anthropogenic activities, and over-exploit marine resources because many of these ecosystems will soon reach a point of no return. So, let us tackle this in big and small ways, whether through concerted policy action, scientific research, stakeholder engagement, lobbying, developing sound financial and technological models to avert the point of no return; and let us also revive the spirit of the global players who came together in Rio 26 years ago and talked about global cooperation and multilateral efforts to save the environment. Let us remember once again that no matter how big or small we are, we are working together to undo the damage that has been done.

Biba Jasmine is a Nehru-Fulbright scholar with a major in sustainable development and conservation biology at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She is also a Policy Leader Fellowship recipient at the School of Transnational Governace of the European University Institute in Florence. The fellowship was co-funded by the European Union and the Erasmus programme. The views expressed are personal.

This article and more from TerraGreen can be viewed here: https://terragreen.teriin.org/

Air pollution
Environmental governance
Waste management
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