In a family, it is always convenient for a younger brother if their older sister is even worse behaved than they are. India is fortunate that China, its great economic rival across the Himalayas, draws so much attention for its soaring greenhouse-gas emissions, and for the fact that its cities are swathed in smog and its rivers are dying.
By comparison, India may appear to have a relatively clean bill of health. But in some respects, it lags well behind China. On Yale University’s environmental performance index, charting everything from pollution to biodiversity, China languishes in 104th place. Yet India is even lower, at 120th. Part of the reason for that, ironically, is not its surging economic growth, but its persistent poverty. India’s low scores on air quality owe much to the rural poor’s dependence on inefficient cookstoves burning wood or dung.
Poverty is not the whole explanation, however. India’s most intractable environmental problems lie in the mundane issue of water. China’s rivers are dying because of industrial pollution – India’s because of human pollution. Even the Yamuna River, which flows from the Himalayas down through Delhi, is to all intents and purposes dead once it rolls out of the capital, laden with 950 million gallons of sewage each day.
This is not for want of challenge, nor of attempted cure. As long ago as 1992, a retired Indian navy officer who had once sailed regattas on the Yamuna took his government to the Supreme Court, accusing it of preventing Hindus from performing ritual baths, as is their constitutional right. He won the case, and the Court ordered the water authority to treat all sewage flowing into the river. But since then, the city’s population has risen by 40%, and while new treatment plants have come on stream, half the sewage that goes into the river still does so untreated.
Similar problems arise in water supply, which has failed to keep pace with rising demands due to population and industrial growth. Shortages of electricity make public piped supplies erratic and unreliable; but at the same time the effective granting of free power in some states encourages excessive extraction by farmers and industry alike. This doesn’t encourage investment in storage and distribution systems. Climate change may eventually make the rainfall inadequate too, but currently there is plenty. It is wasted. China may not be a model of good water practice, but again, it would seem to be ahead of India here – which is ironic, given Indian engineers’ growing experience in devising simple “rainwater harvesting” technologies.
India’s economic growth is accelerating to Chinese levels, and manufacturing is now expanding more rapidly even than services. Surya Sethi, the government’s principal energy adviser, is keen to differentiate its progress from China’s allegedly far dirtier variety: “China has grown faster than India, but has also consumed over 11 times the fossil fuels…since 2002”. India, on the other hand, “has been delivering an 8% GDP growth with only 3.7% growth in its energy consumption”.
But if that growth is to be sustained, then unless efficiency improves dramatically, power generation capacity will need to double every five years, which will do little for sustainability. Policymakers in Delhi acknowledge that this will require tighter environmental controls, but the political bias remains clearly on the side of growth rather than the environment. The hope is that economic growth will bring higher tax revenues, which in turn will finance more public investment to deal with basic environmental issues such as water supply and sewerage. Meanwhile, however, the race is in danger of being lost.
India’s always sensitive to how it compares to China. If this sensitivity helps drive a stronger pursuit of sustainability, then competition, far from being odious, might be just what the country’s environment needs.
The Chindia factor
Greenhouse gas emissions
*By comparison, Australia = 10 tonnes; US = 8.2; UK = 3.2
Bill Emmott was editor-in-chief of The Economist from 1993-2006.
This article appears in “Monsoons & miracles: India’s search for a sustainable future”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine www.greenfutures.org.uk
Homepage photo by Meena Kadri