Let's be intolerant over air quality

In November 2017, the government rejoiced over India figuring in the list of top 100 countries in the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' ranking. At the Davos World Economic Forum meeting in January 2018, the Environment Performance Index (EPI) was released. As expected, the Government of India is silent on the report.

The reasons are not difficult to fathom: the EPI, which is published by researchers at Yale and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, has ranked India at the bottom of the index, with a ranking of 177 out of 180 countries. India's low scores are influenced by poor performance in the 'Environmental Health' policy objective, where it is ranked the worst in the world, at rank 180.

According to the report, deaths attributed to particulate matter PM2.5 have risen over the past decade and are estimated at over 16.6 lakh annually, as per the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It needs to be highlighted that India's position has been sliding over the last few years: in 2016, it was ranked 141 out of 178 countries.

India may share a platform with BRICS and ASEAN nations, but the fact is that none of the other BRICS or ASEAN countries share a platform with India when it comes to environmental performance. India shares its rank with countries such as Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Niger, Haiti, and Angola. The only Asian countries in the list of worst performers, along with India, are Nepal and Bangladesh.

Not enough

The EPI is a reminder that improved sanitation and focus on providing toilets is a good initiative but does not guarantee a cleaner environment. Bangladesh, which is a 'open defecation-free' country, is ranked much higher than India in EPI in terms of sanitation; yet, in terms of its overall environmental performance, it is ranked one below India at 178.

In addition, increased spending on healthcare is important, but does not address the main reason why a large number of people need medical care. If the government directs its attention to cleaning up its air and water, fewer people would land up in hospitals.

Does India need to act on every international report? The answer may well be 'no'. However, India did act on improving its ranking in Ease of Doing Business. In fact, one of the stated reasons for India's low ranking in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business index was the difficulty faced by real estate developers in obtaining 'construction permits'.

In December 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change exempted the application of all environmental laws for the bulk of building and construction projects. This is despite the fact that the building and construction sector is a major consumer of natural resources and accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The notification issued by the MoEF&CC exempting the building and construction sector from the purview of environmental laws specifically stated that it is being done in order to facilitate the 'ease of doing responsible business'.

The notification was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in December 2017. One of the major grounds for declaring the notification illegal was the tribunal's conclusion that 'ease of doing business' cannot override the citizens' Right to Life.

In 2017, in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business ranking, it is explicitly stated that one of the main reasons for India making it to the top 100 countries for doing business is because of efforts made by India in doing away with a range of 'construction permits'.

Wake-up call

The cause of serious concern is not that India is at the bottom of the EPI list; the cause of concern is that there is virtually no public discussion or debate on the country's low ranking. In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion on the growing culture of intolerance in the country. Yet, when one looks at environmental issues, what one finds is an exceptional level of tolerance to the alarming levels of pollution and environmental degradation.

As per the EPI report, low scores on the EPI are indicative of the need for national sustainability efforts on a number of fronts, especially cleaning up air quality, protecting biodiversity, and reducing GHG emissions. Unfortunately, what is happening in India is just the opposite.

Unless concrete actions are undertaken to reverse the trend, all indicators point out that India is bound to win the race to the bottom on the EPI ranking when the next report is out in 2020.

The only way we can avoid this is if the prevalent culture of tolerance for environmental mismanagement and governance failure is replaced with intolerance and a collective will to bring about positive change.

(The writer is a New-Delhi based environmental lawyer)

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