As India gears up to celebrate its 75th year of Independence, it is worth asking if we are behaving with the maturity such an age should bring? This question can be examined from many points of view, but I want to look at it from what I think is our most pressing problem, the sustainability of the natural environment on which all our lives depend. If, at this stage, you want to switch off, let me be direct: you may be part of what writer Amitav Ghosh calls the ‘great derangement’. Read on, and I’ll explain why.

It is to my mind incredible that we, or more precisely those who control the reins of our economy and polity, continue to the think of the natural environment as an ‘externality’, something to be considered after having chalked up all our plans to achieve economic growth and to retain power that we won in the last elections. For all the talk about ‘sustainable development’, mainstream planning and politics continue to give short shrift to the very natural basis of our existence: land, water, biodiversity, air. It is like making plans for a great feast every day, without ensuring that fuel supplies will be sustained, only to realise one day that we are out of anything to cook the feast on. Except it's much worse, for the food and water too are running out.

We breathe in air every minute of our lives, but forget that it breathable because of a wondrous set of natural circumstances including the presence of microscopic marine plants that have produced 60-70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. However rich we may be, we would die of thirst without a steady supply of freshwater, and the fact that we may drink it from a bottle of ‘mineral’ water should not blind us to its ultimate sources in the seas and skies and rivers and lakes and aquifers. We may buy food from supermarkets, but the packets we buy it in don’t tell us that without fertile land and the hard work of millions of farmers, there would be nothing to pack.

And yet, here is what we’ve done in India. 9 out of 10 Indians today breathe air that is not healthy (though some of this may be due to high ‘natural’ dust levels) as per World Health Organisation standards. According to the latest report from the University of Chicago, since 1998, average annual particulate pollution has increased by 64.1%; in cities like Delhi, this is causing a reduction of life expectancy by 10 years on average! Over a million people are dying prematurely because of air pollution. Possibly the only ones still safe are those who’ve not been ‘developed’ deep inside forests or atop mountains, far from polluting power stations and vehicles and industries and dust storms caused by desertification.

Air pollution appears to have overtaken water degradation and scarcity as a national health emergency, but in many ways the water crises is as severe. According to a NITI Aayog report, “600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress in the country. About three-fourth of the households in the country do not have drinking water at their premise. With nearly 70% of water being contaminated, India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.”

And what of that equally vital resource, land? Graphic details of what is happening are presented in the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, produced by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). 30% of the country is at various stages of degradation, some getting desertified, and the situation has become worse in the first two decades of the 21st century. Average levels of productivity are one-fourth or one-fifth of what they could be; pumping in artificial fertilisers can restore some of this, but only for a while, and at the cost of pushing soils further towards death. Combined with the climate crisis (which I will come back to below), land and water stresses are predicted to cause significant decline in food production in the not-so-distant future.

And what food we are producing, is often laced with toxins. In the markets of most big towns and cities in the country, foodgrains, vegetables, and fruits have levels of pesticides or other toxic products well above human safety levels. Hazardous and toxic substances are also a massive health crisis for tens of millions of poorly equipped, badly informed, and economically vulnerable workers in industries, chemical-intensive farms, health services, mines, recycling and other operations. This issue is one of the most ignored, with the Government of India not even having a decent database on how many workers are affected by which hazardous operation or product.

Given all the above, it is hardly surprising that on the latest global environmental ranking list put out by Yale and Colombia Universities, India is at the rock bottom of 180 countries. In the last 10 years, it has slipped down from its previous ranking to now be the worst performing country. In all fairness, its rank is likely to be a bit better if one considers how richer countries, who appear higher on the list, outsource a lot of their environmental impacts by locating damaging industries and the producers of items they consume in other countries like China. The Yale ranking is also flawed in other ways. But this does not in any way justify India’s terrible track record of dealing with its own environment (and additionally, its own ‘offshoring’ of impact by importing ecologically destructive items like palm oil from south-east Asia). Even the World Bank, which is partly responsible for pushing India towards unsustainability, reported in 2013 that India was losing 5.7% points of GDP due to environmental damage. And the Chamber of Indian Industries, with members who have been spectacularly irresponsible with respect to the environment, reported in 2008 that the country was using twice its biological capacity, and had already halved this capacity in the last five decades. The situation has undoubtedly worsened since then.

All the above is already being severely compounded by the climate crisis, and we have not even seen the worst yet. If events of extreme temperatures, erratic rainfall, cloudbursts and cyclones, and forest fires over the last few years have not alerted us, this year’s super-hot summer should have. In recent trips to Ladakh, I have repeatedly been told about winters being much less cold, with much less snowfall, on average; and then this year how it was much harsher. Villages across the region are reporting water shortages, and one main cause is very visible – receding glaciers on the mountains above them. A study published in the Lancet Planetary Health Journal says that extreme temperatures are responsible for 740,000 excess deaths in India annually. The majority of these are likely to be from poor and vulnerable sections of society, who have to work, live, and commute in these temperatures without access to air-conditioning, adequate clothing, or other such counter-measures. And yet, we are horribly prepared, with thoroughly inadequate budgetary allocations and state attention to adaptation measures that will help communities cope. Quite the reverse, actually – most allocations are going for activities that are worsening the situation, e.g. massive road-building that blocks waterways, dam-building that makes Himalayan rivers more prone to disasters, and so on. The working and living conditions of labourers, farmers, and others who do most of the manual and grind work to keep the Indian economy running, have never been on the government’s priority list for budgetary allocations.

There is in fact no policy coherence in the Indian government’s response to ecological (including climate) crises. While it repeatedly claims to be following principles of sustainability, and achieving the various environmental and social aims of the Sustainable Development Goals, its priority programmes lie in building massive physical infrastructure that only disrupts the natural infrastructure we desperately need to protect. As one example, the 2022-23 national budget has an allocation for highways that is 40 times greater than the total budget of the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change! The Climate Action Plan gets a meagre Rs. 30 crores (300 million).

There is also a steady whittling down of environmental laws and policies that people’s movements in the 1970s and 1980s fought hard to bring in. The Chipko movement in the Himalayas to save forests, campaigns against dams in the Silent Valley rainforest of Kerala and on Indravati, Narmada and Koel Karo rivers, the traditional fisherfolk’s struggle against destructive commercial trawling along our coasts, several anti-mining protests, these and a number of civil society groups were able to make environment a key component of policy-making. But then came the economic ‘reforms’ in the early 1990s, with much greater integration into the global economy, the entry of multinational corporations into every sector of production and the rapid growth of India’s own companies, a thrust to increase exports of various materials including minerals and marine products, and several other steps that had the sole aim of increasing economic growth rates. As Aseem Shrivastava and I documented in detail in our book Churning the Earth, these measures completely neglected environmental sustainability, as also disrupted the livelihoods and social security of millions of people.

With renewed vigour in the last few years in the name of ‘ease of doing business’, the government is bending over backwards to make fragile lands and ecosystems available for mining, industries, highways, and the like. While wildlife and biodiversity have been major sufferers, there are severe socio-cultural costs too; one estimate is that over 60 million people have been physically displaced by such projects in the last few decades. The central government is currently pushing ahead with proposals to exempt several kinds of projects which have serious environmental impacts, such as defence-related or border areas projects, and thermal power plants based on biomass up to 25 MW, from having to get clearance under India’s Environment Protection Act. This is despite nearly two million people having written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change protesting against these amendments when first proposed in 2020.

In another recent move, the government is attempting to remove existing norms in which the consent of forest-dwelling communities is needed for any diversion of forests for ‘development’ projects, negating hard-fought gains by indigenous (Adivasi) and other communities to gain such internationally recognised rights of Free and Prior Informed Consent. As usual, the government is justifying all this by invoking India’s developmental needs, as if environmental sustainability and the ecological rights of communities are not core to such needs. A recent report commissioned by NITI Aayog, the government’s premier development think-tank, points fingers at India’s courts for causing economic loss by stalling several ‘development’ projects on grounds of environmental violations; completely ignoring that ecological damage causes enormous economic loss (as detailed in the above-mentioned World Bank report).

And so, India’s most pressing question as it enters its last quarter of a century after Independence is: how can livelihood security and dignity be ensured for hundreds of millions of people in ways that also ensure ecological security? It is a difficult question. But answers do exist, in thousands of initiatives spread across the country. Farmers have innovated on traditional and new techniques to ensure sustainable production while respecting the earth and bringing back seed and livestock diversity, such as the remarkable example set by 5000 Dalit women farmers of Deccan Development Society. Craftspersons have shown that substantial employment can be generated in villages and towns, building on India’s incredible traditional skills in textiles, footwear, cleaning agents, vessels, pottery, furniture, architecture and construction, water-related technologies, and a range of household items; the revival of handloom weaving in Kachchh, western India, is one example, and another recent one is the ‘gobar (cowdung) revolution’ promoting small-scale village-level industries in Chhattisgarh. Community-led ecotourism in many parts of India, such as homestays in many states, has combined increased earnings for local families with ecologically and culturally sensitive visitation. Decentralised renewable energy projects in many villages and towns such as those enabled by the SELCO Foundation have shown the potential of generating needed energy without serious ecological consequences, provided of course overall and in particular elite demand is also curbed. As the United Nations Environment Programme has pointed out for over a decade, a shift to ecologically sensitive activities like public transportation, organic farming, land and water regeneration, renewable energy, community health, ecofriendly construction, ecotourism, and small-scale manufacturing, will also significantly enhance job creation. Linking social security programmes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) with such activities, as already happening in some states, is another pathway with huge potential. Many states have also moved decisively towards a shift to organic farming, or to more community-run development and livelihood programmes that are sensitive to local ecological and socio-cultural contexts.

But such approaches also mean a shift away from heavy infrastructure and large-scale industrialization, replacing mega-corporations with producer cooperatives, ensuring community rights over the commons (land, water, forest, coasts, etc.), more decision-making at the level of gram sabhas (village assemblies) and urban area sabhas (neighbourhood assemblies), and respect for both human rights and the rights of nature. So far, Prime Minister’s announcements of moving towards atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) and his governments’ budgetary allocations for this, have mostly been the same old wine in new bottles, not really promoting the kind of alternatives mentioned above. After all, moving truly towards self-reliance and sustainability would entail cutting into the profits of India’s billionaires, and the centralized power of the state – transforming today’s crony capitalism in a fundamental way - and therein lies the rub.

Without a growing people’s movement across the country, that combines the interests of industrial workers, farmers, fishers, craftspersons, pastoralists, urban and rural youth, women in all sectors, the ‘disabled’ and LGBTQ, and wildlife, all of whom are marginalized by dominant elites, India does not stand a chance of completing 100 years of Independence with its head held high. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget 2022-23 address said that she is preparing for an amrit kaal, a ‘nectar period’ in the lead up to the century of Independence. But unless we heed the lessons of the last 75 years, and fundamentally alter course, it is likely to be a vish kaal, an era of poison.