Left unchecked, drug-resistant bacteria due to antibiotic pollution have the potential to unleash a much larger and deadlier pandemic
There was a time when antibiotic resistance in human beings and animal pathogens was not common. But today, multi-drug resistant bacteria have become fairly commonplace, posing a major challenge to our healthcare providers and increasing human fatality rates. Scientific evidence is suggestive of the fact that antibiotic resistance genes and antibiotics in the environment are playing a major role in perpetuating a new health crisis. Some of the major sources are waste from large-scale animal farms, waste water from antibiotic manufacturing firms and refuse from hospitals. Manure, or compost especially, is a worrying source of this antibiotic contamination. With no standardisation or mandatory testing of the end product, the largely locally-produced manure and compost products that are used on a large-scale are replete with antibiotic residues and resistant bacteria.
As COVID-19 rages on, the probability of large-scale drug resistant infections suddenly seems very possible. According to the publication, Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, 7,00,000 people die each year globally due to resistant infections and this figure is only set to grow in the coming days. It further estimates that by 2050, a whopping 10 million lives would be at risk globally due to resistant strains of infections that would progressively weaken the immune system to such a level that the human body would find it difficult to defend itself against even small diseases such as urinary tract infections. This is because human bodies will become colonised by these harmful bacteria. Antibiotics also provide a selection pressure for environmental bacteria to maintain antibiotic resistance mechanisms.
Thankfully, there is an increasing awareness the world over concerning the spike in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment. In the US, urban river bodies and river bed sediments in cities like Baltimore are already showing heightened levels of antibiotics. Following this, the city municipal councils, in association with the environment authorities in the US, are taking extraordinary measures to contain the pollution in local water bodies. India must look at the global developments and immediately undertake initiatives to understand the depth of antibiotic pollution in its own environment. This is critical because antibiotic pollution-triggered superbug infections are already wrecking havoc, with nearly 60,000 newborns dying each year in the country due to them.
To stem the proliferation of antibiotic pollution, India will need to list all the potential contamination and breeding hotspots. According to studies, antibiotic pollution is the highest in wastewater treatment plants, as this is the place where bacteria from the environment meets with human pathogenic ones, leading to the genesis of new and virulent strains. Apart from this, India, apart from China, happens to be the world’s largest manufacturer of antibiotics and is known to discharge high levels of these waste effluents into the air and the water. This contamination has been happening for decades in the country and is understood to be the epicentre of the birth of superbug infections that are resistant to all known medication.
Albeit a little too late, the authorities in the country have woken up to the threat posed by this, especially through river bodies. A draft Bill issued in January seeks to limit the concentration levels of antibiotic waste released by manufacturing units into the environment in order to ensure that the risk to human health is minimised. Though it is late in coming, this development has immediately caught the attention of the international research community specialising in antibiotic pollution of the environment. The Department of Antibiotic Resistance Research at the Gothenburg University called the Indian Government’s draft Bill a “great leap forward” to contain the problem.
Though a welcome step in the right direction, the draft Bill still has a long way to go. The Government must initiate stringent crackdown on pharma units engaged in manufacturing antibiotics to regularly reveal the scale, quality and limit of their effluent discharge into the surrounding environment such as water bodies. Additionally, the information must also reflect on the official web portals of the said companies so that international and national clients are aware of the environmental accountability of the firm and transparency of data. Measures such as these will coerce these companies into following environmental and human health norms or be labelled as polluters and pay heavy fines.
Left unchecked, drug-resistant bacteria due to antibiotic pollution have the potential to unleash a much larger and deadlier pandemic. The consequences need to be understood and counter measures taken rapidly to avoid this eventuality.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
The global energy system has been undergoing a transition that is unprecedented in pace and scale. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, what was to be a crucial year in the global climate discourse has now become one of many socially-distant events and webinars. In a bold move, China’s President Xi Jinping announced his commitment to enhance the country’s nationally-determined contribution (NDC) and lower peak CO2 emissions before 2030, as well as the plan to reach carbon neutrality before 2060. Early estimates by the Climate Action Tracker suggest that if China were to submit a carbon neutrality pledge, it would lower warming projections by around 0.2-0.3°C. This announcement clearly signals that climate action is a strong national agenda for Beijing. With both China and the European Union shifting towards a zero-carbon narrative, India is in the spotlight now as one of the largest emitters in the world. The nation is currently on track to significantly overachieve its NDC targets, both on emissions’ intensity (a 30-35 per cent reduction by 2030 on the 2005 levels) and on non-fossil fuel electricity generation (40 per cent non-fossil fuel generating capacity by 2030).
While India is already considered a climate leader in the area of renewable energy growth and electricity sector decarbonisation, the country must turn its attention to industrial decarbonisation. A strong argument can be made that this would be crucial to not only achieving the Paris Agreement goals but also for Indian businesses to remain globally competitive. India and Sweden led the transition track at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019 and were entrusted with creating stronger commitments from the industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Recently, industries comprising “hard to abate” sectors, like aluminium and cement, mentioned that they have already initiated action towards enhancing energy efficiency and increasing the share of renewable power in their overall mix. They are also undertaking carbon sequestration, maximising energy efficiency, adopting renewable technologies across the supply chain and embracing best practices of resource-efficiency and circular economy. However, these advancements are likely to face significant constraints in the form of technological capacity, governmental support and investment hurdles in taking up a decarbonisation pathway. Nonetheless, such initiatives can go a long way in boosting confidence of the sector and are crucial for helping India fulfil its climate action goals.
The global climate change and development narrative has highlighted the need to have development pathways that are resilient, green and sustainable. A decarbonisation pathway for industries can fulfil the twin objectives of sustained, inclusive economic growth while mitigating climate change. Decarbonisation as an industry-led approach within the sector would have co-benefits in the form of bringing India closer to fulfilling Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as on Industries (SDG 9), Decent Growth (SDG 8), Energy (SDG 7) and Climate Action (SDG 13). By upscaling their “green” ambitions in the value chains, processes, infrastructure and partnerships, industries would contribute to the growth of decarbonised backward and forward linkages, enhance their sustainable development capacities and create a green growth paradigm for India. An integrated strategy encapsulating environmental, social and economic necessities would require collaboration between policy-makers and industries, with the former supporting and encouraging businesses through stable and green financing incentives and the latter contributing to nationwide growth through innovation and enhanced technical knowledge. The long-term impact of this kind of an informed industry-led approach, covering climate action and sustainable development, would lead to a positive ripple effect in multiple sectors. It would enable India to undergo a large-scale, comprehensive upgradation on poverty (SDG 1), sanitation (SDG 6), resource management and conservation (SDG 6, 12), skill-building (SDG 4) and amplify technical and financial efficacies through capacity-building (SDG 17). While the world is grappling with a pandemic, it has become quite clear that there is a need to sustain global momentum on climate action.
At the 75th Session of the UNGA, India highlighted the need for reforms at the UN for responding to challenges of the 21st century. Climate change and the subsequent shift towards a greener, circular economy are of utmost relevance here and require multilateral agencies to support developing countries in addressing these challenges through inclusive participation, coordination and support. Climate change puts the responsibility for a collated response on all the stakeholders, cross-cutting various sectors. Industries, catering to a diverse pool of economic activities, will have a pioneering role here. The UNGA and the New York Climate Week discourses have demonstrated a strong willingness by industries to act on addressing climate change. This momentum towards decarbonisation must be enforced and harboured through partnerships and support.
(Sastry and Raj are Research Associates, TERI)
Use it to produce fuel, textiles, electricity, raw materials and have more natural end-products with a significantly smaller environmental impact
An average of 50 million tonnes of agro-biomass such as rice straw are set on fire every year in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab and Haryana, contributing significantly to the air pollution woes of these States as well as the national Capital. Data released by the Central Government revealed that in September, the concentration of poisonous PM2. 5 particles in a cubic metre of air averaged at 47.64 micrograms, 17 per cent higher from the same month last year. In places like Haryana and Faridabad, the average Air Quality Index (AQI) ranged from 203 to 245 and the AQI of Delhi ranged from 234 to 269, which is “poor.” Frighteningly, this is almost twice the “safe” level prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Much has been debated about this pollution problem and some solutions have been proffered. A very practical remedy that can not only do away with the practice of crop-burning but improve the livelihoods of farmers is using agricultural waste to produce valuable products and growing alternate crops that provide both ample food and substantial biomass.
Why agricultural waste isn’t really waste? Agro-residues and woody biomass can be used to manufacture high-value products that can replace fossil-based and other environmentally detrimental raw materials. Biomass is fractionated in refineries to its main components — lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose, with high yields and purity. These fractions can be used to replace fossil-derived raw materials in many industrial and consumer sectors. Hemicellulose, for instance, can be used in the manufacture of food ingredients, while lignin finds applications in construction materials. Cellulose, meanwhile, has many uses in the textiles industry. All these facts, especially the last one, are highly significant as they give farmers an additional avenue for income generation while also meeting a national need.
Instead of burning straw and other agricultural waste on their fields, farmers can sell them as raw material for producing textile fibres.The production of cotton usually requires huge amounts of water and pesticides. If, however, a cotton field was replaced with wheat, and 30 per cent of the resultant wheat straw was used for manufacturing textile fibre, we would get the same amount of fibre as from the cotton crop but with substantially less water usage. At the same time, the wheat produced in the field would help in meeting the food requirement of the region.
Raw material for sustainable clothing and sustainable fashion: Agricultural waste can be used to produce highly sustainable textile fibre, as was demonstrated at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Vancouver in October 2019, where the world’s first clothing made from wheat straw was introduced. Encouragingly, there is a growing demand for sustainable textiles around the world as well as in India. Apparel stores and even fashion shows have begun hosting events with sustainability as one of the themes. This is just as well for studies suggest that it takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the amount of cotton needed to make a single T-shirt.
In view of the water crisis that looms on the horizon of most countries of the world, sustainable apparel made out of biomass must be viewed not as a passing fad but as a future necessity. India has an abundant labour supply, a strong domestic market, and well-established capacities for spinning, weaving and apparel-making. Simply by growing the right crops and by using biomass “waste” as raw material for its textiles, the country can reduce imports significantly and play a dominant role in the global market for apparel and fashion.
An environment-friendly source of fuel and power in the future: Rice, as the staple food in many parts of India, is one of the most widely-grown crops in the country. However, after the rice grains have been separated from the stalks, the rest of the plant — a sizeable part — is usually discarded. This “waste” can instead be used to produce biofuels. There is also potential for making ethanol from rice straw. Ethanol-blended petrol can reduce emissions from sectors such as heavy-duty vehicles, aviation and shipping. The National Policy on Biofuels has, in fact, set a target of 10 per cent ethanol blending with vehicle fuel by the year 2022 and 20 per cent by 2030. Bamboo is yet another crop that can provide ample biomass while, at the same time, improve rural livelihoods. Like in the biorefinery in Assam, bamboo can be used to produce bioethanol, biochemicals and even excess electricity. The idea is to use biomass to produce fuel, textiles, electricity, raw materials for industries and have more natural end-products with less resource usage and significantly smaller environmental impact. With a bit of foresight and the willingness to work towards sustainability for all, we could see significantly higher usage of biomass in the years ahead. It will play an important part in our journey towards achieving carbon neutrality and reducing the use of non-renewable resources.
(The writer heads a clean energy company)
Enacting laws sans assessment only leads to diverting attention from long-term comprehensive solutions to short-term myopic interventions
A legislation on air quality management in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) is perhaps an idea whose time has come. With the Supreme Court hot on its heels on the issue of air pollution, the Central Government has taken a holistic view of the matter. A new law will seek to put a permanent statutory body in place with participants from the affected States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and, of course, Delhi to reduce air pollution in contiguous areas. Delhi’s air quality has been in the “very poor” category and is predicted to remain so till the end of winter. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s satellite imagery also showed a very dense cluster of fires in Punjab, Haryana and nearby regions. Air pollution in urban areas arises from multiple sources, which may vary with location and developmental activities. Anthropogenic activities, such as rampant industrialisation, exploitation and overconsumption of natural resources and the ever-growing population size, are major contributors to air pollution.
The Delhi-NCR region bears the brunt of farmland fires that contribute heavily to the annual air pollution crisis. Dense smoke billows from smouldering paddy fields, which are set on fire to prepare the ground for sowing the next crop. The smoke rises and settles over vast swathes of north and north-west India. Coupled with local emissions and dust, it has in recent years turned cities into what the apex court once described as “gas chambers.”
According to data compiled by the Union Agriculture Ministry, Punjab accounted for 82 per cent of the stubble burning cases, besides Haryana and UP, between October 1and 23. This contributed heavily to the foul air choking Delhi-NCR.
In a recent order, the top court had ordered the deployment of the National Cadet Corps, National Service Scheme and Bharat Scouts and Guides for assisting in the monitoring of crop residue burning in the fields of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi-NCR, saying all it wants is that the “people can breathe fresh air without any pollution.”
The law intends to address the issue of multiplicity of authorities that hampers coordinated action, though it has to address State jurisdictions involved in implementing steps. There are enough laws to deal with the situation, experts feel, saying multiplicity of institutions and overlapping laws may end up creating even more confusion and friction.
Both the Centre and the States have enough powers under the existing laws and more than any new legislation, there has to be actual action on pollution sources while implementing existing rules and regulations effectively, say experts.
As of now, the Central Government has been using its powers under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 in order to issue directions to control pollution. Both the State and Centre have enough powers under existing laws — the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 — to take preventive and remedial measures to deal with air pollution. In case the Centre intends to enact a law regulating farming practice, it will have to ensure that it does not encroach upon the domain reserved for the State. Agriculture is a State subject while the environment is in the Concurrent List. In case it directly impacts agricultural practices, it is likely to face both social opposition as well as legal challenges, say environmental experts, who rue that the Supreme Court, Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) may not be that clear as to what needs to be done. They say that if the Government is keen on resolving the issue, it must undertake a thorough review of the various laws and institutions in order to look at their efficacy and utility.
Enacting laws or issuing directions without any assessment and consultation only ends up as a way to divert attention from long-term comprehensive solutions to short-term myopic interventions.
“The problem lies in the fact that political will is missing when it comes to implementation. Having said that, it will be a welcome step if there is a specific provision to deal with crop residue burning at the national level. It should not be left alone as a problem in Punjab and Haryana only. Satellite images from central and southern India show the extent of crop waste burning in these parts as well, which have an impact on local climate resilience,” says Polash Mukerjee, Air Quality Researcher.
There is no dearth of power under the law, the question is of adherence, says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Environment.
The moot question, according to former counsel for the CPCB in the Supreme Court Vijay Panjwani, is what action the Centre can take if the State fails to follow the directions?
A report by Beijing-based policy think tank, Bluetech Clean Air Alliance (BCAA), released in June 2019, had said that China faced a similar problem and the Chinese Government started to show strong political commitment in tackling the issue from the highest levels, which is widely considered to be a key factor for the success of such measures. “Political commitments from the State Governments are also required to ensure they are transformed into solid actions. Effective air quality management requires science-based policy-making, analysing scientific assessments, data monitoring, emissions inventory, air quality modelling, source apportionment studies and transport planning. China’s lessons showed that significant investments and efforts that have no foundation in science are made in vain, with no impact on air quality improvement,” says the report.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s jibe about India’s “filthy air”, Delhi did record a drop of 25 per cent in PM-10 levels and a 19 per cent fall in PM-2.5 in 2019, as compared with 2016. But neither the pace of decline of these two key air pollutants, nor the existing target under the National Clean Air Programme are likely to be enough to make the city breathe easily even by 2024, going by the national ambient air quality standards. Air quality management is the need of the hour and must be undertaken at all cost.
(The writer is Technical Associate, Forest Survey of India, Dehradun)
The time for knee-jerk reactions is over and we better commit ourselves to cleaning up the air around us for good — through combined political will, implementable policies, lifestyle adjustments and sustainable practices — or else risk death. So latest scientific studies have confirmed what common sense has been telling us for some time, the higher the concentration of solid particles suspended in the air that lies heavy and low around us, the greater the chances of the COVID-19 virus getting trapped in them, making us more vulnerable to contracting it. And given that high air pollution levels damage the lungs, inducing or aggravating health conditions such as asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, the disease burden could turn COVID-19 fatal. Imagine the fallout on Delhiites, whose disease resistance has already been compromised battling winter haze every year. The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has warned that Delhi could report around 15,000 cases daily this winter due to the prevalence of respiratory illnesses that can worsen the symptoms of the disease. A Harvard University study has proved that an increase of only one microgram per cubic metre in a particulate matter or PM 2.5 is associated with an eight per cent increase in the COVID death rate. So, the surge of PM 2.5 levels in Delhi could result in a spike in caseload besides exacerbating the severity of symptoms of those infected. Yet another study by the University of Cambridge in April established a link between patients living in a highly polluted area of England and the severity of COVID-19. Many parts of north India, especially Delhi, are already wrapped in a blanket of hazardous smoke. According to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, India has 21 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world, where air quality can be as much as 10 times over the safe limits recommended by WHO. Over the past few weeks, PM 2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged around 180-340 µg/m?3; and on an extended basis, such saturation weakens the lungs and the body’s ability to fend off infections. Additionally, they can even act as a medium for the transmission of the virus as studies from Italy have recorded traces of SARS-CoV-2 RNA on pollutants. Stubble burning, festive fireworks and low wind speed conditions along with vehicular and industrial pollution have already worsened matters.
Hence we need to permanently solve the problem of pollution and that means going beyond tokenism. For starters, we need to stop stubble burning on an emergency basis across States, in mission mode to be precise. We must use the green cess collected so far to subsidise shredding equipment and maximise alternative uses of crop waste. We need a three-level combat strategy at the level of policy-making, economy and community. Both the Centre and State Governments have already rolled out various policies to address air pollution, one of the most recent ones being the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). It calls on 122 cities across India to develop city-level clean-up plans to implement mitigation strategies for ambient PM concentrations. However, it has failed to enforce its targets and has remained ineffective. That’s because in the absence of a legal mandate, the NCAP is toothless. Besides, ensuring compliance means appropriate monitoring and inspection and it lacks trained personnel for these tasks. Also, its budgetary allocation is just not enough. Delhi has 38 real-time air quality monitoring stations while Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have 25 and 22 each, and Tamil Nadu has only five. This in turn causes data-related implementation hurdles, including poor data captured due to substandard monitoring stations and lack of appropriate methodology to leverage real-time data for reporting trends. In terms of policy, the Government needs to put a blanket ban on firecrackers. We must realise that life needs to be celebrated more than festivals at the moment. We also need to create a financial architecture where the private sector can help with cutting-edge innovations and unique technology solutions along with financing them. Having an investment fund with a dedicated green focus could catalyse the growth of such green industries along with addressing the problems of air pollution and climate change. Businesses should now disclose the air pollution footprint of their products and implement a cap on emissions. This can help the consumers make an eco-friendly choice. The number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is predicted to increase from three million people in 2010 to six to nine million people globally in 2060. A study shows that approximately 2.2 million schoolchildren in Delhi are growing up with irreversible lung damage. There are various community-based solutions that can help the vulnerable sections. Researchers from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) have determined which trees are capable to put up with the assault of particulate matter gaseous pollutants (nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone) in the city’s urban pockets. Such information can be used by urban planners in managing urban forests. Thus, the academic community can help find innovative solutions while communities in rural areas are made aware of the harmful effects of using traditional cooking stove. People need to follow small initiatives like “Red Light On, Gaadi Off” at signals, a message that has caught on a bit. In the end, this pandemic is just the immediate threat and irreversible climate change may bring about far more infectious diseases that we can barely fathom now. The brown haze has just made us sick. Unattended, it may soon choke us to death.
The UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 focusses on what needs to be done for humans to survive as a race for another 30 years
If you are living in a metropolitan city like Delhi, the first few months of this year, despite or due to the pandemic, would have made you look up to stare at the clear blue sky. Let’s pause here and think why this phenomenon of a visibly pollution-free sky over a megapolis like Delhi sounds so out of place. Now, let’s switch back to September end, when NASA satellites show red spots of stubble burning fires over Punjab, followed by severe Air Quality Index (AQI) predictions. The residents of NCR are certain to choke on the deadly suspended particles in the air in the next few weeks, if they don’t succumb to the raging pandemic first. The solution to the pandemic and healthier living lies in understanding the benefits of “flattening the curve” of biodiversity’s decline.
The United Nation’s (UN’s) Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, released in September, shines the light on what needs to be done for humans to survive as a race for another 30 years. The report’s one line summary is, “It can’t be business as usual.”
The question is, how has this technologically advanced race fared ever since it became a signatory to a certain agreement at the Rio De Janeiro, Earth Summit in 1992 and most importantly undertook certain goals and targets of achieving balanced co-habitation with nature by 2020?
The results, as seen from the UN’s report, are pretty disappointing. Out of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity targets, 15 remain unachieved, despite an agreement reached between nations a decade back in 2010. These include simple tasks of making citizens in their respective nations aware of the value of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably. Plus setting goals like integrating biodiversity values into national and local development, poverty reduction and policy-making by governments, businesses and stakeholders at all levels. Nations can achieve or show implementation plans for sustainable production and consumption and keep the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits. Only two goals meant for this year have been partially achieved.
At this point, it is important to ponder why biodiversity has an impact on our survival? The COVID-19 pandemic has given us evidence to show the delicate linkages between a degrading coral reef in one part of the world and fires in some of the most rich eco-sensitive hotspots, to a zoonotic disease bringing the global economy to a standstill.
Some experts quote an interesting evidence, of the need for another planet about one-and-a-half times the size of our home Earth, equally abundant in natural resources and a hospitable climate, to maintain the going rate of human entrepreneurial activity. The answers may very well lie in waking up now and following the local culture and knowledge systems to enhance efforts towards preserving and restoring biodiversity. An example of this could be restoration of clean, pollution-free inland water bodies, including underground water reservoirs.
The second crucial target could be to keep global climate change in the 1.5 °C range, above pre-industrial levels and developing nature-friendly solutions to prevent catastrophes like flash floods and rising sea levels that are threatening to gulp major citieson the coasts and doomsday forest fires.
Just a degree’s decrease in your air conditioner temperature settings reduces the need for more power to run the device, leading to lesser fossil fuel requirements, thus saving the pristine ice-capped lands so vital for polar bears to survive on planet Earth. All these lifestyle changes may seem like a sand particle in a desert but one must bear in mind that these sand particles together make a storm.
The implementation strategy for conserving power in households just requires some attention towards sustainable, environment-friendly and, therefore, healthier dwellings which tap into abundantly available natural solutions. We must include sustainable, environment-friendly, locally intelligent processes for manufacturing goods and providing services. A big chunk of this can constitute revisiting traditional and organic agricultural practices. The need is to relook at solutions for sustainable farming which preserves the biodiversity while not seeking more land for quelling the world’s hunger pangs.
This also means changing the menu of your breakfast and dinner to more eco-friendly healthier diets and most importantly preventing any form of food waste. If one looks at all of the above suggested solutions by a global group of experts, one finds they are fairly achievable and almost within one’s immediate reach.
That leads us back to the question of a sea of dark pollution clouds over Delhi in the coming weeks due to consistent crop burning. No solution has been found to this malaise despite the Supreme Court’s interventions and one wonders if the end is near. It may not be so if global policymakers and stakeholders (which includes the common man as well) get together to formulate an integrated approach which looks at simultaneous solutions to immediately address the preservation of the Earth’s rich genetic diversity, species and ecosystems. If together they find technology-enabled sustainable solutions, we could enhance the capacity of nature to deliver its wonders of health and prosperity to humans. If we preserve what the UN report highlights as the less-tangible but highly-valued connections with nature, we can define our identities, cultures and beliefs.
(The writer is policy analyst)
Fly ash is inevitable while producing thermal power. However, leaving it to pollute the environment is not desirable
Fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired electricity-generating power plants, has always been a predominant challenge for the environment, as its unsafe disposal or ineffective recycling can pose a direct threat to the quality of the air we breathe. Such is our dependence on thermal power plants for energy that apart from the air pollution caused by these behemoths, the fly ash is also compromising other aspects of our environment.
For instance, the breach of the fly ash dyke at the Vindhyachal NTPC Super Thermal Power Station in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh in October 2019 led to the seeping of nearly 35 lakh metric tonnes of fly ash into the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar, popularly known as the Rihand water reservoir. The Essar power plant at Mahan in the same district, too, saw breaches in its fly ash dykes leading to its seepage into the environment.
The huge level of water pollution triggered by the seepage of fly ash into the Rihand reservoir raised a red flag and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed an interim penalty of Rs 10 crore on the NTPC and Essar after reviewing the ground report filed by its committee. Additionally, the NGT also rapped the Lanco-Anpara power plant to stem the excess ash pond flow into the reservoir. The fly ash caused soil pollution, too, due to which agricultural land became infertile and standing crops suffered.
Thanks to the fly ash pollution, the levels of mercury in the soil, air and water spiked besides causing health complications for local communities as the Rihand reservoir is a source of drinking water for many. All these adverse developments took place despite the existence of statutory notifications from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) that mandates a 100 per cent utilisation of fly ash.
However, the full extent of the damage caused by the fly ash pond breach has come to light now thanks to a new report submitted recently by the joint committee comprising the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee. The report estimated that the fly ash breach by Essar Power Limited caused damages worth Rs 7.35 crore while the damage inflicted by the fly ash dyke breach at the NTPC plant was pegged at a whopping Rs 104 crore. The committee based its damage estimations on two parameters: One was the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions caused by the clean-up operations and two the extent of water pollution due to ash overflow.
The use of diesel during the clean-up operations caused the carbon footprint to spike, leading to the damage estimation spiking as well. Similarly, the fly ash infusion into the water bodies led to heavy metals and suspended solids leaching into the water. This, too, was translated into cost and added to the damages.
Thermal power stations are still the mainstay of our power sector with renewable sources of energy being nowhere near the required potential to take over as primary sources of our needs. Moreover, the opening up of the coal sector for mining to private players, besides nixing of the mandatory coal-washing requirements, is set to increase the production of fly ash in the future.
Already the ash ponds are overflowing across the nation due to increasing output and decreasing utilisation. As a result, the dykes are frequently breaking, leading to the ash polluting the nearby fields and water bodies.
The last 10 years saw the ash ponds contain a humongous 627 million tonnes of unused material. This is three times the fly ash being generated per year today, which is 200 million tonnes per annum. The close of 2019 saw an unused fly ash stock quantity of 1,647 million tonnes in India, which is eight times the annual generation quantity.
This is despite the fact that India has the regulations in place that mandate 100 per cent usage of fly ash and there is technology available to put this into action. Yet we are still far from a “full utilisation status.”
The Government-driven initiative to promote the use of fly ash in the construction material industry has not been a spectacular success as red bricks continue to be sold and used in open violation of the Government’s rules that ban them. Bricks are made out of top soil which is a precious part of our environment. An inch of top soil takes 500,000 years to form as it essentially involves the breaking down and erosion of rock.
If the Government cannot shut the countless red brick kilns that can be seen dotting the countryside, it cannot promote the use of fly ash in the building material industry. The buyer will have no option but to continue with the traditional red brick, which is easily available. Once the red brick production and supply chain is broken, it will not only save the top soil but also stem the pollution caused by these kilns as they use diesel and sugarcane waste as fuel.
Fly ash can be successfully used to produce bricks in combination with gypsum or lime. The resultant brick is not only eco-friendly but lighter and stronger. Technologies are available today that use compressed natural gas (CNG), an eco-friendly fuel, to fire autoclaves or huge ovens to manufacture fly ash bricks. Each autoclave can manufacture 22,000 fly ash-lime bricks in an eight-hour span.
So, if the thermal power plants in the country were mandated with a target to produce a certain quantity of bricks using the autoclave technology, then the problem of excess fly ash would disappear. There are ways to ensure full utilisation of fly ash; only a strong political will is required to implement the rules that have been put in place for this.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
Inefficient recycling of construction and demolition waste is indicative of the nation’s disregard for the environment and this can no longer be overlooked
As new commercial skyscrapers and lofty residential buildings continue to be the hallmark of “developed” cities, there is a virtual race among the builders to tear down older structures and replace them with energy-guzzling, steel and glass buildings that trap heat and require enormous air-conditioning input in order to make them liveable. The city skyline no doubt looks impressive but the more the skyline improves, the more the construction and demolition waste (CDW) on the ground level increases, as it is illegally dumped by builders on roadside and in landfills. India produces 150 million tonnes of CDW annually. The generation, management, recycling and finally disposal of this waste is governed by guidelines and rules put in place by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) under the Construction, Demolition and Waste Management Rules 2016. But the implementation and enforcement of the rules is insipid and lax. This is apparent by the dismal recovery and recycling rate of the CDW, which currently stands at about one per cent of the 150 million tonnes generated. The rest of the waste is left lying in residential areas, landfills and other urban spaces, which contributes to air and water pollution, not to mention spoiling the look and feel of our urban living environs. Given the huge gap between generation of the waste and its recycling, it is vital for a third party, such as an NGO, to apply for Government data under the Right to Information Act and appraise the implementation of these rules and compliance by the construction sector. They must also assess what difference they have made on the ground. The already burdened infrastructure is further hobbled by the fact that the recycling paraphernalia available with the Government is sufficient to handle a meagre 6,500 tonnes daily which renders an enormous backlog of CDW that gets illegally and irresponsibly disposed off.
The root cause of this wide gap between CDW generation and recycling is the slow pace in establishment of recycling facilities. As per estimates, 53 cities were expected to set up recycling units by 2017 but only 13 are in place. This alarmingly slow progress is further made worse by the rapid consumption of building materials which indicates that construction activity both in commercial and residential sectors is happening swiftly. As land is scarce, this construction is taking place by demolishing the existing old structures and this is rapidly contributing to the generation of CDW. The Swachh Survekshan 2021 has thankfully started putting emphasis on recycling and management of CDW, but it still needs to be instilled into the urban stakeholder, be it private or Government entities, that how a city fares in the survey will also depend on how it manages its CDW footprint. This can be done at the possible origin of the waste wherein the architects can be encouraged to recycle the demolition waste and use it in the new project. According to estimates, if CDW recycling is in-built into the architect’s plan, then 33 per cent of waste generation can be avoided. Similarly, specialised machines and equipment must be made available by the building contractors to the architects so that on-site waste generation is quickly turned around and converted or recycled into usable building material. This not only saves money for the building project but also confirms to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norms that allow usage of concrete made from recycled CDW.
The present COVID-19 crisis has almost brought the construction sector to a grinding halt. This is unwelcome news for the sector but provides an opportunity for India to take stock of the CDW scenario. This lull can enable the Government and allied environmental agencies to rapidly put in place a strategy that ensures the efficient handling of CDW when building starts gaining momentum. As a part of this, it is essential to first spot the regulatory and technical barriers that are hampering the effective handling of the waste being generated. In the same process, it is also critical to ensure on-site recycling of CDW and enable a sustained sale of the recycled material in the market at economical rates. This will help ingrain the practice of CDW recycling at the epicentre of its generation.
The authorities must also set in place robust systems to collect data pertaining to CDW being generated and based on this a protocol must be designed that not only displays the region-wise generation of CDW but also breaks down the waste into sub-categories. This will help design forecasts of how recycled material can be made available in the building material market without any supply disruptions. The Government must also design special categorisation programmes in which those buildings will fall that have a certain certified percentage of recycled CDW used in them. This must automatically qualify these buildings as green buildings and make them eligible for rebates on electricity and property tax charges. Inefficient recycling of CDW is indicative of the nation’s disregard for the environment and this must not be overlooked.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
Accessible India intended to take measures to secure the right to an accessible environment for people with disabilities. But it failed
The enactment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has ensured the domestic transition of the social model adopted under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted in 2006 and ratified by the Government in 2007. The principles stated to be implemented for empowerment of persons with disabilities (PWD) are respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy, including the freedom to make one’s own choices and independence of persons. The Act lays stress on non-discrimination, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, respect for difference and acceptance of disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity, equality of opportunity, accessibility, equality between men and women, respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities. The principle reflects a paradigm shift in thinking about disability from a social welfare concern to a human rights issue. However, the rights-based vision of the Act has not been translated into reality as yet. This is because of the lack of the Government’s efforts to ensure that measures are taken for which it has been made responsible under the Act. Accessible India has been one of the most visible campaigns of the Narendra Modi Government which intends to take measures securing the right to an accessible environment for PWDs in the country. Launched before the enactment of the 2016 Act, it seeks to ensure a Built Environment Accessibility, Transportation System Accessibility and Information and Communication Eco-System Accessibility in India, the three of its basic components. It is a matter of great misfortune that India’s biggest campaign has failed miserably in its effort. The failure can be basically attributed to the ingenuity shown in its vision, as ambiguous and over-ambitious targets were made without any measure of accountability. The campaign thus serves more in rhetoric than in action.
Ambiguous and over-ambitious targets: The campaign under Built Environment Accessibility targetted 50 most important buildings in Tier-1 cities and 25 most important Government buildings in Tier-2 cities, to be made fully accessible within a period of six months by July 2016. The revised guidelines have extended the deadline to March 2020. The numbers and time period were too ambitious for the reach of the Department of Persons with Disability. The deadlines were missed and extended consecutively and targets under it are yet not achieved even as three years have passed since the campaign was launched. Moreover, there was no study done on the number of Government websites or the quantum of public documents, which makes it impossible to assess the Government on the targets it envisaged as they were mostly made in percentage terms i.e. to make 50 per cent of all Government websites and public documents accessible by March 2018 . Such ambiguous targets make it easier to extend the deadline as it becomes impossible to measure the true progress of the work done.
Lack of accountability framework: The department has only released partial information in terms of the total number of buildings and websites that were made accessible but greater details about these buildings have not been provided. This information is not only necessary for awareness but also necessary for accountability purposes. No verification study has been conducted or is currently under process by technically qualified Government or non-government agencies to assess the progress made in built environment or Information and communications technology in terms of accessibility. With respect to public buildings under the State Government, the department issues utilisation funds under the campaign. Data can be easily found on the huge amount of funds disbursed under the scheme. However, no accountability is ensued on the State Government as no post-verification study is done to check the proper use of funds. No training or workshop has been conducted to train engineers in the task of retrofitting. Untrained professionals are unable to understand the reports provided to them post accessibility audits.
Social audit: The campaign did include a component of “social audit” to ensure implementation in the form of a website, a mobile-based application where one could report inaccessible buildings and action could be taken on it. However, the objective completely failed because of sluggish implementation of this measure as both the website and the application have been unmanned and thereby lying defunct since 2016.
The failure of the campaign to properly formulate its target and include accountability in its practice has reduced it to a utopian status without any real ground-level impact. This failure is for the lack of technical experts on the subject of accessibility involved in the formulation process. There is a sincere need for the Department for Persons with Disability to diverge from this erring process and hire a permanent officer trained in universal design and accessibility so that proper measures can be taken to address the issues of PWDs.
(Writer: Arman Ali; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Irrespective of the disappointing outcome of the Madrid summit, as a responsible nation, India cannot be making a half-hearted approach to address the issue of climate change
Even as the thunderous reverberations of the 16-year-old environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, at the UN, just three months ago, are yet to die down, to our utter surprise, the Madrid climate talks under the aegis of COP25 ended in a failure. This is not the first time that such discordance among member nations has been witnessed. The present talks failed despite the fact that while inaugurating this conference, UN Secretary General António Guterres had issued a very stern warning. “I call on anyone who is still lobbying their Governments for a slow transition or even no transition, to end those activities now. The world is watching,” he emphasised. Today, the world community appears to be focussed more on the protection of their own domestic agenda rather than paying heed to the impending disaster.
The first decade after the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 saw a rare building up of consensus on almost all issues. Perhaps it was the decade after the Cold War and the first Gulf War when the world community saw immense merit in consensus-building. The same was also manifest during the signing of the WTO Agreement at Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1994. But in the very next decade, one saw the appearance of discordant notes, particularly as former US President George W Bush virtually refused to follow the Kyoto Protocol even as America was the largest polluter in the world. This trend was further aggravated when President Donald Trump followed the same route as charted earlier by Bush.
Unfortunately, despite the bleak scenario, the voice of a number of smaller and less polluting nations, prominently Tuvalu, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan among others, who are already facing the brunt of the climate change, seems to have been lost. On the other hand, high polluting nations such as China, India and the European Union could not account for their efforts at reducing global warming. They were unable to quantify in specific terms the targets achieved as was laid down under the Paris Agreement. But the prime reason for the failure of the Madrid Summit, which was participated by 197 countries across the world, was a lack of consensus on development of a market mechanism to limit carbon emissions.
The concept of trading in carbon markets as a response to climate change was an important outcome of the Kyoto Protocol. The primary purpose of the Protocol was to make the developed countries pay for their emissions while at the same time, monetarily reward those nations with good record in this regard. The underlying philosophy was that since the developing countries could start with cleaner technologies, they would be rewarded by those who were stuck with old and polluting technologies. In a way, this translated into wealthier countries purchasing the extent of reduction in carbon levels achieved by the developing countries.
In this manner, the developed and wealthier nations would not only be able to sell their technology to the developing countries but could also gather carbon credits to meet the requirements of Kyoto Protocol without any reduction in their emission levels. The failure of the Madrid summit, to achieve any results in this direction, may have also disappointed those who encouraged carbon trading mechanism like the oil major Royal Dutch Shell Plc and the Spanish utility Iberdrola SA.
Such a market mechanism was also considered important by heavy industrialised countries, who are economically dependent on oil and gas production. In the normal course, large-scale de-carbonisation would take much longer than as prescribed under the Paris targets. Besides, it would also ensure that the rich and already developed countries could continue to pollute on the strength of carbon credit purchased by them, while the options of developing and relatively poor countries would be curtailed. It can, thus, be inferred that the summit spent more time in ensuring that the interests of the developed countries are well protected through the carbon trading mechanism.
In fact, the scheme of carbon credits is some kind of a smokescreen which enables the developed and richer countries to exploit those still developing. Those already developed, thus, escape the limits while the less industrialised and less polluting are loaded with the burden of further reductions. This may ultimately impact and retard their progress in the long-run.
In this context, let us take the example of the GFL gas project in Gujarat. GFL is one of the largest producers of carbon offset credits in the world, selling them to many of the biggest polluters in the EU. Europe’s polluters have had a cheap way to offset their climate responsibilities without actually greening even a small patch of the land. EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard admitted that such projects have a “total lack of environmental integrity.”
At the summit, not much time was spent on determining the targets to be achieved by each country so as to keep the emissions of greenhouse gases within the overall objective of the global warming being limited to the extent of 1.5 degrees between 2018 and 2100. For this to become a reality by 2050, we should be a net-zero emitter. So far only about 20 countries, including the UK, France, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, figure in the list of those who are expected to meet this target. India, China and the US still have a long way to go.
In India, with a perceived difficulty in cutting emissions in order to meet the targets, an ambitious plan for harnessing solar energy has been formulated. We are lucky that sunlight is available in abundance but the challenge lies in the procurement of solar Photo Voltaic (PV) cells, which is one of the major constraining factors in our efforts to realise the full potential. According to a report submitted by the parliamentary standing committee, in order to achieve the target of 100 GW of solar electricity capacity by 2022, India should have had an installed capacity of 32,000 MW by 2017-18. But as of January 31, 2018, the country only had a capacity of 18,455 MW in just four years — this is over 20,000 MW a year and appears difficult to achieve.
Irrespective of the disappointing outcome of the Madrid summit, as a responsible nation with high prestige in the international arena, India does not have the luxury of a half-hearted approach towards this vital area. The phenomenon of global warming has to be seen as a global warning.
(Writer: kk paul; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Maybe leaders do not like being lectured by a teenager but the world cannot afford failure
Another year of UN-sponsored climate talks and another year of stagnation where nothing was achieved. Yes, 2019 will go down as the year when a Swedish schoolgirl stood up to global leaders and told them to feel some shame but the latter, rather leaders of the world’s most important countries when it comes to climate change, have brushed her away. There have been record wildfires in Australia and the US, heatwaves in Europe, droughts in South America and rapidly shrinking ice levels at the Poles. It was believed that compromises and contingency plans would have been put into place at Madrid but after days of smashing heads together, nothing was achieved. The Paris deal of 2015 offered a framework for a new carbon market under the UN, but the details had not been worked out. Under it, those who have no choice but to pollute a bit would be free to trade carbon credits with developed countries. With no agreement reached, events like “Extinction Rebellion” in London, which brought the city to a standstill, are meaningless.
Partially, this is due to the Right-wing, nationalist turn the world has taken politically. Strongmen from our own Narendra Modi to Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and now possibly Boris Johnson are not ready to compromise on their nations and liabilities. After all, fighting climate change is an expensive business and nobody wants to foot the bill. It has become a game of passing the responsibility on and telling the other guy what to do. For some Westerners, it is about countries like India and even those in the African continent which are forced to put off their dreams of development “for the sake of the planet.” None of the countries will utter a peep to their own people, whose vast consumption outweighs that of many Indians. It is true that there has been a dramatic rise in global carbon levels over the past few years, thanks to China, but was it wrong on its part to haul hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty? India’s moral imperative is first and foremost to end hunger and starvation and ensure that no child is left behind. Unfortunately, this will have an environmental cost, one that this country will pay dearly due to rising sea levels. Yet, India will have to make some compromises if it is to reduce the extent of climate-induced suffering. There has been a pivot towards huge investments in renewable energy and exploring new technologies but this needs the developed world to be less hypocritical.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)