Activists regret that little progress has been made on pollution and sanitation
When Narendra Modi won a sweeping election victory in 2014 to become India’s prime minister, there were high hopes — even among his political enemies — that his government would be more effective than its predecessors in rescuing the country’s rivers from sewage and industrial waste, improving a dismal sanitation record and cleaning New Delhi’s filthy air.
Mr Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, had made a campaign issue of what he called the “pitiable” state of the Ganges — a river holy to Hindus — in the ancient city of Varanasi, built on the banks of the river.
“Ma Ganga [Mother Ganges] has decided some responsibilities for me,” he said, speaking in Varanasi after winning the constituency easily. “From her source to her end, Ma Ganga is screaming for help. She is saying, ‘There must be one of my sons who will come and pull me out of this filth.”
Three months later, in his first Independence Day speech, Mr Modi had more to say on the environment.
This time, he called for modernisation and social change, emphasising a plan to build millions of toilets for the poor and to achieve access to sanitation for all within a decade.
To the consternation of some of his colleagues, he even borrowed a slogan from Jairam Ramesh, a former environment minister in the rival Congress-led government, about the need for “toilets before temples”.
Yet, more than three years on, many Indian environmentalists and health campaigners are disappointed by the lack of visible progress on sanitation and pollution.
There have been some bright spots: Mr Modi and his ministers have re-energised the renewable energy industry in India — mainly in wind and photovoltaic solar power.
The cost of solar energy has plunged by two-thirds in the past three years and the latest deals struck by investors have pushed contracted prices below the typical cost of coal-fired power stations to as little as 4 US cents per kilowatt-hour.
India is one of the world’s largest coal producers and consumers and environmentalists are delighted at the prospect of renewable energy projects cutting coal use and reducing the air pollution that blights swaths of north and Central India in particular.
“The end is nigh for new coal plant construction in India, and with it, a peak in coal use is within sight. Good news for India and the planet alike,” wrote Anindita Datta Choudhury of Greenpeace in a letter to the Financial Times this year.
In other areas, however, there has been little progress. For millennia, Indians lived in comparative harmony with nature, a way of life made easier by widespread vegetarianism and the respect for all forms of life found in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Since independence, numerous non-government organisations and associations have championed environmental causes. Yet the pressure of a fast-growing population — already at more than 1.3bn — and the waste and emissions generated by rising wealth and industrialisation mean that the air is often filled with smoke and dust and rivers are polluted. Fresh water is decreasing in quantity and declining in quality.
According to Kamal Kar, an activist who promotes better sanitation, 564m Indians still defecate in the open. In spite of a national campaign by Mr Modi, a $1.5bn loan from the World Bank and the introduction of a special sanitation tax, “neither toilet use nor behavioural change has been achieved, commensurate with the resources and efforts invested”, Mr Kar wrote in a 2017 paper published by Centre for Science and Environment, a leading non-governmental organisation. “There are no improvements in public health either.”
Nine-tenths of the human waste generated along the banks of the Ganges flows untreated straight into the river because of the lack of sewage treatment. Toxic waste from tanneries and other factories also remains a problem.
Some activists are frustrated with the mismatch between talk and action. “Modi has rekindled the hope. He’s allocated [Rs200,000m, $3bn] towards the Ganga cleaning,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, an environmentalist based in Kanpur, an industrial city on the Ganges. “But nothing is visible on the ground . . . I’ve lost hope and surrendered. Ganga is more polluted than ever before.”
Source: Victor Mallet