Most Indians ranked environment pollution as their second worst problem in a list of six and believe that air, water and noise pollution will get worse, says a first-of-its-kind survey conducted by CNN-IBN and Outlook magazine.
The survey, in partnership with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), found that most Indians regard air pollution to be the worst environment problem. Planting more trees is the environment challenge people want the Government to tackle first.
But are Indians willing to change their lifestyle for the environment’s sake? What do the survey’s findings tell about Indians’ knowledge of environment problems? CNN-IBN’s Bahar Dutt and Anubha Bhonsle asked this to a panel comprising a politician, economist, environmentalist, writer and musician with a PhD in environment science.
The panel comprised Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal, Dr Subir Gokarn, chief economist for Standard and Poor in the Asia Pacific region, CSE director Sunita Narain, Rahul Ram, lead vocalist of music band Indian Ocean, and Ramachandra Guha, historian and writer.
The survey’s findings reflect the “maturing of the environment” in India. “Urban Indians are realizing the problem that is staring at all of us,” said Narain.
Environmentalists were considered as “party-poopers” when India became a liberalized economy in the 1990s but now after decades of reckless industrialization the environment is back on the nation’s agenda, said Guha.
Indians may regard air pollution as the country’s worst environment problem but they think industries are the top culprits for this and vehicles next. Is it a case of ‘my car doesn’t pollute’?
“Everybody wants to think he or she is good, nobody wants to admit that they might have something to do with environmental problems. The mindset is if it’s green—haryali—it can’t be polluting. Nobody thinks that better public transport can take the burden off the environment too,” said Ram.
People’s good intentions won’t end pollution; environment-friendly policies will need hard work and long-term commitment, said Gokarn. Polluting industries will have to be taxed and environment-friendly ones given incentives—tasks that require effort and coordination, he said.
People have to pay some price for a better environment, said Guha. “Cities will have to stop shifting the burden to the countryside. Delhi is situated on the Yamuna but the river is dead; Varanasi is on the Ganga but the river is dead. Urban Indians need to think about the footprint of their activities on the hinterland.”
“People are not being asked to give up their cars, but give them affordable, convenient and the best option to travel,” said Narain.
Flush and forget
Most respondents in the survey wanted the government to clean up rivers but only 5 per cent of them said the sewage from their homes could be ending up in rivers.
Individuals can’t be accused of ignorance and neither can they do much about where their sewage goes, but this point of the survey finding reflects a “flush-and-forget syndrome”. Individuals must be aware of their environment even if they can do little to solve its problems, said Narain.
Solving problems is the state’s responsibility, said Sibal. “Citizens must be aware but it is the state’s responsibility to clean up rivers and put in policies for that. There are priorities in life: we need flyovers and we need trees. We should have growth and we should be green,” he said.
As many as 74 Indians said they plant trees as their personal effort to help the environment—a good effort but the panel believed it’s time our efforts moved on.
“Environment in India cannot be any longer be about planting trees and not using plastic bags,” said Narain.
“It can’t be business as usual,” said Sibal. But are Indians willing to pay the price for a better environment?
As many as 51 per cent respondents were willing to pay a tax which would help the environment. As many as 32 per cent were willing to pay an ‘environment tax’.
“We have to realise there is no free lunch but in politics if one party wants to raise taxes that make economic or environmental sense the other party would oppose it,” said Guha.
Sibal agreed that an ‘environment tax’ would almost be impossible. “It would be a very, very difficult political decision to take. It would create a hullabaloo.”
Would the environment improve five years from now? The panel was optimistic but only if country planned its efforts and put a price to the environment.
“I am optimistic but we will need to do things much more differently. There will be very difficult choices. It can’t be ‘I will have my, my AC and do what I am doing’ and yet I will protect the environment. Protecting the environment is about reducing consumption, sharing and paying more. Doing this will mean inconvenience,” said Narain.