In the first ever national-level economic assessment of environmental degradation in India a World Bank report released on Thursday shows that the annual cost of environmental degradation in India amounts to about Rs 3.75 trillion. In a recent environmental survey of 132 nations, India ranked 126th overall and last in air pollution (effects on human health). The survey concluded that India has the worst air pollution in the world, beating China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Also, according to another recent WHO survey across G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India.
While poverty remains both a cause and consequence of resource degradation, agricultural yields are lower on degraded lands, and forests and grasslands are depleted as livelihood resources decline. To subsist, the poor are compelled to mine and overuse limited resources, creating a downward spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation. As in many other nations, the debate over growth versus environment is active in India. While the policy focus should be on meeting basic needs and expanding growth opportunities, it should not be at the expense of unsustainable environmental degradation.
As the latest World Bank report underlines, environmental sustainability could become the next major challenge as India surges along its projected growth trajectory. With cost of environmental degradation at 5.7 per cent of India’s GDP, environment could become a major constraint in sustaining future economic growth. A “grow now and clean up later” model will not be sustainable. Further, it may be impossible or prohibitively expensive to clean up later. The government must take immediate steps for a resource-efficient greening of the economy, which is possible at a very low cost in terms of GDP growth. For an environmentally sustainable future, India needs to value its natural resources and ecosystem services to better inform policy and decision-making.