India’s Urban Environmental Challenges

Ram Rattan Sharma
It is expected that by 2030 about half of the Indian population will be residing in urban areas. This pace of urbanization is already being accompanied by problems of water supply. Sewage disposal, municipal waste, the lack of open land scaped spaces, air and water pollution, and public transport alongwith others. Most of these environmental problems have their origin in the planned development of cities leading to higher use of resources, such as land and water. Many times, there is not even consensus as to which challenges are more important and need to be addressed. It is therefore, necessary to have an understanding of India’s serious urban environmental challenges alongwith empirical evidence to enable policy makers to examine them. Leading urban environmental challenges faced by India are changes in land use/ land cover as urban population increases, the demand of land for various urban activities also increases. Forests need to be cleared, grasslands ploughed or grazed, wet lands drained and croplands are encroached upon due to expanding cities. This is a challenge because it reduces green cover and increases the consumption of fossil fuels and leads to increase in surface temperature, solid waste generation, collection and its management is a major challenge, because a large amount of solid waste is left by the side of streets to decay, which is a major source of health concerns . Further , there are no appropriate mechanisms to collect and dispose off the waste. Thus generated, poor sanitation is a challenge, because there is still a large proportion of population which practices open defecation, hence this plays a role in the pollution of surface and ground water sources.
There is some evidence, that there is steady erosion in the land cover of some cities in the country such as Bangalore.
Experts find a 46% increase in the built up area of Bangalore from 1973-2007 leading to a sharp decline of 61% area in the water bodies mostly due to the intense urbanization process. They also find that there was a decrease in the proportion of vegetation in the city from 68% in 1973 to only 25% in 2007, with progression in the built area . Similar evidences are available from Delhi. The city is developing very rapidly mainly in the west, South-west and eastern sides. There was a reduction in the agricultural land because of urban expansion in the fringe areas. The major cause of this decline in area under agriculture was due to an-increase in urban area. There was also a considerable decrease in the ridge, considered as the lungs of Delhi, from 6.7% in 1992 to 5.5% in 2004 because of continuous illegal tree cutting, quarrying and construction activity.
Solid waste is a major source of environmental pollution in Indian cities and towns. The energy and resources institute has estimated that by 2047, waste generation in Indian cities will increase five-fold to touch 260 million tons per year, implying that the current solid waste generation is over 50 million tons per year. A study by the world bank, puts India’s annual generation of municipal Solid waste to be somewhat lower, i.e. in the range of 35 to 45 million tone, amounting to about 100,000 to 120,000 metric tonnes every day. It is estimated that annual increase in the quantity of solid waste in India’s cities to be at the rate of 5 percent per annum. Further disposal practices of the solid waste open dumping sites are highly un satisfactory. The poor management of solid waste has led to contamination of ground. Water and surface water through leachate and pollution of air through unregulated burning of waste, unscientific practices in processing and disposal compound the environmental hazards posed by solid waste. It is estimated that anywhere between 30-35 percent of the total waste remains uncollected from the city roads. Similarly , the waste disposal services in most cities and towns are archaic and inadequate and carry high environmental risks. The combined effect of the inefficiencies in collection and inadequate and unsafe disposal is evident in wide spread insanitation , contaminated water and high incidence of chronic respiratory and communicable diseases found in India’s cities. Amore recent analysis of the trend in waste disposal in 22 of India’s cities by the federation of Indian chambers of commerce and industry shows that 14 out of the 22 cities send more than 75% of their waste to dumpsites indicating a lack of adequate treatment and disposal facilities, even larger cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which ought to have better and more scientific treatment facilities have resorted to unscientific dumping of waste.
Open defecation is wide spread in urban areas of India. This situation is typical of India as well as other developing countries. In India roughly 12.4 million urban households do not have access to latrines and defecate in the open. Approximately 5.40 urban households use community latrines and 13.4 million households use shared latrines, the status with respect to the urban poor in even slums without latrines is 17 percent and 51 percent respectively. In respect of septic latrines availability is 66 percent and 35 percent. More than 37% of the total human excreta generated in Urban India, is unsafely disposed. This imposes significant public health and environmental costs to urban areas that contribute more than 60% of the country’s GDP. Impacts of poor sanitation are especially significant for the urban poor, women, children and the elderly. The loss due to diseases caused by poor sanitation for children under 14 years alone in urban areas amounts to 500 crore.
A task force on governance, transparency and participation in the environment and forest sector was setup by the planning commission in August 2006. One of the major recommendations of this task force was that the Govt. should immediately activate or reconstitute the National Land Use Board and charge it with the responsibility of developing a policy and long term perspective plans, which guides the process of conservation and sustainable use of land and water across the country. Such a National policy and perspective plan on land and water use should be mandated by appropriate law and specify map of lands/water for specific uses, including biodiversity conservation subsistence and domestic, commercial and industrial /urban use by local communities. Clear priority needs to be given to ensuring ecological security and the livelihood security of those most depended on biodiversity. As far as desired level of service is concerned with respect to solid waste, various committees have recommended 100 percent collection of the generated waste, with its proper disposal.
The millennium development goals enjoin upon the signatory nations to extend access to improved sanitation to at least half the urban population by 2015, and 100% access by 2025. This implies extending coverage to households facilities in public places to make cities open defecation free. Sanitary and safe disposal of 100% human excreta and liquid wastes must be disposed of safely.
The Govt. of India recognizes that sanitation is a state subject and on ground implementation and sustenance of public health and environmental outcomes require strong city level institutions and stake holders. Each state and city needs to formulate its own sanitation strategy and their respective city sanitation plan respectively in over all conformity to the national policy.
We find that India’s major urban environmental concerns pertain to change in land use cover, solid waste management and better management of sanitation to make cities open defecation free. Finances still are the biggest constraint for management of India’s urban environmental concerns. However, there is hope. There are large no of win-win situations such as roping in private sector partners for better solid waste management and sanitation.
(” The Author is former Dy. Librarian University of Jammu” )