The Outlook-CNN-IBN-CSDS State of the Environment in Indian Cities survey has thrown up some startling results. Urban Indians consider environment to be the Number Two problem, beating unemployment, law and order, and even corruption. In a similar survey conducted in the UK, the British considered environment as Number Five on their list of social problems, which they felt the government should tackle. As this first-ever environment poll shows, Indians are clearly feeling the heat.
Does this mean Indians are environmentally responsible? Being aware does not always translate into responsible action. More than half—53 per cent—don’t segregate their garbage, 43 per cent never switch off their lights. And they are not always that aware—45 per cent believe the biggest contributor to air pollution is industries, and not their own private vehicles. However, a majority—82 per cent—are willing to give up their cars if a better public transport is in place; and 44 per cent would vote for a politician who promises a clean environment.
Amidst the rapid growth of highrise apartments, glitzy shopping malls and lifestyle diseases, urban India is also waking up to the perils of life in cities that are fast becoming concrete jungles. Perhaps the biggest lesson from this survey is that for urban Indians environmental problems are no longer ‘out there’—they are right here in our cities. Wetlands which used to act as carbon sinks in cities are being built on, rivers like the Yamuna are dead, the once common house sparrows are now hard to see, and gadgets like reverse osmosis water purifiers are integral to middle-class households. Drive just a few kilometres outside any city, and the devastation is visible—a stark brown landscape and big craters in agricultural fields, with the soil being used for bricks to build urban India’s highrise dreams.
But Indians are also fighting back. While our environmental movement was originally associated with rural Indians fighting to stop mass destruction of trees through the Chipko Andolan in the 1980s, urban Indians are catching up. As the environment editor at CNN-IBN, I am flooded with calls daily—from a university professor fighting to save trees from being cut down, an rwa fighting against encroachments of green spaces by builders, or an architect fighting to save the Yamuna. These are ordinary middle-class Indians turned eco-warriors. They may use Gandhian methods of dharnas and agitations, but they also have access to other tools—sms campaigns and mass e-mails. And they know how to work the government systems and the media to fight their green wars.
Sadly, one institution which has not kept pace with this movement is the Union ministry of environment and forests—in the dusty corridors of its building in South Delhi, some of the most vital decisions are taken for destruction of this country’s vital natural resources. Environment clearances are handed out like driver’s licences at your local rto, on the basis of technical reports that conveniently overlook globally endangered wildlife species that inhabit the forests. To date, the ministry has cleared every single project sent to it for environment and forest clearance. In other developing countries like Kenya or Brazil, the environment ministry and its policing institutions act like real watchdogs. Environment-related portfolios are in the hands of articulate, savvy and strong politicians. But ask anyone here if they can recall the name of even one environment minister of India, and they’re likely to come up with a blank.
Critics of environmentalism have so far brushed aside the movement as being too ‘apocalyptic’ or driven by a left agenda. But urban Indians have given their verdict—the deteriorating environment is now a mainstream social issue. The environment is suddenly everyone’s problem. As a young mother on the CNN-IBN State of the Environment show put it—clean air should be declared an essential commodity. Perhaps it’s time to unshackle Indian environmentalism from being perceived as a jholawala activist’s agenda, and recognise it as an essential service, which urban Indians demand as their right.
(Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment editor at CNN-IBN.)