Sustainability Insights: A look at the country of India


The push for sustainability is coming from every corner of our planet – even in India

I connected with Manish Singh of India-based Shreeranya Renewables. Shreeranya Renewables is a scientific and educational start-up dedicated to exploring and recognizing the importance of renewable power resources amidst climate change to protect the environment and habitats, and implementing renewable energy technologies and sustainable solutions in day-to-day life. As a speaker, I believe sustainability affects people on a global basis; however, every place has its local concerns and challenges. With that in mind, I connected with Manish to get some insights into the sustainability challenges in India.

Sustainability Insights- My Questions and their Answers

1. What is the greatest threat to sustainability in India?

One cannot single out greatest threat to sustainability in India because all the factors are equally damaging. However, we can emphasize upon two major threats: unchecked population growth and unplanned development at the cost of environment. Both are somehow connected to each other. To fulfill the needs of the burgeoning population (1.4 billion), economic growth becomes a necessity. Hence, Indian economy is fastest growing economy in the world. This economic growth comes at the cost of reckless deterioration of environment quantitatively and qualitatively. Therefore, the factors such as deforestation, unplanned rapid urbanization, hazardous liquid discharges into water bodies like Ganga, Yamuna, etc. has put a big question mark on the concept of sustainability in the long run.

2. What % of energy in India is renewable? Does India have a Renewable Energy Standard in place?

Till 31st May 2017, India has an installed capacity of 330.26 GW which includes thermal, nuclear, large hydro and renewables. Renewable energy sources constitute 17.5 % of total installed capacity which is around 57 GW out of which wind constitutes 32 GW, solar 12 GW, biomass 8 GW and small hydro 4.5 GW. India has its own version of Renewable Energy Standards which is called Renewable Portfolio Obligations (RPO). Every state utility has to buy some percentage of their electricity purchase from RE power plants, for instance, Tamilnadu has fixed RPO at 11.5 % for the year 2016-17.

3. Who are the most likely types of people to embrace sustainability in India?
It is difficult to say what category of persons will embrace sustainability because of the differing perceptions of the people. The concept of sustainability does not apply on the large swathes of India as 60-70 % of Indians lives on less than $2 per day. Also, India’s per capita emissions are far below the advanced countries such as the USA, Switzerland or Qatar. Therefore, it’s a mirage to expect from Indians to embrace sustainability. There are only few crores of people in India who are well-off and live a good life. Basically, in these few crores of people, young generation is sensitive towards their environment and does a bit to save the forests, rivers and animals.

4. How are the impacts of climate change being felt in India?

Being a tropical country, India is one of those countries which would face the gravest impacts of global warming and climate change. Across India, it has become a phenomenon to observe increased incidences of erratic rainfall, droughts, cyclones, floods, etc. Monsoon has become erratic and unpredictable. The States like Assam and Bihar are annually suffering from the onslaught of severe floods. The intensity of droughts has increased as can be observed from the droughts of Marathwada, Vidarbha or Bundelkhanda region. Cities like Mumbai and Chennai faced harsh floods in the year 2005 and 2015 respectively due to the continuous torrential rainfall. It is just the beginning of the negative impacts of climate change on India. In the future, things will become worse and Indian society will be ruptured by the large scale internal migration and shortages of clean water and food.

5. Where is the Water/Energy nexus observed in India?

In India, the water/energy nexus is mostly observed in the agricultural practices, coal mining and coal power plants and large-scale hydro power plants. These components of the economy constitute a crucial part of the Indian economy. They are water guzzlers, and in return they give food and energy. India has a policy related to biofuels in which Indian government intends to mix 5% biofuel to the diesel. As a result, govt. encourages farmers to grow biofuels such as Jatropha, corn, etc. Also, India produces water-intensive rice and sugarcane on a large scale especially in its water-stressed semi-arid regions. The residues of these crops such as rice husk and bagasse are used as a fuel in the biomass power plants. Similarly, coal and large-scale hydro power plants play a major role in ensuring energy supply to the most parts of India. Here, one can easily decipher water/energy nexus very deeply which need not to be elaborated.

6. How will climate change affect the future food supply in India?

At the end of the day, climate change will disrupt the seasons as we know it today especially monsoon season. In India, agriculture is solely depended on monsoons for its requirement of water. Over a period, monsoon has become more erratic and unpredictable. If, in any season, monsoon doesn’t occur or is less than the requirement, then that year is declared as drought- affected which wreak a havoc on the farmers. Vidarbha and Bundelkhand parts of India have become notorious for droughts from the last many years. Also, canal irrigation doesn’t exist in various parts of the country, due to which farmers have put up tubewells to irrigate their fields. Since, agriculture has become water-intensive, tubewells have thronged across India. Ironically, the areas which have canal irrigation facility have most of the tubewells in the country such as Punjab has the highest density of tubewells per person in the country. It has put an unbearable stress on the underground water availability for future generations. Similarly, in the medium and long run, climate change will affect the water availability in the rivers of India due to the melting of Himalayan glaciers. All these factors contribute to the dreaded future of shortages of food supply.

7. Are Millennials (aged 20-35) in India embracing sustainability as seen in their purchase patterns?

Since 1991, a sustained economic growth of the country has increased the disposable income with the people due to which they are buying more and more goods especially luxury items such as cars, air-conditioners, fridge, etc. The Western idea of consumerism has taken over the minds of the people. Being a consumer is not bad, but endless consumer cycle is an oxymoron. It is putting up a pressure on the already fragile condition of environment. In India, the air quality in Indian cities has become worse, per capita water availability has considerably decreased, river water is choked with the filth of the cities and industries, crops are pesticide-ridden, solid waste has become unmanageable, and what not. Despite of all these problems, the citizens of India are oblivious to these environmental issues. However, the people especially young generation has started thinking about the environment in terms of sustainability. To some extent the millennials in India have awareness about the deteriorating situation of environment. Sadly, they are a miniscule part of Indian population.

8. Where does India stand in relation to the rest of the world in terms of carbon emissions?

India is at 4th position after China, the USA and Russia in terms of total carbon emissions. However, in terms of per capita emissions, India is way far behind US, Qatar or Switzerland and it is just a notch above Zimbabwe.

9. What are the status of “Green Academies” (school for high school students leading to a career in sustainability) in India?

In the year 2004, the Supreme Court of India pronounced that all the school and college students must go through a course on environment so that the young people develops an awareness and sensitive attitude towards their local forests, air, water and overall environment. It was a noble cause; but it took almost ten years to have a subject on environment for one semester (across the courses) in the Delhi University. Even now, out of hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges, only few institutions have started a subject on environment for their students across the courses. The reasons may be many for the present; nonetheless, it shows apathetic attitude towards the preservation of environment in the higher echelons of Indian govt. and academicians.

10. What are the major contaminants of India’s air and water?
India is going through a transformation phase due to continuous economic growth and millions of people have come out of poverty. However, it has extracted a heavy price from the people of India in terms of appalling air and water pollution. Indian cities especially Delhi, Kanpur, etc. have the world’s worst air quality and the people of these cities are living in a gas chamber. Most of the cities are heavily polluted and people are inhaling high quantities of poisonous gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and others. Cars, coal power plants, polluting industries, burning of crop residues, etc. are the main culprits in contaminating the air. For instance, Delhi has the highest number of cars in the country especially SUVs. These cars are largely responsible for negating the gains which the city acquired by implementing CNG-based public transportation system.
Similarly, barring a few, almost all the major and minor Indian rivers are polluted and facing the onslaught of incessant city’s sewage and polluted water of industries. For instance, Ganga river has clean and pure water till the Rishikesh city and when it enters the Plains through Haridwar, it becomes more and more polluted as it goes down. Kanpur releases the poisonous water from its leather tanneries into the river. In Varanasi, along with the sewage, on the specific Ghats of the river, the dead bodies are burnt which are later released into the Ganga river. There are many other examples which indicates the gravity of water pollution across India. Likewise, the problems of underground water have its own dynamics. The heavy usage of pesticides by the farmers on their fields has led to the pollution of underground water. In West Bengal, the presence of arsenic has made the underground water unfit for drinking. One can argue that the water pollution in India has reached a crisis point.

What caught my attention about sustainability in India

1. Millennials are the future

Millennials in the United States are widely believed to be the future of sustainability since they are the first generation whose buying patterns support their sustainable beliefs. Furthermore, their numbers within the United States are expected to grow. The Millennial generation (ages 20-36) in India have started thinking about the environment in terms of sustainability, but their buying impact will be limited since they are a miniscule part of the Indian population.

2. Renewable energy adoption: India, U.S., globally

A record amount of renewable power was installed globally in 2016. Both countries are taking an active role in the transition to renewable sources. Globally, as of 2013, 22% of the installed capacity can be classified as renewable, while the percentage is 18% in India and 15% in the U.S.

3. The development environment

I was surprised to learn that the two main threats to sustainability are unchecked population growth and unplanned development at the cost of the environment. Deforestation, unplanned rapid urbanization, and hazardous liquid discharges into water bodies have questioned the concept of sustainability.

4. Sustainability and the poor

Sustainability has a perception as being intended for the affluent in wealthier countries, including the United States and Europe. I believe the impact can be greater for the 1.3 billion people on our planet who currently live in poverty. The 60-70% of Indians who live on less than $2 per day in addition the increasing income gap in the United States make sustainability difficult to adopt for those struggling to survive.

5. Water energy and food nexus

Globally, the Water Food Energy Nexus will have a profound an impact as climate change—of course, these are related. India, like the state of California, produces water-intensive crops on a large scale, especially in its water-stressed semi-arid regions. Both places will see an impact on its food supply with decreasing water supplies and increasing populations.

Although our two countries are far away from each other geographically, the impact of climate change affects people living in both countries. Expect the rest of the planet to feel these impacts for themselves in the future.