The key environmental challenges that the country faces relate to the nexus of environmental degradation with poverty in its many dimensions, and economic growth. These challenges are intrinsically connected with the state of environmental resources, such as land, water, air and their flora and fauna. The proximate drivers of environmental degradation are population growth, inappropriate technology and consumption choices, and poverty, leading to changes in relations between people, ecosystems and development activities such as intensive agriculture, polluting industry and unplanned urbanisation.
However, these environmental challenges give rise to environmental degradation only through deeper causal linkages, in particular, institutional failures, resulting in lack of clarity or enforcement of rights of access and use of environmental resources, policies which provide disincentives for environmental conservation (and which may have origins in the fiscal regime), market failures (which may be linked to shortcomings in the regulatory regimes), and governance constraints. Environmental degradation is a major causal factor in enhancing and perpetuating poverty, particularly among the rural poor, when such degradation impacts soil fertility, quantity and quality of water, air quality, forests, wildlife and fisheries. The dependence of the rural poor, in particular, tribal societies, on their natural resources, especially biodiversity, is self-evident.
Women in particular face greater adverse impacts of degradation of natural resources, being directly responsible for their collection and use, but rarely for their management. The commitment of time and effort in the collection of these resources has a direct impact on the capacity of rural women to devote time to raising and educating children, enhancing their earning skills, or participating in gainful livelihoods.
The poor are also more vulnerable to loss of resilience in ecosystems. Large reductions in resilience may mean that the ecosystems, on which livelihoods are based, break down, causing distress. The loss of the environmental resource base can result in certain groups of people being made destitute, even if overall, the economy shows strong growth. Further, urban environmental challenges and degradation, through lack of (or inappropriate) waste treatment and sanitation, industry and transport related pollution, adversely impacts air, water, and soil quality, and differentially impacts the health of the urban poor.
This, in turn, affects their capability to seek and retain employment, attend school and enhances gender inequalities, all of which perpetuate poverty. Poverty itself can accentuate environmental degradation, given that institutional failures persist. For the poor, several environmental resources are complementary in production and consumption on other commodities (e.g. water in relation to agricultural production, fuel wood in relation to consumption of food), while a number of environmental resources are a source of income or food (e.g. fisheries, non-timber forest produce). This is frequently a source of cumulative causation, where poverty, gender inequalities, and environmental degradation mutually reinforce each other.
Poverty and environmental degradation are also reinforced by, and linked to population growth, which in turn, depends on a complex interaction of diverse causal factors and stages of development. Stabilisation of population is a necessary condition for sustainable development. Economic growth, in its turn, bears a dichotomous relationship to environmental degradation. On the one hand, growth may result in “excessive” environmental degradation through the use of natural resources and generation of pollution aggravated by institutional failures.
If impacts on the environmental resource base are neglected, an incorrect picture is obtained from conventional monetary estimates of national income. On the other hand, economic growth permits improvement in environmental quality by making available the necessary resources for environmental investments and generating societal pressures for improved environmental behaviour, and institutional and policy change. Unsustainable consumption patterns, particularly in industrialised countries also have serious adverse impacts on the environment, both local and global. The global impacts are largely manifest in developing countries and further, accentuate poverty.
It is increasingly evident that poor environmental quality has adversely affected human health. Environmental factors are estimated as being responsible in some cases for nearly 20 percent of the burden of disease in India, and a number of environment-health factors are closely linked with dimensions of poverty (e.g. malnutrition, lack of access to clean energy and water). It has been shown that interventions such as reducing indoor air pollution, protecting sources of safe drinking water, protecting soil from contamination, improved sanitation measures, and better public health governance, offer tremendous opportunities for reducing the incidence of a number of critical health problems.
It is also evident that these environmental protection measures would be difficult to accomplish without extensive awareness raising, and education, on good practices with respect to public and private behaviour. Institutional failures, referring to unclear or insufficiently enforced rights of access to and use of, environmental resources, result in environmental degradation because third parties primarily experience impacts of such degradation, without cost to the persons responsible for the damage. Such rights, both community based and individual, are critical institutions mediating the relationships between humans and the use of the environment. Traditionally, village commons water sources, grazing grounds, local forests, fisheries, etc., have been protected by local communities from overexploitation through various norms, which may include penalties for disallowed behaviour.
These norms, may, however, be degraded through the very process of development, including urbanization, and population growth resulting from sharp reduction in mortality and also through state actions which may create conditions for strengthening of individual over communitarian rights, and in doing so allow market forces to press for change that has adverse environmental implications. If such access to the community resources under weakened norms continues, the resources would be degraded, and the livelihoods of the community would suffer. Policy failures can emerge from various sources, including the use of fiscal instruments, such as explicit and implicit subsidies for the use of various resources, which provide incentives for excessive use of natural resources. Inappropriate policy can also lead to changes in commonly managed systems, with adverse environmental outcomes.
Another major set of challenges arises from emerging global environmental challenges such as climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss. The key is to operationalize the principle of common but differentiated responsibility of countries in relation to these problems. Multilateral regimes and programmes responding to these global environmental issues must not adversely impact the development opportunities of developing countries. Further, the sharing of global natural resources must proceed only on the basis of equal sharing per-capita across all countries.