India’s environmental regulations are of world standard, but their enforcement is very weak


By V Santhakumar*

A major part of my early academic career was used to study issues of environment and sustainable development. I could not devote much time to these issues after joining Azim Premji Foundation in 2011, due to the involvement in studies on education and development, in general. However, the resumption of teaching `environment and sustainable development’ at the Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum) encourages me to have a relook at the status of environment in India.

What I write below is a set of impressions on the achievements (and persisting failures) of India in terms of protecting its environment and natural resources and probable reasons for the state of affairs.


My impression is that the degradation of the remaining patches of natural forest has declined in India. I am not taking the data on the increase in the area under forests that seriously, since this increase may be in terms of the area under trees (and it may not qualify to be called natural forests). Despite this apprehension, my impression is that forest departments in different states are currently in a better position to reduce deforestation. This is an achievement in terms of environmental protection.

What is behind this achievement? No doubt, the enhanced awareness on the importance of conserving forests within the government, especially among forest officers, and in the country as a whole has contributed to it. However there could be other enabling factors. Most of the forest is owned by the government (and it is a colonial legacy). One major group of people who have been using forests in India for their livelihood (the Scheduled Tribes) are the least powerful section of Indian society, and hence their needs, rights and demands could be neglected. Even when certain rights of them are recognised under the so called Forest Rights Act, these are not implemented or enforced seriously.

Hence, with the state ownership of forests (or a de-facto ownership of the forest department), and the feeble power of a major stakeholder (tribal population), forest officials could use a top-down approach to protect forests when their own incentives have changed. The current tendency is to declare as many areas as wildlife sanctuaries (by keeping forest-dependent population as much out as possible) whether it is needed for the preservation of the targeted species or not. Though the protection of forests is desirable, it is achieved by imposing a higher cost on a section of Indian society. Hence my argument is that the political economy driven by the powerlessness of a social group has enabled the protection of forests.  In the next part of this essay, we may see other cases, wherein the political economy driven by powerful sections, leading to failures in protecting other aspects of environment in the country.

There is another `achievement’ in my view. Though India’s economy has grown at above 5 percent for the last 30 years, one cannot observe a comparable increase in industrial pollution in the country. (I am comparing the current situation with the pollution that would have occurred in a developing country which experiences such an economic growth for such a long period). In that sense, India may be a little better than China. What could be the reason for this? Is it due to the better enforcement of environmental laws during the last 2-3 decades?

There is another answer to this question. India’s economic growth has been driven by developments in service sector, and its performance in industrial sector (especially manufacturing) is not that commendable. This poor performance in industrial or manufacturing sector is not due to environmental laws but due to a set of factors that work against India’s competitiveness in this regard. In that sense, the unbalanced economic growth of India (with an overcrowded agriculture, stagnant industrial sector and a booming service sector), which has negative implications for the employment, structural transformation of the economy, distribution of income and human development, may have moderated the growth of industrial pollution. Here too the (not so desirable) connection between under-development and environmental performance is evident.

One can see an influence of political economy in the adoption and enforcement of policies aimed at environmental protection too. It has been relatively easy to impose a transition to CNG in Delhi, but that may not be the case in Mumbai or Kolkata. The nature of local economy, the constellation of powerful forces and their role in policy-making and implementation may explain this difference.

There are also other areas which have experienced some improvement. The share of households using cleaner fuel for cooking has increased and that may have reduced the indoor-pollution in their houses. There is an increase in investments for public transport (like metro-rails in different cities). Though these may not have led to a significant reduction in urban pollution and congestion, these are important steps in the right direction. The resources available with the central and state governments as part of the economic growth may have enabled these investments.

 Persistent failures

Though many environmental activists may not see it as an issue, I see the continuation of open defecation as a major environmental problem confronting India. This is not only due to its direct impacts: water pollution, water-borne diseases, worm-infestation and the consequent reduction in nutritional intake, persistence of mal-nourishment, and its impact on cognitive development and learning achievements of children. It also contributes to the pollution of water bodies. It is known that the poverty is not the main reason for the continuation of the practice of open defecation in India.

Though there are sections of Indian society who use toilets, there is no sewage treatment. The untreated sewage from households and other establishments reach water bodies. This is the major source of water pollution in cities like Bangalore. A significant part of the pollution in rivers like Ganga originates from households and commercial establishments and not only from industrial units. Most of those water bodies located in/near, or flowing through, population settlements are polluted severely. There are no serious checks to reduce pollution from agriculture. Excessive fertilisers and pesticides reach water resources.

In general, urban environment in India continues to be badly polluted. Needless to mention the air pollution caused by motor vehicles and health costs associated with it. This is visible not only in big or metropolitan cities but also in smaller ones and towns. Probably, the dust and other suspended matter are higher in the atmosphere of smaller cities and towns. Solid-waste disposal continues to be an intractable problem all over India.  If we reckon certain other issues like noise pollution, it is hardly recognised as a problem in India.

Are different governments capable to control these sources of pollution? These require changes in the behaviour of people, and investments in households and commercial establishments and also by governments. The people involved here are part of the mainstream society deciding the outcome of elections and the fate of political parties, and the enforcement of environmental regulations is not that easy in these cases.

One can see two trends in the enforcement of environmental regulations in the country. It is relatively easy for the state to act against one or a few industrial polluters (though there could be issues of corruption and delays here).  On the other hand, enforcement is very lax against the pollution created by the multitude of households and small establishments. This is the reflection of the changed political economy.

Though India has made internationally comparable environmental regulations, it is known that their enforcement is very weak. There is action on the part of enforcement agencies only when some concerned people approach courts through public-interest litigations or take other public actions. The enforcement is near absent in other localities and contexts.

It is telling us the connection between environmental protection and human development. Those who demand the enforcement of environmental regulations are those who are aware of, and concerned about, but are also those who are likely to be part of a socioeconomic group. Such a demand is visible more among sections of the middle-class in cities or in places where there has been an improvement in human development. I am not underestimating the role of poorer sections of society as in the case of chipko movement or in the struggles against mining companies. Some of these are led by middle-class activists. In those cases, where marginalised social groups resist a project for its negative impact on environment, powerful lobbies may bulldoze the resistance.

Environmental activists in India have not recognised adequately the connection between environmental management and human development. This may be due to the tendency among some of them to see all development interventions as harmful. Their opposition to economic growth as the sole metric of development is genuine; but this opposition, if extended, to an inclusive human development, could be counter-productive.

This is not to argue that people would become environment-friendly as and when they undergo the process of human development. They should be ready to pursue ways to be happier, say by leading a meaningful and joyful life, that do not require a substantial increase in consumption which needs the excessive use of natural resources. Better-off sections of society may have to get out of status-oriented consumption. All these may require deep awareness, openness, and a new enlightenment on the part of individuals and an appropriate reorientation of institutions and norms in society. However such a `super-structure’ cannot be built on an underdeveloped society.

I see a social rationale in my focus on issues of environment while working in Kerala, and the shift to the issues of education and development as part of my work in Azim Premji Foundation.

*Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangaluru. Source:


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