The pandemic shows how sensitive the environment and the ecosystem surrounding us is. India needs to focus on a green recovery now
Recently, in a span of two days, India lost two brilliant actors, both to cancer. One had a rare variation of it, while the other succumbed to the more common leukaemia. The use of the word ‘common’ is not to undermine, but, rather the opposite, to emphasise that cancer is so commonplace.
Take a good look, and how many families are there which do not have a cancer patient or survivor among relatives? The problem is massive and is not being highlighted enough. There’s a problem in our midst and it’s linked to the same reasons that created the current pandemic that has us locked up in our homes. It’s our lack of concern for the environment at different levels that has led to things going south.
The World Health Organization’s estimate that one is 10 Indians will develop the disease is not far off the mark. The National Cancer Registry Programme plans to map cancer cases in India, but is struggling with gathering data, because cancer is not a notifiable disease. Which means it’s not mandatory to report the disease. This means the data is incomplete, leading to misreporting. For instance, Kerala was seen as having the highest cancer cases in one of the largest studies done on the subject. However, this could be because the state has a better rate of reporting.
For instance, major studies have arrived at the conclusion that about 40 percent of malignancies are tobacco-related. That is being increasingly challenged with new data that point to the fact that three out of 10 lung cancer patients are non-smokers. What is killing them is the severe pollution, both outside and inside the house. The severity of air pollution in major cities is now a confirmed fact, with six of the world's 10 most-polluted cities in India. On an average, it exceeds the WHO standards by about 500 percent, with Delhi being the most-polluted capital in the world. Lung cancer is now being called an 'epidemic' by doctors — this at a time when the number of smokers have gone down.
Dark Waters And Toxic Veggies
Thanks to government policy, everyone now knows that smoking is dangerous—but what about the hidden carcinogens? There is a popular perception that vegetarianism is better than non-vegetarianism. This might be true from an environmental point of view but are the vegetables we consume safe? A study by the National Environmental Engineering Institute (NEERI) found high levels of mercury, cadmium, lead and nickel in vegetables grown with water from the Yamuna.
The World Bank estimates that 70 percent of India’s surface water as contaminated, and the environmental costs — in terms of loss of food production included — is about Rs 3.7 trillion a year. This in turn, has led to a frantic digging of wells, and its overuse leading to the hugely threatening arsenic pollution.
In the past there was the practice of encouraging farmers to use untreated sewage and industrial waste water to double production. That this was at a massive cost is now apparent. The extent of contaminated food has earned the title of being a 'toxic time bomb’. Metals included among the top 20 most-dangerous substances by the United States Environmental Protection Agency are now part of the soil. This affects both animals and humans.
Scientific studies and research papers indicate the strong linkages between mega cities, contaminated water, and zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19. Of course, cancer as well; that’s a given. Even though the health hazard is so widespread it is surprising that apart from the NEERI paper, research on the actual contamination of the vegetables that we buy from the neighbourhood grocer is rare.
The Disaster Loop
Recent governments are paying more attention to air pollution following a public outcry and strong media focus. For example, in an effort to clean up the Ganga, Rs 20,000 crore has been allocated over the last five years under the Namami Gange project. The core problem is a deliberately weak environmental enforcement capability, and an environmental ministry that sees virtue in the fact that it has cleared massive projects in 11 states during the lockdown.
Indications are that the government will move further down this road as it tries to woo business away from an even more environmentally-indifferent China. It is entirely understandable that governments will look to rapidly increase economic growth after a severe shock of a shut down, but given that the shutdown itself happened due to environmental degradation, it seems to be caught in a ‘disaster loop’.
It’s time to put the brakes on hard, as Germany and Italy have done. Despite being far more severely hit, both countries are focusing on 'green recovery' packages, with reduced air pollution plans already in place. There are ways for government to both increase growth and clean up the earth, with the full knowledge that taking pollution head on will increase GDP.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) needs vastly more powers, and more research needs to be done on the contamination of food. Recent studies show that this is not a problem that hits only the poor, the rich and famous are equally vulnerable.Tara Kartha is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.