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The precipitous slide in India’s ranking on the Environmental Performance Index this year to rock bottom at 180 has triggered anger and denial by the Union government but it can provide lessons for Chennai environment protection. “Unfounded assumptions”, “surmises” and “unscientific methods” are its chosen descriptions for the report.

The EPI is compiled by Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network Earth Institute, Columbia University. Although India’s performance on the defining issue of climate change wins plaudits in many forums, mainly for expansion of solar and wind energy, there are several challenges in sustaining its growth without sacrificing environmental integrity. As the EPI 2022 puts it, India falls among the laggards when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions projected for 2050, and will be among a quartet along with China, Russia and the United States who will together represent 50% of residual greenhouse gases.

India’s climate action is caught in a crisis: of pressure to adopt low emissions technologies with the future in mind on the one hand, and existing “dirty” industries including coal lobbying for a slow transition that would help them exploit past and present investments into coming decades.

Two years ago, the national rank on the EPI stood slightly higher at 168, but in the assessment of the investigators, it has performed badly in indices such as biodiversity protection, earmarking part of its diverse ecosystems as protected areas, protecting globally uncommon biomes, improving air quality especially fine particulate matter control, and waste management.

As the EPI 2022 puts it, India falls among the laggards when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions projected for 2050

Although India does not have responsibility for historical emissions of GHGs, and complains that EPI indices do not take into account its low per capita carbon emissions, it faces the conundrum of having a high volume of absolute emissions. These globe-warming gases are having an impact around the globe, and many smaller countries do not share India’s sense of injustice because they are in a much more precarious condition today – small island states are at risk of disappearing in coming decades.

One of the arguments presented by the Union government against the latest EPI is that the scores have not given sufficient weightage to the national performance on forest cover and wetland protection. Another is that the country has already achieved 40% non-fossil fuel based power generation capacity. These arguments, however, have proved ineffective because of severe flaws.

Clumps as forests
In the case of forests, as naturalist and researcher M.D. Madhusudan pointed out on Twitter earlier this year, the India State of Forest Report which the government relies on, treats even clumps of trees in any landscape as a forest. Thus, coconut groves in Pollachi, the whole of palm-filled Lakshadweep, VIP residences in Delhi, small urban groves and invasive Prosopis stands in Kutch are all included as forest. Such loose and liberal calculations are facilitated by a stretched definition of forests, which is that any area must be treated as forest if one hectare has 10% as trees.

India also faced tough questions on its lack of transparency when it came to forest cover, when it sought funds under the UN system as payment for storing carbon in national forests. Nature Sustainability reported in 2019 that India’s greening efforts were almost entirely under cropland (82%), with a marginal input from forest cover.

On the health of wetlands, although India boasts of a large number of sites listed under the Ramsar Convention (49 at present, 75 aimed for), these water bodies are often found severely degraded. In March, the Union Minister of State Ashwini Kumar Choubey had this to say about wetlands in the Rajya Sabha: While the Central and State Governments take all possible steps for the preservation, conservation and restoration of water bodies (including lakes), developmental activities and anthropogenic pressures do affect water bodies.

The question posed by MP L. Hanumanthaiah was: whether the government maintained data on the decline of wetlands in the country. Government effectiveness is one of the criteria of the EPI and India’s score is a low 18.9 here vs 42.5 for Bhutan.

Air quality conundrum
On air quality, where India fares badly on the EPI, the government does not spell out how many actual monitoring stations are needed, preferring instead to highlight its criteria for setting up stations. Here again, Minister Choubey told the Lok Sabha earlier this year, “The ambient air quality monitoring stations in the country are established according to the population based criteria for siting air quality monitoring stations. The criteria also include available resources and site specific parameters such as size of the area to be covered, variability in pollutants concentration etc.” There are 880 monitoring locations in 378 cities.

The criteria for designing the ambient air quality monitoring network are: for a city with over 50 lakh population, four manual and 12 continuous monitoring stations are proposed. For monitoring Chennai environment, this would clearly be not enough.

For less populated cities, the number ranges between a total of four stations (small towns, cities) to eight (10 lakh to 50 lakh population). Extraordinary as this lack of ambition is – because of poorly regulated economic activity and motorisation in India – the Union government’s counter to the EPI is that lack of data and resulting uncertainty are reason enough not to grade the country low.

The criteria for designing the ambient air quality monitoring network are: for a city with over 50 lakh population, four manual and 12 continuous monitoring stations are proposed.

Chennai measures its air
Patchy measures are underway in the Chennai environment front. Tamil Nadu’s capital is measuring the quality of its air through a source apportionment study of pollutants being done by Prof. S.M. Shiva Nagendra of IIT Madras, with the goal of analysing PM 10, PM 2.5, NOx and SO2 as per national guidelines at 18 identified locations for two seasons. While some data of 2021 is available, the secondary data collection and analysis will help prepare the final report. This study for the Greater Chennai Corporation and the TN Pollution Control Board will also estimate the carrying capacity of the city.

Tamil Nadu has announced a Mission to rejuvenate 100 wetlands in five years, from among 141 prioritised by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). It can help India improve its score on several metrics, if the programmes on forest wetland protection and air quality are implemented vigorously over the next five years. Chennai environment will get a boost by receiving flood water and reducing flooding during unpredictable monsoons. But the DMK government faces a tough task reclaiming existing wetlands from encroachments and providing alternative housing for those displaced from these watersheds.

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