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Vol. 6 No. 1 - Millennium Issue - January 2000

Sustainable development:

Integrating economic and ecological concerns

By: C.K. Varshney

Economic development without environmental consideration can cause serious ecological damage. Sustainable development attempts to strike a balance between the demands of the economic development and the need for the protection of the environment. It seeks to combine the elements of economic efficiency, intergenerational equity, social concerns and environmental protection. Although the term ‘sustainable development’ has many interpretations, it generally refers to non-declining human well being over time. The 1987 Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "the meeting of the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". A rapidly changing population resource equation, in the face of poverty, and lack of resources create formidable social and environmental problems at national and global levels.


The world population has doubled during the last century, climbing from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 6 billion in October 1999. The United Nations projects that human population in 2050 will range between 7.7 billion to 11.2 billion people. The mid-level projection has been pegged at 9.2 billion. Our stake in the game of numbers is very high. India, the second largest populous country, is home to over 16 percent of world’s population while accounting for only 2.42 per cent of the total world area. By the year 2025 Indian population may cross 1.4 billion. Demographic growth of such dimension creates enormous pressure on environmental resource base and ecosystems. It will cause serious socio­economic problems and will necessitate breaking from the ‘business­as-usual’ scenario.


India has a very diverse forest vegetation ranging from the most evergreen forests in the northeast, along the West Coast and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to the temperate and alpine vegetation in the Himalayas. At present, the recorded forest area is 76.52 million ha - 23.3 per cent of the total geographical area - while the actual forest cover is 63.3 million ha, - only 19.3 per cent of the total land area. These figures are greatly contrasted when compared with the National Forest Policy, 1988 stipulation of 33 per cent target area. Out of the recorded area only 11.2 per cent of the area has forest with a crown density of greater than 40%. Precise information on pristine, untouched prime forests of the country is not available but such forests have steadily declined and are estimated to be not more than 3% of the country’s land area, reflecting a qualitative decline of the forests in the country. The forest wealth is dwindling due to:

·         illicit tree felling

·         overgrazing

·         encroachments

·         unsustainable practices

·         forest fires and

·         indiscriminate siting of development projects in the forest areas.


Biodiversity, an essential component of our life support system, is a collective term that encompasses the variety of all-living organisms - plants, animals, microorganisms on the earth who act in concert in the functioning of nature and in maintaining ecological balance.

India is one of the twelve mega-diversity centres in the world with 46,000 plant and 8,000 animal species. With only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, Indian biodiversity contributes 8% of the known global biodiversity. India ranks tenth globally and fourth in Asia in plant diversity. It also ranks seventh globally for the number of species contributed to agriculture and animal husbandry while tenth in terms of number of mammalian species and eleventh of the endemic species of higher vertebrates. Our biodiversity is under increasing threat from

·         habitat loss

·         reckless over-exploitation

·         trade in wildlife products

·         poaching

·         smuggling

According to estimates over 1500 plant species, about 79 mammals, 44 birds, 15 reptiles, 3 amphibians and several insects are endangered species.

It is a fact that the world’s high biodiversity areas overlap habitats of indigenous and local communities which have built on their knowledge system of natural resource use and conservation practices through continuous use and natural selection process. It is thus clear that the conservation of biodiversity is closely tied to the protection and continued use of traditional and local community knowledge related to natural resources.

Conservation of biodiversity is generally justified on ethical, bio-ecological and economic grounds. Global concern for biodiversity found its expression at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, where a comprehensive level instrument "Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)" was agreed by governments and it came into force in December 1993. These efforts are praiseworthy but much more needs to be done to protect our biotic wealth for posterity.

Land and soil degradation

Out of the total Indian geographical area of 329 million ha, 175 million ha are considered degraded. Degradation is primarily caused through erosion by wind and water. Increased silt load leads to speedier siltation of dams and reservoir. Increased emphasis on intensive agriculture and over irrigation has resulted in water logging and salination of the fertile and irrigated areas of the country. Controlling such land/soil degradation is vital for food security, sustainable forestry, and agricultural and rural development since it affects the productive resource base of the economy.

Fresh water

As populations grow and water use per person rises, demand for fresh water soars. But the supply of fresh water is finite and threatened by pollution. Evidence of water stress can be seen, as rivers are drained dry.

In many parts of the country, polluted water, improper waste disposal, and poor water management causes serious public health problems. The Yamuna has almost no water downstream of Tejewala as all of it has been abstracted for irrigation in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Water tables are falling in every state particularly over large parts of Punjab and Haryana due to excessive abstraction for irrigation. In the coastal belt of the country over exploitation of the ground water aquifers are becoming progressively saline due to salt-water intrusion.

Access to safe drinking water, thus remains an urgent need; 85 per cent of the population in the urban areas and 79 per cent in rural areas do not have access to safe drinking water.

To meet the growing requirement for irrigation, country has made significant investment in dams. Large dams have many environmental consequences and presently they are the most controversial environmental issues in the country.

To avoid catastrophe over this in the long term, it is important to act now. We need to conserve and manage fresh water supplies in the face of growing population, increasing demand for irrigation, industry and domestic use. We have to pay serious attention to balance the supply and demand and make every effort to promote water use efficiency in every sector.


The global demand for energy has grown twice as fast as population over the last 50 years. In the next 50 years, the greatest growth in energy demand is projected to be in Asia where economic activity will be the highest. Here the consumption is expected to grow by 361%, though population will grow by just 5%. Thus by 2050, developing countries will consume a great amount of energy since their population will increase and become more affluent. As a result, pressure on energy resources from forests to fossil fuel reserves and to waterways will be significant. Increasing emphasis needs to be paid to promote energy efficiency as well as to develop renewable energy resources for promoting sustainable development.

Air pollution

Air pollution has been growing since the economic development gained momentum. Rapid industrialization, burgeoning cities and greater dependence on fossil fuels have contributed to this growing menace. Vehicular traffic is the most important source of pollution in all the mega cities. The most prevalent form of air pollution is a high level of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM). High concentration of Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and SPM occur in about 20 per cent of the cities.

Air pollution in India is worsening by the day, as many urban areas are becoming lethal gas chambers. Delhi, the capital city, is globally the fourth most polluted city. The unprecedented spurt in the number of vehicles accounts for approximately 64% of the total pollution load of Delhi. The situation in other cities and towns is equally bad.

Water pollution

The major sources of water pollution are domestic sewage, industrial effluents, agricultural and mining run-offs which contain organic pollutants, chemicals and heavy metals. The major water polluting industries include fertilizers, refineries, pulp & paper, leather, metal plating and other chemical industries.

Most of the Indian water bodies are dangerously polluted with large stretches of most of our rivers having water which is unsafe for drinking purpose. With rapid urbanisation and industrialisation huge quantities of wastewater enters rivers. A 1994 survey of groundwater quality at 138 sampling locations in 22 industrialized zones indicated that water was unfit for drinking due to high bacteriological and heavy metal contamination.

Our facilities to treat wastewater are woefully inadequate. In class I cities, only 5% of the total wastewater is collected of which only 25% is treated. More than half the cities have no sewage system. The causes of water pollution are:

·         urbanizaiton

·         industrialization

·         over withdrawal of water

·         agricultural run-off

·         public apathy

Solid waste

A growing economy and population explosion increase problems of disposal of garbage, sewage, and industrial waste. With unregulated growth of urban areas, without necessary infra-structural services, proper collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of solid waste has resulted in increased health hazards and pollution.

In India, the current per capita waste generation is very low vis-a-vis advanced countries, though the actual quantum of waste is large owing to enormous size of our population. In actual quantum, plastic waste alone has increased tremendously over the last few years.

The mode of waste disposal predominantly remains through land filling, a conventional but unhygienic method. Alternative modes like composting and other scientific approaches are sparsely used. An inadequate collection and disposal of such wastes, pollutes and degrades land and water resources besides being a health hazard.

Urban trap

Cities have always been the vanguard of development. By the year 2000, 2.2 billion people will live in the cities of the third world. Their numbers are expected to double by the year 2025. It is estimated that a generation from now, half the human population will live in cities.

The population in Indian cities is growing at twice the rate of the average growth of the country’s population. India may be a rural country but it has one of the world’s largest urban populations. The state of cities and towns is abysmal, and is worsening at a rapid pace. Most basic services like clean drinking water, sanitation, solid waste disposal, transport and health facilities are crumbling under increasing population pressure besides inadequate housing.

We should strive to make cities and towns a better place through good governance, involving local people in decision-making, paying attention to the environmental hazards caused by congestion and improving the safety standards.

Climate change

Over the last half century, carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning expanded at nearly twice the rate of population growth, boosting atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, by 30% over preindustrial levels. Fossil fuel use accounts for roughly 3/4th of world carbon emissions. Annual emission of carbon dioxide from industrial countries is currently twice as high as from developing ones. Emissions from developing countries will nearly quadruple over the next half century, while those from industrial nations will increase by 30%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In spite of the Climate Change Convention adopted at the Rio in 1992, the global carbon dioxide emission has been rising steadily. This is in sharp contrast with the Montreal Protocol, which has received considerable success in cutting down the emission of CFCs and other ozone destroying substances.

Cultural dimension

Crucial but often overlooked, factors in sustainable development are the social and cultural aspects, ethical values, beliefs, and the institutional development within socio-cultural systems to meet human needs.

The world commission on Environmental and Sustainable Development (1987), has recognized this problem by stating "it is terrible irony that as formal development reaches more deeply into rain forests, deserts, and the traditional societies, it tends to destroy the only cultures that have proved able to thrive in these environments".

The cultural diversity must be preserved and stakeholders’ participation in resource management must be encouraged. The concept of sustainable development may itself be seen as an expression of this new awareness. Our greatest need at the present time is perhaps for a global ethic - transcending all other systems of allegiance and beliefs - rooted in a consciousness of inter-relatedness and sanctity of all life.

Professor C.K Varshney is the National Academic Director, LEAD-INDIA, Centre for Research on Environment, Ecology and Development (CREED), 3rd Floor, J. P. House 118, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi - 110049 (India).

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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