2016 has been an overwhelming year for India. This year the country witnessed extreme climatic events and weather patterns. Apart from record-breaking summer temperatures, parts of North, Central and West India faced droughts while some regions in North and South India were forced to tackle floods and cyclones.
The national capital, New Delhi, was under attention for its growing air pollution levels which was exposed in the international arena by the World Health Organisation. From experimenting with the odd-even formula to proposing some shortsighted and unsustainable policy interventions, New Delhi was constantly facing environmental and health concerns amid public backlash till the last month of 2016.
Surprisingly 2016 saw a huge outcry, altercations, and conflict when it came to inter-state water sharing. The Cauvery Water Dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu along with the Ravi-Beas Water Dispute between Punjab and Haryana were the major highlights of 2016. These dramatic events have scripted a grim picture of dwindling cooperation and trust deficit within the riparian states. Water experts are predicting that disputes over domestic as well as transboundary water sharing are likely to gain intensity in the coming decade due to growing water scarcity, inefficient dispute resolving institutions and personal political agendas.
This year the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) drafted the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031). It also floated out another draft to implement the controversial Environment Supplement Plan (ESP). Both these drafts were open for public comments and suggestions, a positive step taken by the ministry in promoting policy inclusiveness.
On June 5, India celebrated the World Environment Day with the theme “Zero Tolerance for the Illegal Wildlife trade”. Even though trade in over 1800 species of wild animals, plants and their derivative is prohibited under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 but this year the country was expecting implementation of a separate act on illegal wildlife trade with stricter laws and penalties for legal infringements.
Another highlight of 2016 has been the ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement by the 55 countries that account for 55 percent of global emissions. Previously India was skeptical to ratify the agreement and was linking its support as a strategic key to get admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The failure to get NSG membership did raise doubts about acceptance, nevertheless India ratified this agreement on 2nd October 2016.
Extreme Weather Patterns due to Climate Change
Throughout 2016 seasonal variations, drastic weather pattern caused havoc in different parts of India. The World Metrological Department is likely to record 2016 as the hottest year in the history of mankind with global mean temperature at 1.2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In India, parts of Rajasthan broke the record of highest temperature crossing 50 degree Celsius, while other regions of Orissa, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh recorded a high temperature ranging between 40-46 degree Celsius. Due to heat waves, around 2422 people died in 2015 while hundreds died in 2016 (official numbers for 2016 are yet to be published).
Temperature rise was followed by droughts conditions affecting more than 330 million people in more than 2.5 lakh villages of 266 districts from 11 states in India. Among the worst affected was the Latur district in Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Due to drying up of Manjara river and biased water allocation for sugarcane cultivation, around 4.5 million people were severely affected by water scarcity. This year due to crop failure amid water crisis more than 270 farmers ended their life in Marathwada region.
During the monsoon season, Assam faced 60 percent more rain than 2015 resulting in massive floods in the Brahmaputra basin. The floods affected around 1.8 million people, displaced more than two lakh people with 34 fatalities, affected wildlife in Khaziranga National Park and destroyed more than 2 lakh hectares of crops, specifically tea plantations. Similar flood situations were faced in the lower Ganges basin of Bihar affecting 3.753 million people and causing 228 fatalities. The state witnessed huge crop loss mostly maize cultivation in the Seemanchal region.
2016 was a paradoxical year for Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Tamil Nadu (TN) due to simultaneous events of droughts and floods. 50 districts were drought hit in April while the July 2016 floods affected 870000 people in the six districts of UP. Over 30,000 hectares of sown crops was affected in UP’s 12 districts resulting in an estimated loss of crop of over Rs 121.6 million. Very recently in December, Tamil Nadu faced the brunt of cyclone Vardah resulting in economic and agricultural losses upto AED 3.67 billion.
Overall, in 2016 entire India faced the repercussions of extreme weather events due to climate change. July, August 2016 floods in Assam and Bihar alongside April drought in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (resulting in huge crop failure, economic loss, human displacement and fatalities) highlighted the country’s poor water governance mechanisms, less developed disaster management preparedness and early warning systems and institutional failure to promote cropping pattern as per the agro-climatic region. It also alarmed the government on finding and investing in long-term sustainable solutions in the science of monsoons along with effective implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Intoxicating Levels of Air Pollution in New Delhi
2016 has been the worst year with regards to air pollution levels in Delhi. This year Delhi was ranked as the 11th worst polluted city in the world, with an annual average Particulate Matter (PM2.5) measurement of 122. Due to deteriorating levels of air pollution, the government introduced two rounds of the odd-even formula (January 1-15 and April 15-30) to reduce vehicular emissions but the policy intervention did no good. Research agencies noted that PM2.5 is the main constituent of air pollution in Delhi apart from PM 10, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. Since vehicular emissions are predominantly comprised of carbon monoxide, banning of vehicles as per odd-even formula did not tackle pollution from PM2.5 and only helped in reducing the traffic congestion. The government was criticized for the failure of the policy intervention.
Post-2016 Diwali, New Delhi along with parts of UP and Bihar recorded PM 2.5 levels over 500 µg/m³ falling in the severe category of India’s Ambient Air Quality Index. Also, this winter season on 2nd November Delhi faced its worst smog situation in the last 17 years as a combined consequence of industrial pollution, vehicular pollution, crackers pollution, fossil-fuel burning, dust, outdoor waste burning and biomass burning in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana. As a result, the capital is still engulfed with respiratory and cardiac ailments. As per the records of Centre for Science and Environment air pollution is responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 deaths annually in Delhi as it is the fifth leading cause of death in India.
Taking lessons from 2016 events, Delhi as well as the Central government has to implement long-term sustainable solutions in combating air pollution. This requires monitoring air quality of different sectors (energy, industrial, vehicular, biomass and solid waste) in lieu with the National Ambient Air Quality Index.
Exacerbating Inter-State Water Sharing Disputes
Even though several states in India have an ongoing water-sharing dispute but in 2016 the country saw widespread violence and anguish over the decisions of Supreme Court. This September protests took an ugly turn when the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15 thousand million cubic meters (TMC) of water per day to Tamil Nadu for 10 days starting from 13th September. Owing to deficient southwest monsoon Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were not able to meet the water requirements for its respective agriculture and urban sector.
Consequently, when Karnataka was unable to release the agreed-upon Cauvery river water to Tamil Nadu, the latter approached the Supreme Court. Karnataka strongly criticized the courts interim order which resulted in violent protests in the State. As per the Assocham statistics, Karnataka suffered an estimated loss of around Rs 22,000-25,000 crore due to widespread damage to vital urban infrastructure, interruption in the transport including, roads, rail and air and inability of the workforce to safely move to and from offices and factories.
Another dispute which cropped up in 2016 after 10 years of hibernation is the Ravi-Beas water sharing dispute between Punjab and Haryana. As per the 1981 agreement Haryana is entitled to 3.5 million acre feet of the rivers’ water share apart from respective shares to Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir. This required construction of the Satluj-Yamuna link canal to divert the water from Punjab to Haryana. But till date the canal has not been constructed and Punjab wants to transfer the acquired land back to the farmers. In 2004 and now in 2016 Haryana approached the Supreme Court to intervene.
In 2004 the ruling Punjab government passed Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and nullified its obligations under the original water-sharing pact. But this year on 10th November the court gave its final verdict by invalidating the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and directing the Central Government for expeditious completion of the canal. The court’s decision led political upheaval throughout Punjab resulting in the resignation of Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh.
In the wake of growing water scarcity, dormant inter-state water sharing disputes are likely to get active and spillover throughout India. Analyzing the 2016 events, the government should understand the pertinence of implementing policies that promote water saving in the agrarian, industrial, urban and household sectors.
MoEFCC Policy Drafts Scrutinized and Criticized
This year apart from drafting the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31), the ministry also made public a draft notification called the Environment Supplement Plan (ESP) on 10th May. The aim of this plan is to validate the operations of on-going large infrastructural projects that have not obtained clearance through the process of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). ESP would allow violator companies to continue their activities by paying a financial penalty. This would then be invested in an "environmentally beneficial project or activity" for an affected target group of stakeholders.
Since this plan nullifies the basic premise of an EIA, experts and even the general public mostly criticized its implementation and urged the ministry to withdraw its approval.
India Supports Implementation of the Paris Agreement
Amongst the ongoing fanfare of global support for combating climate change, India made a crucial decision to ratify the Paris Climate Change Agreement on the 2nd of October. This agreement came into force on 4th November 2016. This was one of the positive highlights of 2016 which supports environmental protection and time bound achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Over this year India had a skeptical stand on supporting the Paris Agreement and used the rhetoric of its incapacities to overhaul its domestic policies in lieu with the international agreement. Internal and external strategists sensed India’s motive as a strategic key to get admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But China’s opposition made India loose the bid to enter NSG. Nonetheless, India did ratify this agreement which signals its active participation in and support for the implementation of a finely balanced and hard-won international agreement to address climate change.
As per the legal obligations under the Paris Agreement, India is required to contribution pledges (every five years) to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% from 2005 levels by 2030, increase the share of non fossil fuel based electricity to 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity, and to significantly increase its forest and tree cover.