By Meghna Tare
Stories are how we humans arrange and recount our experiences of the world so that others will want to listen and learn and from them. They allow us to create order out of the chaotic experiences of our senses. People who tell and believe in the same stories hold the same values and share a worldview from their lens. A good story is therefore a fundamental ingredient in allowing humans to create a sense of us: shared stories, shared values, shared worldview -- us.
W.S. Merwin, the poet and naturalist, reminds us that we as humans have one story, and only one story to tell in our life, and that “When there is no story, that will be our story. When there is no forest that will be our forest." Our lives as humans on this planet earth will have no meaning and story to tell unless we feel in our passing that we were able to serve the nature and humanity that gave us breath, water, soil and soul!
History and story of mankind has proved time and again that certain issues with respect to the environment must rest on the fundamental principle of valuing human rights and human life in order to change our systems and practices, so that we become improved and better nation and planet.
Every nation has an environmental story to tell! Love Canal, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Minamata disease, Exxon Valdez oil spill -- all of these stories tell of human failure to protect life and environment. India is no different.
Air pollution, poor management of waste, growing water scarcity, falling groundwater tables, lack of electricity, shortage of natural resources, water pollution, preservation and quality of forests, biodiversity loss, and land/soil degradation are some of the major environmental issues India faces today. According to data collection and environment assessment studies of World Bank experts, between 1995 through 2010, India has achieved progress in addressing its environmental issues and improving its environmental quality. Still, India has a long way to go to reach environmental quality similar to those enjoyed in developed economies. Pollution remains a major challenge and opportunity for India.
Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, is a hub for information technology companies. It is also the aviation capital of India, accounts for more than 65 percent aerospace business, headquarters some of the largest public-sector heavy industries, and is a proposed destination for the automotive industry. It also ranks second in the list of most polluted cities in India. Once known as the City of a Thousand Lakes, it is now labeled as “a land of a thousand sewage tanks."
The Bellandur Lake southeast of Bangalore is so polluted that in May 2015, it caught fire. Bellandur lies near the southern end of the chain of lakes and receives more than 130 million gallons per day of untreated or partially treated sewage from homes and industries across the city, far more than it can filter naturally. This wastewater contains detergents high in phosphorous, used by Indian manufacturers to soften hard water. That also contributes to the foam. The United States began restricting the use of phosphates in detergents in the 1970s after finding they were killing off aquatic life in the Great Lakes, but India has no such regulations.
Increased entry of untreated sewage water into the lake bed resulted in an unaerobic condition (absence of oxygen). When oxygen is cut off, toxic and combustible gases develop over the surface of water which is covered with froth. The flammable foam rose to 12 feet due to rain, and spilled onto the banks of the lake, destroying nearby wetlands and causing allergic reactions in some residents in the area. Officials of the Karnataka Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) suggested that all wetlands surrounding the lake that act as natural purifiers have been destroyed, and this has complicated the situation.
Industries have mushroomed in the area with no controls or regulations. State and municipal agencies that share responsibility for the lakes have not identified the polluters, instead blaming one another as the fires made national headlines. The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board threatened to file suit against the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewage Board for failing to stop the contamination. The sewage board in turn claims that it is KSPCB’s responsibility to find and cite those responsible for the illegal dumping. The sewage board has asked for $156 million to set up new treatment plants on Bellandur and Varthur lakes. However, the local authorities are deep in debt and cannot afford to support this financially.
Discharge of untreated sewage is the single most important cause for pollution of surface and ground water in India, where there is a large gap between generation and treatment of domestic waste water. The problem is not only that India lacks sufficient treatment capacity, but also that the sewage treatment plants that exist do not operate and are not maintained. The majority of the government-owned sewage treatment plants face closure due to inefficiency, improper design, poor maintenance and lack of reliable electricity supply to operate the plants, together with absentee employees and poor management. The waste water generated in these areas percolates in the soil or evaporates. The uncollected wastes accumulate in the urban areas cause unhygienic conditions and release pollutants that leach to surface and groundwater.
If history has taught us anything, it is that pollution’s destructive nature is not only prevalent in developing nations. In the U.S., the Cuyahoga River in Ohio famously caught fire in the late 1960s. Sewage from the city was pumped into the river, resulting in a brown color and common oil slicks. The water became sludge, and all the fish died as a result. The Cuyahoga River fire was the catalyst for the start of the environmental movement in the U.S in the 1960s. It resulted in the Clean Water Act (1972), the Great Lakes Water Agreement, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Similarly, in the wake of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the government of India enacted the Environment Protection Act of 1986 under Article 253 of the Constitution. Passed in March 1986, it came into force on Nov. 19, 1986. The purpose of the act is to implement the decisions of the United Nations Conference as it relates to the protection and improvement of the human environment and the prevention of hazards to human beings, other living creatures, plants and property. The act is an “umbrella” legislation designed to provide a framework for central government coordination of the activities of various central and state authorities established under laws, such as the Water Act and the Air Act.
Similarly, environmental protection and compliance in a country like India will be successfully implemented and monitored if the basic needs and demands of human life are met first. Sustainable development and environmental protection rest on the fact that everyone has access to clean sanitation, potable drinking water and electricity, and then compliance with the Environmental Protection Law follows naturally.
Everything is part of the puzzle, and applying linear thinking strategy toward sustainable development and environmental protection for a developing country like India is not very effective. As the world adopts the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) presented by the 193-member United Nations General Assembly, developing countries like India need to go back to the design board and start from the basics, think about the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and design a plan and framework that helps them get there -- keeping in mind that all the environmental issues that India is facing is part of a larger system. Everything else will follow slowly and gradually.
In the words of Peter Senge, the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, a faculty member at MIT Sloan School of Management, and the author of "The Fifth Discipline": “To make progress on environmental issues, organizations must first understand that they’re part of a larger system."
Image credit: Flickr/Ashwin Kumar
Meghna is the Executive Director, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington where she works collaboratively with faculty, staff, the student body, and community members to address opportunities to promote sustainability in greening facility operations, promoting innovative research, and supporting and encouraging student initiatives. She recommends policies and strategies to advance the university’s commitment to sustainability. She is a TEDx UTA speaker, graduated with an MBA in Sustainable Management, was featured as Women in CSR by TriplePundit,, and is an active blogger. She has a sunny and positive attitude about life and all of its adventures, and is a relentless optimist who enjoys building strong relationships and partnerships. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter @meghnatare or visit her website.