India’s pandemic generation: Inching closer to ecological disasters

Environmental crisis leading to more vulnerabilities among the marginalised communities. (Image: Pixabay)
Environmental crisis leading to more vulnerabilities among the marginalised communities. (Image: Pixabay)

India is all set to usher in a ‘pandemic generation’, with 375 million children (from newborns to 14-year-olds) likely to suffer long-lasting impacts, as per the State of Environment Report, 2021. These impacts could range from being underweight, stunting and increased child mortality, to losses in education and work productivity, according to the report released recently by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

The hidden victims of the COVID-19 pandemic comprise over 500 million children forced out of school globally. India accounts for more than half of them. “Covid-19 has made the world’s poor poorer. About 115 million additional people might get pushed into extreme poverty by the pandemic and most of them live in South Asia,” the report said.

The report released at an online event recently stressed how the degradation of systems has led to the emergence and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. The world will face pandemics like the current one more frequently. It added that the adult generation of 2040 would be stunted with lower human capital and that it would be the toughest developmental challenge for the world due to the impact of the pandemic.

99.9% of the potent zoonotic viruses exist in the human environment, yet the world is negligent towards its source and possible aftermath. A staggering 114 million people got infected by COVID-19, a virus that knows no bounds, no boundaries. Many more probable pandemics may be on the way if we keep destabilising our environment.

“The time has now come to investigate what the pandemic is going to leave behind for us in the longer term - a lost generation, scarred by ill-health, malnourishment, acute poverty and a debilitating break in educational accomplishments,” said CSE director general Sunita Narain.

Ranked 117 among 192 nations in terms of sustainable development measures based on 17 sustainable goals, India is now behind all South Asian nations except Pakistan. This prompts us to ask if our efforts were enough. India ranked 86th in the COVID-19 performance index, the worst perfomer in South Asia. Sri Lanka was the best faring nation in South Asia, ranking 10. Maldives was at 25, Pakistan at 69, Nepal at 70, and Bangladesh at 84.

“The pandemic has demonstrated another brutal reality: A crisis’ impacts trickle faster to the poor. It is estimated that 12,000 more people would die every day due to hunger extended by the pandemic,” the report said.

The report deals with 14 chapters ranging and integrating the pandemic to sustainable development goals to poverty.

Most states performance as regards pollution poor

The report points to data that clearly indicate a lack of action over the years to control and reduce pollution even in areas that were already identified as ‘critically’ or ‘severely’ polluted. India’s air, water and land have become more polluted between 2009 and 2018.

Of 88 major industrial clusters in the country, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, 35 showed overall environmental degradation, 33 pointed to worsening air quality, 45 had more polluted water and in 17, land pollution became worse. Tarapur in Maharashtra emerged as the most polluted cluster. Sixty-seven million Indians died due to air pollution in 2019. The economic cost was over $36,000 million, equivalent to 1.36 per cent of the country’s GDP.

As per the report: “Deforestation for large-scale industrial animal husbandry is thus tantamount to inviting these viruses into our future. Most electronic devices are made from materials extracted from mines of metals and minerals, such as copper, nickel, silver and cobalt. Most of these mines are in old forests, which have to be cleared and habitats destroyed to start mining there. That’s how we end up bringing viruses closer to us.”

Forestland diversion continued unabated in the country. Over11,000 hectares were diverted in 22 states in 2019. Eight coal projects granted clearance in ‘no-go’ areas would divert 19,614 hectares of forestland, fell over 1 million trees, and evict over 10,000 families.

The report discusses the environmental clearance process in the country. “Currently, these committees are not responsible to ensure the projects cleared do not have a serious environmental impact. They delay clearances by repeatedly asking for information, or they clear with a list of conditions, knowing the conditions will not be monitored, or may not even be feasible.”

The report has an extensive chapter on biodiversity where it depicts the losses in terms of flora and fauna. It points to two signs of upcoming extinction: loss in the population of a species and continuous shrinking of habitats. These two signs are evident among all species currently.

The report highlights how the ongoing climate crisis is creating newer vulnerabilities at the cost of the marginalised communities. As per the report “Livelihoods of many workers depend on industrialisation. Their course is restricted use of resources and revival of natural ecosystems. This would mean using resources responsibly and restoring areas back to their original glory after extraction has ended. Urbanisation is increasing and biodiversity diminishing.”

The report highlights the ethics of landscape conservation, agroecological systems of food production and of controlled fire interventions, among several other methods, as the way forward. It lays special emphasis on the involvement of the indigenous communities to ensure planetary justice.