Over the past decade or so, more and more attention is being paid all over the world to man's environment on which human existence depends and the maintenance of which is now increasingly being considered as essential for mankind.
By environment is meant those natural things that surround us the essentials to sustain human life, such as the earth's atmosphere, healthy air and drinkable water, together with the non-essentials that help to make life sustainable, such as wild animals or wild places or human living space.
With the passage of time, mankind is realising that preserving the essential ingredients of life and the rich natural diversity of the planet is indeed worthwhile. Thus, protecting and saving the environment involves keeping Nature's gifts to mankind as much as possible, and in as good a condition as practicable.
Pollution, especially in the industrialised belt, and the ecological crisis are not wholly new or novel, though ecology is a comparatively new science. The idea behind it, preservation of natural resources is, however, almost as old as man.
Now the realisation has dawned on humanity that we have been destroying valuable resources and that there must indeed be a limit to our plans and ambitions for development, expansion and growth. Murder of the environment, which involves senseless poisoning of the earth, air and water, and destruction of forest wealth, may be described as "ecocide".
Our rivers, including the Ganga and the Yamuna, are polluted; the Himalayan ecology is seriously endangered in many ways. The consequences of such continuous and reckless use of trees and other natural resources would be disastrous. There are also the dangers from chemical pollution from radioactive wastes, and other wastes from homes, factories, hospitals and laboratories, and from other foreign matter that keeps entering the atmosphere. It is feared by experts that if the energy of the sun is hindered, if the natural processes of purification and elimination are reversed, and if the reckless destruction and pollution continue, mankind may return to the dreaded ice age.
Therefore, preservation and restoration of Nature's balance is vital and efforts are being made for that purpose, at both national and international levels.
The first systematic and international effort in this direction was made in 1972 through the UN Conference on Environment, held in Stockholm. The world's ecological mess was discussed there for several days. But by that year barely 10 nations had formulated environment protection programs; now the number is above 100.
A significant development was the charge brought by the Third World that the advanced countries (the U.S.A. and certain other countries of the West) were using the pollution problem and its dangers as an excuse for going slow in industrialising the backward and developing regions.
Some of the stark facts that are deepening the ecological crisis are: about 12,000 new chemicals are being introduced into the world annually; some deserts have been spreading and encroaching at the rate of 30 kilometers every year; some oceans are reported to be dying and the earth's protective ozone layer is being broken up by aerosols and supersonic aeroplanes.
Air, water and land are, after all, finite resources and can be largely used up. The economists, therefore, warn that these must be viewed as capital, not as sources of additional income.
Following the dawning of the realities and greater knowledge of the disaster looming ahead, there is better awareness of the need for environmental education, which millions of educated people have begun to regard as a matter of life and death. The developed and advanced countries may even be said to be "exporting" their pollution problems to the Third World by decentralising their production processes and establishing factories in other parts of the world.
Such factories are being welcomed by the poorer countries because of the employment they provide. Further proof of the growing international recognition of the importance of ecology has been provided by the adoption by the United Nations, in October, 1982, of a world Charter for nature, aimed at preserving all species existing on earth. The Charter says mankind is dependent on natural systems for energy and nutrients, and civilisation is rooted in nature. "Every form of life is unique, warrants respect, regardless of its worth to man." The Charter adds that "population levels of all life forms, wild and domesticated, must be at least sufficient for their survival, and to this end necessary habitats must be maintained.
Nature shall be secured against the degradation caused by warfare or other hostile activities military activity damaging to nature should be avoided." The Charter adds that all "governments shall co-operate in the task of conserving nature and make sure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to natural systems located within their States."
The government of India constituted a new Department of Environment on November 1, 1980, under the charge of the Prime Minister, to make an in-depth review of the administrative machinery and legislative measures for environmental protection.
The Department of Environment serves as the co-coordinating agency for activities related to environmental protection and management. The Botanical Survey of India and the Zoological Survey of India have been placed under the administrative control of the new Department. A National Committee on Environmental Planning (NCEP) has also been constituted.
Until recently, the dangers and extent of pollution in India were not realised, although certain scientists had sounded a warning that unless timely steps were taken, this country too would have to face the problems confronting the Western regions.
The rapid pace of industrialisation, the discharge of untreated waste, the effluents, the widespread neglect of environment, the ceaseless pollution through human ignorance and use of open spaces near rivers as public conveniences is resulting in the pollution of major rivers, estuaries, sea-fronts, creeks and water channels.
Then, there is the atmospheric pollution which is especially noticeable in cities like Mumbai, Calcutta, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and other industrial complexes, notably those where chemical industries have been set up and safety measures have not been enforced.
India has reached a stage when the absorptive and assimilative capacity has been overused or misused, resulting in pollution and environmental degradation. It is true that the natural environment has an enormous capacity to accept and absorb most wastes; what is discarded by one species is often used up by another. But with more industrial centers emerging in many States, and the chimneys releasing dark smoke and coal-dust into the atmosphere, and the drains getting choked with chemical and poisonous wastes, the dangers of pollution are increasing month by month.
The problem of improving the quality of the environment is basically economic. It follows the failure of the market system to allocated environmental resources efficiently. It has also to be noted that the ultimate measure of environmental quality is the value the people place on it and the extent to which they are willing to pay to maintain it.
The obvious remedies are: altering the production processes, installing anti-pollution equipment and reusing or recycling wastes. Some years ago, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry carried out a study of industrial pollution.
The findings and recommendations were useful: (a) industrial pollution must be regularly monitored and it must become an integral part of business planning; (b) there is lack of awareness concerning the dangers of pollution in the Indian-corporate sector. Pollution control is, in essence, a managerial responsibility and requires good house-keeping and appropriate preventive measures; (c) there must be legal and institutional arrangements to permit efficient and politically responsible implementation.
The trouble with the Indian administrative set up, as has been found in the area of Five-Year Plans, is that ambitious plans are drawn up, ample funds are allocated and there is much fanfare, but there is poor implementation. On the other hand, implementation of anti-pollution programms in Britain, France, Germany and the USA is effective and there is a growing awareness of the hazards of pollution.
In India, it is obviously necessary to have a national commitment for preventing pollution. For this purpose, there should be greater co-operation among the Centre and the various State Governments, business and the people in general.
Publicity in various ways needs to be carried out to inculcate the proper habits among the people and the proper industrial practices. Incentives in this regard would be a good national investment. Strict control of tree felling and destruction of foliage and greenery is also essential. Tolerance of unclean air, water and smoke must be discouraged.
The USA, in particular, is now spending billions of dollars on pollution control. The environment in that country has significantly improved. India does not have to spend as much because the extent of the menace is still within control (the country being largely agricultural), but timely measures can save much distress and hazards to health caused by the rapid pace of modernisation in urban areas.