The time is right for India to take action!

By Suresh Kotla
January 13, 2015

Editor’s note: this post is a reflection by Suresh Kotla, ISC’s Director for Sustainable Manufacturing in India.

I started working with the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) in January 2014, and have been engaged in work that has been inspiring and fulfilling. It’s great to work with a team of champions that look at the world as one nation. There are very few organizations that are doing the work ISC has been doing, and plans to do, in South Asia. What impresses me the most is the humility found in the ISC way. ISC doesn’t claim to have or offer solutions to issues but believes in building the capacities of the local communities by training and mentoring – so they can find their own solutions that are relevant and possible now.

India is one of the world’s largest and most vibrant democracies. With an average GDP growth rate in the last decade of 7%, the Indian economy is growing far more rapidly than the now developed nations grew in the 19th century. Major Indian cities are becoming more and more stressed as a result of the accelerated pace of urbanization – which means greater strain on natural resources and increased emissions.

My work is focused on India’s industrial landscape, and I meet regularly with environment, health, and safety (EHS) managers, sustainability professionals, and compliance managers. Industrial EHS practices are restricted to compliance, though there is a growing awareness of green and sustainable growth. More and more companies are asking how to achieve green growth without negative impacts on profits.

I think the question we need to be asking is this: “While we grow as an economy, are we being responsible enough towards our planet and its people?”

Why should we ask this question? In the last few decades, India has faced some incredibly severe disasters – both man-made and natural. We must increase our ability to foresee, prevent and handle these challenges, even as we seek to grow our economy and reduce poverty.

Thirty years ago, the Bhopal gas tragedy took place in the late night hours of December 2-3, 1984 in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant. This event is classified as the world’s worst industrial catastrophe and environmental disaster.

Methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals leaked from the plant, exposing several thousand people to highly toxic chemicals. The cause of the leak was water entering a tank containing 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, creating an exothermic reaction which increased the temperature inside the tank to over 200 degrees Centigrade, (392 F), and raised pressure inside the tank. Toxic gases were vented into the atmosphere, and ultimately blown by north-westerly winds over Bhopal. Death toll estimates vary, but the government of Madhya Pradesh has officially confirmed 3,787 deaths, and over 550,000 injuries have been traced to the gas leak.

In June 2013, a multi-day cloudburst centered on the North Indian state of Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides – the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Over 95% of the casualties occurred in Uttarakhand – more than 5,700 people were “presumed dead,” including 934 local residents. Destruction of bridges and roads left about 100,000 pilgrims and tourists trapped in the valleys leading to three of the four Hindu pilgrimage sites. The case can be made that human activity increased the disaster potential of the Himalayan floods.

And this September, flash floods in Kashmir were triggered by very heavy rainfall and cloudbursts. The flooding, the worst in 60 years, killed hundreds and stranded tens of thousands.

Climate scientists have been warning that higher frequency and amplitude of the untimely and high intensity rainfall events that triggered the Uttarakhand and Kashmir disaster are likely consequences of climate change.

Whether we are facing industrial accidents or unprecedented rainfall, these disasters-in-waiting can be avoided if we have a mitigation strategy and plan. There has to be a sense of urgency in us to shoulder the responsibility of reducing the anthropogenic factors leading to such disasters. In my next blog post, I will review some of the solutions that are possible now, and must be pursued.