Impact of rapid urbanization on the environment of India

By Riya Jain & Abhinash on November 20, 2019

Before 1991 the economy of India was highly dependent on the agricultural sector. Later with the opening of the economy in 1991, the contribution of the service sector to GDP increased leading to rapid urbanization. The service sector consists of activities like trade, transportation, hospitality, education, communication, health, entertainment and public services (Gautam & Singh, 2008; Pais, 2014). The below figure shows the contribution of the service sector to the GDP of India since the 1960s. The contribution of the service sector increased from 32.25% to 49.01% in 2018.

Figure 1: Contribution of the service sector to GDP of India from the 1960s to 2018 (Source: World Bank Data)

The progress of the service sector improved employment, education, arts and healthcare facilities that gave rise to many new big cities in India. A better quality of life in the cities attracted many new migrants from rural areas which led to big migrations after 1991 (Clemente, 2015). The migration of people increased the population density of the urban cities. The below figure depicts the rapid urbanization in India from around 80 million in the 1960s to 223 million in 1990s to 460 million in 2018.

Rapid urbanization due to migration in India (Source: World Bank Data)
Figure 2: Rapid urbanization due to migration in India (Source: World Bank Data)

Urbanization is an index that represents the movement of traditional rural population to the modern urban cities. The exponential growth of urban population puts pressure on the demand for:

  • housing,
  • transportation,
  • water supply,
  • food,
  • waste management,
  • sewage treatment,
  • energy and,
  • infrastructure.

To fulfil these rising demands India saw increased activities of construction, manufacturing, automobile and power generation over the years.

How rapid urbanization is affecting India’s water?

The movement of population from rural areas lead to an increase in consumption and resulted in increased pressure on high-intensity energy sectors such as power and transportation. The auto sales increased, as a result, further worsening the GHG emissions. Furthermore, infrastructure development too increased the energy demand for activities such as construction, maintenance and development of roads, railways, power plants, sewage networks and water treatment (Jones, 1991; Madlener & Sunak, 2011).

Impact of rapid urbanization on the demand for energy
Figure 3: Impact of rapid urbanization on the demand for energy (Source: Madlener & Sunak, 2011)

According to the above model, rapid urbanization brings changes in the demand for energy by influencing four urban factors:

  1. production,
  2. transportation,
  3. infrastructure and, private households.

In India, most of the energy requirements are fulfilled by fossil fuel. About 82% of the electricity demand in India is sourced from non-renewable energy power plants and 97.5% of the electricity is consumed by the urban population. Among all the non-renewable sources, coal accounts for 70% of the total electricity generation in India (World Bank Data).

Electricity production from non-renewable sources and urban population access to electricity
Figure 4: Electricity production from non-renewable sources and urban population access to electricity (Source: World Bank Data)

This increased electricity generation from non-renewable sources imposes a heavy cost on the environment. Coal power plants result in 65% of the total CO2 emissions in India. Emissions from coal-based power plants also discharge untreated effluents like fly-ash and harmful gases like Nox, So2, SO3, PM, and CO into the air. The presence of heavy metals such as mercury and radioactive nucleoids are also released into the river streams in the form of untreated sewage by these power plants (Baig K & M, 2017).

In India, Maharashtra has 13 coal-based power plants, while West Bengal has 12, and Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat has 11. The level of emission by these states are shown below for the period 2010-2011.

StatePM2.5 tonsPM10 tonsSO2tonsNOx tonsCO tons VOC tonsCO2 tons
Gujarat53,000 111,000 214,000 220,000 122,500 11,500 74,000,000
Maharashtra80,500 167,000 300,500 278,500 156,500 14,500 94,600,000
Uttar Pradesh83,500 168,500 235,500 225,000 122,500 11,500 74,100,000
West Bengal40,000 83,500 152,000 143,000 79,000 7500 47,800,000

Table 1: Emissions from Coal-based power plants in 2010-11 (Source: Guttikunda & Jawahar, 2014)

The cooling tower of power plants in India requires an average of 4 m3/MWh of water. This average is also the highest among all countries that use coal-based power plants around the world. Rivers and their streams are used as the primary source of water for the cooling towers of the power plants. Most of this water is released back to these rivers and their streams untreated. Thus toxic substances like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium have increased over the years in the waters of these rivers and streams. This not only contaminates the quality of water in the river streams but also seeps into the groundwater table. A study by Tripathi, Mishra, Dubey, & Tripathi, (2015) stated that 1 out of every 100 children who drink groundwater is at a risk of cancer.

Rao, Sant, & Rajan, (2009) in Prayas Report stated that in 2003, the coal plants of India have effluent treatment efficiency of 23% as compared to 33% of US. Most of the coal-based power plants in India use critical technology with low efficiency to treat the discharged particles.

Impact of increased vehicular usage on India’s atmosphere

The automobile sector of India is the 4th largest industry in the world. The domestic sale has increased at a rate of 6.71% CAGR from 2013 to 2019. The dependency of the rural population on the urban cities for employment has led to a rise in the demand for private and public vehicles. The below figure shows how rapid urbanization led to increased sale of vehicles from 9 in the 1960s to 99 in the 1990s to 402 per capita vehicles in 2015 (S & Raj, 2019).

Sale of vehicles in the urban areas of India
Figure 5: Sale of vehicles in the urban areas of India (Source: S & Raj, 2019)

The increase in demand put more pressure on the automobile industry to produce and sell more vehicles. The 2 wheeler and passenger vehicles have seen significant growth from 42 lakhs (4.2 m) and 7 lakhs (0.7 m) passenger units in FY 2001 to 1 crore 85 lakhs (19 m) and 32 lakhs (3.2 m) units in FY 2014.

Automobile production in India
Figure 6: Automobile production in India (Source: MOSPI, 2016)

The increased usage of automobiles imposes a heavy cost on the environment. A study by Sood, (2012) states that the increased vehicular usage in the metros contributes:

  • 70% of CO,
  • 30-40% of NOx,
  • 50% of HC,
  • 10% of SO2 and,
  • 30% of SPM into the atmosphere

The study also concludes that about two-thirds of air pollution is from increased vehicular usage. 261 tons of CO2 is produced by the automobiles and contribute to 60% of the greenhouse production in India. A report by (CPCB, 2010) also emphasizes a similar conclusion for 2002.

Vehicular pollution load in the major cities of India
Table 2: Vehicular pollution load in the major cities of India (Source: CPCB, 2010)

The above table shows that Delhi has the highest amount of load followed by Bangalore, Mumbai, and Chennai for CO. This level of pollution in the metropolitan cities is mainly due to the usage of the inefficient diesel vehicle. High vehicular density in urban areas has led to a significant increase in the number of toxic gases being discharged into the atmosphere. With a lack of an efficient monitoring and pollution management system, India is growing economically at the cost of its environment for its future generations to bear.