Among India's most pressing environmental problems are land damage, water shortages, and air and water pollution. During 1985, deforestation, which, especially in the Himalaya watershed areas, aggravates the danger of flooding, averaged 1,471 sq km (568 sq mi) per year. India also lost 50% of its mangrove area between 1963 and 1977. Despite three decades of flood-control programs that had already cost an estimated $10 billion, floods in 1980 alone claimed nearly 2,000 lives, killed tens of thousands of cattle, and affected 55 million people on 11.3 million hectares (28 million acres) of land. As of the mid-1990s, 60% of the land where crops could be grown had been damaged by the grazing of the nation's 406 million head of livestock, deforestation, misuse of agricultural chemicals, and salinization.
Due to uncontrolled dumping of chemical and industrial waste, fertilizers and pesticides, 70% of the surface water in India is polluted. The nation has 1,260 cu km of renewable water resources, of which 92% is used for farming. Safe drinking water is available to 95% of urban and 79% of rural dwellers. Air pollution is most severe in urban centers, but even in rural areas, the burning of wood, charcoal, and dung for fuel, coupled with dust from wind erosion during the dry season, poses a significant problem. Industrial air pollution threatens some of India's architectural treasures, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, part of the exterior of which has been dulled and pitted by airborne acids. In what was probably the worst industrial disaster of all time, a noxious gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, killed more than 1,500 people and injured tens of thousands of others in December 1985. In 1992 India had the world's sixth-highest level of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, which totaled 769 million metric tons, a per capita level of 0.88 metric tons.
The environmental effects of intensive urbanization are evident in all the major cities, although Calcutta—once a symbol of urban blight—has been freed of cholera, and most of the city now has water purification and sewer services. Analogous improvements have been made in other leading cities under the Central Scheme for Environmental Improvement in Slum Areas, launched in 1972, which provided funds for sewers, community baths and latrines, road paving, and other services. However, as of the mid-1990s, only 21 of India's 3,245 cities had effective sewage treatment.
The National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination was established in 1972 to investigate and propose solutions to environmental problems resulting from continued population growth and consequent economic development; in 1980, the Department of the Environment was created. The sixth development plan (1979–84), which for the first time included a section on environmental planning and coordination, gave the planning commission veto power over development projects that might damage the environment; this policy was sustained in the seventh development plan (1985–90). The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute has field center areas throughout the country.
The Wildlife Act of 1972 prohibits killing of and commerce in threatened animals. In 1985 there were 20 national parks and more than 200 wildlife sanctuaries. As of 2001, 4.4% of India's total land area was protected. In addition to 75 species of mammals, 73 types of birds are endangered, as are 785 plant species. Endangered species in India include the lion-tailed macaque, five species of langur, the Indus dolphin, wolf, Asiatic wild dog, Malabar large-spotted civet, clouded leopard, Asiatic lion, Indian tiger, leopard, snow leopard, cheetah, Asian elephant, dugong, wild Asian ass, great Indian rhinoceros, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy hog, swamp deer, Himalayan musk deer, Kashmir stag or hangul, Asiatic buffalo, gaur, wild yak, white-winged wood duck, four species of pheasant, the crimson tragopan, Siberian white crane, great Indian bustard, river terrapin, marsh and estuarine crocodiles, gavial, and Indian python. Although wardens are authorized to shoot poachers on game reserves, poaching continues, with the Indian rhinoceros (whose horn is renowned for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities) an especially valuable prize.