The choking air and the blissful ignorance

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 5/19/2019 12:52:48 AM


A friend living in Delhi had to send her one-year old son, who was persistently ill due to Delhi air, to her parents in Bihar. A couple of years later, the son is back home. But the pollution levels in Delhi remain the same, continuing to constantly threaten his health. This may be the saga of almost every home. Not many have the luxury of sending their young ones outside for recuperating in better environment in their tender age. Children and adults alike are condemned to breathe in the toxic air and go about their daily lives. Delhi, according to a recent report by an international environmental NGO Greenpeace, tops the list of most polluted cities. The report lists 10 Indian cities in the danger zone.
A more recent report by US-based Health Effects Institute has maintained that around 1.2 million people were killed in India due to air pollution. While increasing pollution levels in India are not the doing of the present government or something that happened in just a matter of five years but the Central government's abject denial of such statistics with words that global reports are merely "causing panic" is an attempt to evade responsibility and project a rosy picture that doesn't quite exist. The reality, in fact, reveals signs of the deteriorating condition of ecology in India, its impact on public health and India's contribution to the global warming and climate change.
Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan while discrediting the reports merely quoted the eco-friendly schemes of the BJP government, much of which exist solely on paper and those that are working are marred by both poor planning and still poorer implementation. The first and most ambitious of all - the Swachch Bharat campaign - flopped because of a lack of comprehensive policy to deal with waste, sewage systems and the gap between building toilets and cleaning them. Though many people benefitted from the toilets, they remained non-functional in many areas because of lack of awareness or lack of water and proper sewage system. The scheme itself was a borrowed and re-designed version of a previous scheme started under the Manmohan Singh led UPA government. But it is the BJP which mastered the art of patenting the idea with much fanfare and more focus on publicity and propaganda and less action on the ground. With photo-ops pivoted around brooms, it created a perception of cleanliness by sweeping away the dirt to another place or at best filling it in garbage bins. But what happens to the oozing garbage bins?
The BJP can be credited for making the first ever effort in the country to frame a national framework for air quality management with a time-bound reduction target called the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). The aim is to monitor and reduce the level of pollutants in cities. While the policy came at the fag end of the BJP rule, it remains another battle with no legitimate implementation. The programme has an advisory value which reduces the role of departments of Environment and Social Forestry as well as bodies like Pollution Control Board to one of mere goodwill, which effectively translates to sweet-will. It lacks enforceable mandate because there is no legal back-up. The only thing it has achieved is to set pollution reduction targets of 20-30 per cent reduction of PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by between 2017 and 2024.
Similar is the case of the Green Good Deeds campaign which is aimed at encouraging voluntary participation of society with pledges for performing ten eco-friendly acts. Such schemes are launched without any clear understanding of the ailing environment and what contributes to its vandalism, allowing the liberty of celebrating ten green acts by an individual who may actually at the same time be performing multiple acts that harm the environment. The scheme follows the same photo-op pattern of the Swachch Bharat which created a perception that a broom alone could sweep the country's mess aside. Social engagement is imperative for ensuring a sustainable model for improving the ecology. But all related schemes touted to promote a social movement have not gone beyond publicity materials and announcements and pledges. The bigger problem is that campaigns are not fed on a holistic understanding of what ails the environment and what can be done to set it right.
In 2018, prime minister Narendra Modi and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, were awarded UN's highest environmental honour 'Champions of the Earth' for their initiative on the international solar alliance to boost up use of solar energy as an alternative to the more polluting sources of energy. Was it well-deserved? The good thing is that India is fast moving towards the target of 100,000 megawatts (100 gigawatts) solar power by 2022. The worrisome and overlooked fact, however, is the untreated waste including environmentally hazardous waste from solar photovoltaic panels that are composed of hazardous materials like polymers, lead and cadmium compounds. The faster the pace of meeting the solar energy targets, the bigger is the heap of untreated waste this scheme is generating. Far from formulating a policy on what do with the heaps of such hazardous material, the issue which will soon assume gigantic proportions is not even being acknowledged. This is true of most schemes aimed at improving the environment and air quality.
The Centre's denial is best typified by prime minister Narendra Modi's 'gyan' about climate change. In a video-conference with school children within a year of taking over the reins of power, Modi said, "Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled" and added that human tolerance to heat and cold has lessened, almost falsifying the theory of climate change. By his logic, perhaps, the human lungs have also forgotten how to breathe in air. Climate change that stems from increasing environmental imbalance is not due to decreasing tolerance level of human bodies but due to the inability of humans to adapt to a constantly developing world with models that are sustainable. Development needs to be in harmony with nature but it isn't. The societies have failed because the governments have failed. The situation is alarming enough to make everyone sit up and take note. The biggest worry is that environment is not even being considered as a major issue.



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