A silver lining : The Tribune India

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April 22: Earth Day

A silver lining

Cleaner air and water are two positives to emerge from this gloom. We should not let the gains fritter away as normalcy returns

A silver lining

Stunning: People were stunned to see snow-capped Dhauladhar range, 160 km away, from Jalandhar during curfew.

Nivedita Khandekar

As coronavirus rampages through the world, prompting many nations to announce partial or complete lockdown, there has been an unintended side effect — cleaner air and cleaner water. India, too, witnessed a similar phenomenon with the AQI (air pollution index) showing unprecedented numbers for several cities. It was, in fact, in two digits and, at some places, in a single digit on March 27, barely a week after the national lockdown.

A deserted Connaught Place is a rare sight in Delhi. Tribune photos

The cleaner air and water, because of the lack of anthropogenic activities, have prompted experts and common citizens to think if the gains incurred over the lockdown period will be lost once the restrictions are lifted and people are back to their routine. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, for a cleaner environment would reduce the chances of the occurrence of unknown challenges, like Covid 19, in the future. “Infection is not restricted to droplets. It can be found in suspended air, especially on dust particles. (So), if the area has air pollution, there are a lot of dust particles, and the virus can piggy ride on dust particles into our systems,” says Dr Arun Sharma, Prof and Director, Community Medicine, University College of Medical Sciences (UCMS) at the University of Delhi.

India has 14 out of 15 most polluted cities across the world. Experts have identified eight major sources of pollution in India. Power plants, industry, brick kilns, household sources, vehicles, DG sets, open burning, and dust — from both construction and desert areas. “In the lockdown, while power plants are running and household activities are on, the other (pollution creating) activities are nil. So if we control these (when they restart), we could hope for cleaner air,” says Dr Sagnik Dey, coordinator of the Centre for Excellence for Research on Clean Air (CERCA) at IIT-Delhi.

He, however, warns that while we may be able to control anthropogenic pollution, we cannot control natural dust, especially in Northwest India. “In India, meteorology plays a more important role than in most developed countries. So, we may not match the WHO standards.”

Even when there are programmes such as NCAP — the National Clean Air Programme — et al to control other sources of pollution, much is left to be desired in terms preventive and mitigative measures. The lockdown has shown that a drastic change can be brought about. Therefore, a change in policy with stricter implementation can be the key to a better tomorrow.

Based on data compiled by World Resources Institute (WRI) (see box), Amit Bhatt, director, Integrated Transport at the WRI, spells out clear-cut solutions. “Two wheelers have to be a part of electric mobility story. Metro can be only a linear transport for long distance, but it is actually the buses that need a national resurgence – buses for all local travels, inter-city travels and interstate travels must run on clean fuel.”

Can we learn at least now?

We often talk of spending within our limits. Similarly, there is a budget for Earth too. ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Needless to add, each passing year, we are on a deficit budget – which means we are borrowing from our children’s future.

If we look back at why the Earth Day was needed, it is amply clear that the humans have not taken the lessons from the past seriously. According to Earth Day website, ‘Earth Day’ was a unified response to an environment in crisis. It was on April 22, 1970, that 20 million Americans — 10 per cent of the US population at that time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet. The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is now recognised as the planet’s largest civic event.

Fifty years later, we are at a crossroads once again. As reported by the Guardian, even in the US, polluted areas are among the worst-hit by coronavirus. It is a lesson not just for the US but for the whole world. Air pollution and water pollution add to the global disease burden and hence it is imperative that the planet does not go back to ‘business as usual’. The economic stimulus offered by the Government of India should not cut into the environmental gains made during the lockdown period. The government will need to strengthen its monitoring of polluters and take stringent actions against them.

Reminds environmental activist Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan: “All economic stimulus must also be environmental stimulus. Example – a big boost to rooftop solar. There cannot be business as usual anymore.”

The number story

National level data compiled by World Resources Institute shows: 

  • Two wheelers are the most used transport in cities that lack good public transport. 
  • Barely 3 per cent people move by their own cars and another 3 per cent use taxis, autorickshaws etc. 
  • It is the 23 per cent on foot, 13 per cent on mopeds/bikes/scooters and 13 per cent on bicycles that form the core. 
  • As many as 85 per cent passengers travel by road transport, of which 2/3rd is buses. India has 0.5-1 bus per 1000 people. 

What can be done

  • Government should introduce more and more public transport buses in all cities
  • People should abandon their petrol /diesel vehicles for smaller trips and use battery operated / electric vehicles
  • Government should offer huge incentives for electric vehicle usage
  • People should avoid unnecessary vehicle trips – work from home is possible, lockdown has shown 
  • Residential quarters nearer to workplaces – city planning to be changed

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