It is time that we took some responsibility for our actions and impact on the environment and stopped waiting for the Government to do something
It is a chilly January morning and with the clock showing 5.30 am, Delhi is still dark and the Air Quality Index (AQI) is still severely poor. Sunlight finds it hard to penetrate a thick blanket of life-threatening smog. Visibility is under a metre and our vision for a greener Earth and cleaner Delhi and National Capital Region (Delhi-NCR) is marred by propaganda of industry lobbyists from the automobile to the hydrocarbon sector.
Stubble doesn’t burn in the neighbouring States of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Haryana and Punjab at this time of the year, yet Delhi-NCR chokes and shivers. The demagogues who wanted to punish farmers lie exposed as the night dew drenches our homes and loved ones with fresh toxic vapour residues. Neither the stubble burning nor the pollution stopped but instead more tractors and happy seeders were sold through Government-supported programmes, effectively increasing consumption of fossil fuels and profits of tractor makers.
We, as a society, made many environmental blunders this year and each of them was made intentionally.
Cars not farmers have darkened Delhi-NCR’s skies: Although the annual stubble burning by farmers is an episodic source of pollution, social media and opinion makers left no stone unturned to berate farmers for choking Delhi-NCR and darkening our skies. They effectively deflected attention from more serious polluters — cars and construction activities.
As we continue to asphyxiate long after the crop residue burning season is over, the truth is out. Cars are the major source of pollution. But the lobbyists don’t care for the real pollution. When India buys lesser cars, they term it as bad economic growth. And what does the Government do? The Odd-Even vehicle rationing scheme of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi Government did well to keep a few cars off the Capital’s roads but this was not a permanent solution.
The expansion of the metro system is a great step forward but we need to do much more. We have to restrict taxis in the city and also heavily tax new car purchases in the Delhi-NCR region, just the way progressive places like Singapore have done in order to bring down their pollution levels. But a larger problem looms unaddressed — Delhi’s darkened Sun. If you fly into the Capital on a sunny day, it’s hard to miss the thick smog enveloping the city even at 20,000 feet. The smog is making it harder for pure sunlight to reach us. It is harmful for us and our plants as sunlight is refracted off smog particles.
However, just taxing cars won’t be enough. We need to create an alternative, carbon-free and safe transportation system. There is a need to look at cities like Copenhagen and so on and incentivise cyclists by building separate cycle tracks and infrastructure so more people can be linked to the metro system in a few pedals from work or home.
Currently Delhi doesn’t even have one dedicated corridor for cyclists, although Delhi has hundreds of thousands who use the cycle everyday to work or for chores. The policymakers should understand there is a stark difference in cycling to Parliament and cycling in areas like Haus Khas. You could be dead in the latter location if you’re not extra cautious. This needs to change and the more we pedal, the faster it will come. This is the first positive step we all can take this New Year. Ditch the car, try a cycle, even if once a week, for what is at stake is not just our air, it’s our sunshine.
Plastic Satyagarha — Refuse, reduce and reuse: While the Narendra Modi Government’s move to ban single use plastic is commendable, the root of the problem is not extirpated. The problem of plastic is entwined with the profits of the petrochemical industry and I doubt there will be any decrease in profits or production of plastic in its various forms unless the demand plummets.
As plastic doesn’t only come in single use form, but in myriad forms starting from the phones to clothes to the toothbrush, comb and food packaging material. The irony, despite the ban on plastic, our landfills are filled with more of the material than ever before. Plastic producing giants like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo continue to pump plastics into the country through their bottles and packaging materials. It’s about time the Modi Government took a bolder step based on the “polluter pays principle” and make these corporations liable for our overflowing landfills and contaminated ground water. India needs to tax them while at the same time ban plastic packaging. The food laws need to be re-imagined to curb the menace of micro-plastics in our food and water that are not just harming our health and the health of our children but are also hurting hapless animals who have no role to play in the huge environmental mess that we humans have created.
We need a holistic consumer centric solution. For each person, we need to first follow a three-step principle, a “Plastic Satyagraha,” — refuse, reduce and reuse. We can refuse each time we are given plastics. One simple way is tearing off all the packaging material at the shop you buy it from. Carry minimal or no plastic home. Next would be to reduce the use of plastic, or at least try and replace each plastic item you use with some natural alternative and last try and reuse the plastic you have.
If we don’t act now the “trash mountains of Delhi” will be higher than the historic and iconic Qutub Minar soon.
Don’t buy it, try and grow it: Delhi is the top destination for thousands of trucks each day carrying different types of fruits, vegetables and so on. Whether it is the Azadpur Mandi or other smaller wholesale vegetable markets, the transportation of food for Delhiites has a heavy carbon footprint. If you look closer, the whole system of production that gets food to Delhi is extremely degrading.
From the growing stage, our food is dozed with chemicals and then sometimes kept in cold storage and finally trucked to a wholesale vegetable market near you. Try and imagine each step and the kind of pollution each stage causes.
Social media has ample videos showcasing adulterations in our food. But this is a necessary evil, as Delhi, much like other cities, cannot be self-sufficient in food supply and we need to depend on villages and the trucks to send food to the city. But, nevertheless, we can ease this burden and reduce our dependency on food grown outside the city.
Change is coming to Delhi as urban gardening is proliferating around the national Capital. City dwellers are leasing land collectively around Gurugram and spending their weekends working on the farms and helping grow their own vegetables.
Rooftop gardening is another activity which finds much resonance with young professionals in Indian cities. But to make this into a large movement the municipal bodies or city administration can step in and help convert some parts of public parks as organic horticulture zones. These zones will become carbon sinks and also attract local residents to pay the city to grow their own vegetables and herbs. This encourages public participation and also gives a chance for urbanites to learn about horticulture. As a big bonus this may also generate additional revenue for the municipal bodies.
This 2020, no matter if you live in Delhi or Chennai, try your hand at gardening. It doesn’t matter if you grow a herb or a pumpkin, the trick is don’t buy everything, try growing something this year. This is the only way we will reduce our carbon footprint and give future generations a fighting chance at survival. It is time that we took some responsibility for our actions and impact on the environment and stopped waiting for the Government to do something.
(The writer is Programme Director for Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India)