Editorial: Knee-Jerk all the Way

Not the way to handle environmental challenges

So, the air Delhi is already severely harmful. So much so that authorities are now advising Delhites to not even light incense. It is another matter that farm stubble in its neighbouring states continues to be burnt and entire hills in the Aravalli range have been lost to quarrying, removing obstacles which used to cushion the NCR from polluting winds. Those hooked on TV for information will know of the Delhi situation as a smog-effect, a problem visited on the nation’s capital by a combination of smoke and fog. Smog, unfortunately is too innocent-sounding a word to describe Delhi’s condition. Unfortunately, it is also wrong to see this only as a Delhi problem because large swathes of North India, which is where most of our population lives, is suffering toxic pollution of varying intensity. Pollution, of course, is not even region-specific to the subcontinent anymore and any settlement which has grown in the past three decades is now living in it. Several cities do not even have industries around to blame the pollution on, just growth (which is ironically interchangeable with development for some) has been villain enough. What starts off as poor garbage management and ill-equipped sewerage systems, soon explodes as a full-fledged environmental assault. The impact does not manifest only in stench and disease, but also frequent flooding (since there is no space for surface run-off to seep or floodplains left to soak the spill), shortage of water and a suffocating absence of clean air. But we are stretching ourselves too thin here. Let us stay with Delhi for now and see if anyone, including the Delhi-wallahs are learning from their nightmares. The shutting down of schools, suspension of all construction works and a possible return to the odd-even vehicle regime are knee-jerk responses to the end result of years of not bothering. Keeping children at home and sending construction workers either back to their villages of cooped in their shanties is not going to solve the problem because they did not cause it. Any Delhite will confirm that poor visibility and toxic air have been winters for Delhi for a while now. It begins with Diwali, arriving slightly earlier this year, and continues almost till March with only the occasional reprieves. It makes headlines now because smog presents a dramatic episode which makes for visually captivating TV. The toxicity is always there, but since it cannot be filmed, it is not discussed the rest of the year. Of course, the shift in atmospheric pressure and wind patterns collaborate to compress this cocktail much harder into Delhi and parts of North India, but it would be wrong to believe to that this is only a winter thing. Some of the better-off schools have invested in air-monitors and based on their readings decided whether students can be allowed outdoors for games and sports. Delhi, in that sense is already in a very desolate place, and things will keep getting worse until its only response is to ban firecrackers, complain of stubble burning or stop constructions. To have a chance at improving things, the planners need to first identify what is causing the toxic pollution and then bring in the real experts to explain how climate change and urban expansion are making it worse. Then, and only then, can it begin the process of addressing the situation. Don’t do so, and the responses will only be cosmetic – masks, blinds, filters… These are defences, not prevention. Sikkim too will be well advised to learn from the failures of Delhi and other metros of the country. Urban pockets of the State have seen a population explosion in the recent decades and only slightly away, industries have arrived. More and more of its farms lie fallow and more and more of its sand-banks and streams are being quarried without any scientific monitoring. Gangtok might have been winning awards for swachchta, but move into the warrens stuck even slightly beyond direct road access and the garbage and sanitation mess becomes obvious. Valley towns like Singtam, Rangpo and Jorethang have traditionally wrestled with malaria outbreaks and now even dengue is common there. Clearly it is not the heat that is breeding these diseases but an unfortunate absence of proper sanitation and civic hygiene. These problems will only amplify with global warming. The State, hence, should resolve to plan such things long-term or within a few years even it will find itself meeting only to announce knee-jerk responses.