Lockdown for clean air

There is some merit in suggestions by ex-SC judge on rotational lockdowns in States to maintain green norms

As we enjoy clean, blue skies and bird song from the confines of our homes, a former Supreme Court judge has suggested that we not fritter away the environmental advantage we have gained during the 53-day-long shutdown. Justice Deepak Gupta has recommended that we reduce traffic and industrial effluents and impose a 15-day lockdown in different parts of the country on a rotational basis each year as this will lead to cleaner air and water. And help us meet environment conservation benchmarks that we have been dilly-dallying on. Or working on in a rather piecemeal manner. Justice Gupta was on the green bench of the apex court for three years before he retired on May 6. And he minced no words, saying that while in some cases, the Environment Ministry was proactive in implementing the orders of the Supreme Court, when there were clashes pertaining to big industries and issues of environmental clearances and permissions, there was a “lack of willingness on their part to implement our order” especially when “the governments want big industrial units to be set up in a particular region.” At least COVID-19 has opened us up to the possibility of nurturing our environment while not compromising development. Indeed the pandemic achieved in less than a month what the Supreme Court could not do in the last 35 years. Reports by the European Space Agency reveal that by early February, levels of air pollution causing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were 40 per cent lower than in the same period last year. NASA measured a steep drop in China’s NO2 emissions and said the NO2 pollution over New York and other major metropolitan areas in north-eastern USA was 30 per cent lower. In the UK, too, NO2 pollution in some cities fell by as much as 60 per cent. India saw similar advantages. A few weeks into the lockdown, cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Lucknow saw their average Air Quality Index (AQI) staying below 50. In fact, in the first week of April, there were reports of residents of Jalandhar, Punjab being able to see the Dhauladhar mountain range nearly 213 kilometres away after decades. By the end of April, people in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, could see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas from their rooftops. The Ganga and the Yamuna rivers have also benefitted and according to the Central Pollution Control Board, the average water quality of 27 points of the Ganga is now suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries.

So as we begin easing our lives post-pandemic, we have to ensure that we don’t lose these environmental gains. Not just because of the climate change or pollution crisis but because clean air is our ally in fighting the Coronavirus. Pollution helps viruses do their job better as the dirty air damages our respiratory systems and makes us more susceptible. So, whether India Inc likes it or not, in order to reduce the spread of epidemics in the future, cutting down air pollution now will be a key conditionality. So, as India tries to get back on its feet economically, better implementation of the environmental, transport and industry regulations will have to be a priority to ease the detrimental impacts of human activity on the environment. The lockdown has showed us a way of workarounds. Or the possibilities that we wouldn’t want to contemplate otherwise. Sustainable development is the only way forward because if we don’t respect nature, we have to be ready to bear the consequences when it strikes back.  As we are experiencing, it can be fiercely brutal.

The Pioneer

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