Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The smog that India and Pakistan share

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions. 

Writing in the Indian Express on 14 November, Nirupama Subramaniam writes about the fog that India and Pakistan share as it spreads its deadly footprint across the border, and envelopes towns, cities and the countryside on both sides.  She concludes: "Had Saadat Hasan Manto been alive, there would have been a short story by now on how India and Pakistan had agreed to exchange smog as a confidence-building measure."

But this is no laughing matter.  Pakistan and India share not just history but also geography. We share mountains and rivers, we grow the same crops, and the air we breathe is also the same.

Today, as dirty polluted air chokes people living in Lahore and in Amritsar and Delhi, we should remember that there are no border check posts that this filth has to cross in either direction. 

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions.  It also means India and Pakistan must talk about polluted air and water even if strategic issues have to be set aside for the moment.  At this rate, there will be no Indians and Pakistanis left to do the talking if we continue to allow our cities and the countryside to become gas chambers.

It is easy to forget, but there was a time when India and Pakistan did talk to each other on these matters.  In 1989, there was an India-Pakistan Conference on the Environment in Lahore which I was lucky to attend.  It was initiated by the Pakistan section of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), headed then by a remarkable woman called Aban Marker Kabraji, a Parsi with family in Mumbai and Karachi.  On the Indian side, one of the main movers was the late Anil Agarwal, who headed the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi.

In their joint Preface to the report that emerged from the conference titled, "Beyond Shifting Sands: The Environment in India and Pakistan" (IUCN and CSE 1994), Kabraji and Agarwal wrote: "The 'environment' that we met to talk about...remains as ever, beseiged.  Under attack by those same forces of greed, ignorance and mismanagement as before. There is a crisis of governance in both our societies, and the ideals and values implied in the sustainable development paradigm appear urgently and relevantly as the only way forward. "

What they wrote then could not be more relevant today.

Both our societies face a crisis of governance when it comes to the environment.  Every crisis, such as the current smog, is dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, as if all one wants is one clear day without smog.  Yet it is the cumulative actions and mismanagement of resources spanning over decades that have led to the current crisis. 

Undoing the wrongs of past policies must necessarily mean acknowledging what and why things went wrong.  No one is willing to sit down and address that, or to heed those who are pointing out the long-term correctives that can still be put in place.  Instead every authority -- whether a state government, or a court -- is busy undercutting and criticising measures suggested by the other without any constructive alternative. 

The problem we face is not SMOG -- it is the fog in our minds, and our inability to rise above the clutter to see the clear light of day.


Raghavan S said...

It would be more apt to say that India and Pakistan are united in vulnerability to climate change as the two countries are within the top ten countries most likely to be affected. Although Pakistan’s emission level is low, her exposure to environmental hazards and natural disasters is high .Glaciers in Pakistan are in retreat and can cause desertification. Pak has not submitted a committed INDC to UN and hence has no precisely drawn plan to control disaster lurking at it. Officials lack capacity to make informed and scientific decisions to finalize and stand on commitments. Pakistan needs to find an effective and sustainable path, leading towards increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of communities and natural systems, as well as contributing to global mitigation targets by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy, sustainable agro-forestry, water and coastal management and clean and sustainable urban development need to be at the forefront of its climate policy. It is extremely important for an agrarian economy and natural resource dependent country like Pakistan, to invest in adaptation options, as well as to increase its disaster preparedness. Because it is a natural resource based economy, Ecosystems based Adaptation should be an important consideration for its future climate planning. Most importantly, all of this needs to be undertaken, in the backdrop of her existing governance structure even though fragile.

On the other hand awareness in India is extremely high and commitment to abate it through structured INDC has acceptance globally. Investment on environment and emission control is high and India has the technical know how to implement measures. In Indo-Pak relations, as a means of confidence building measure it was proposed that governments should promote people to people contact to make the region strong. Climate Change and steps to combat ambient temperature rise offers another opportunity for two countries to work in tandem. Pakistan can take the help of India’s expertise in disaster management and agro based development. The two countries can join together and improvise action plan to clear the air in Hindukush region. What Political leaders could not achieve, specialists in two countries can work upon and every forward step in successful mitigation of smog not only clears the air but strengthens the bond between them.

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