World Environment Day, 2019
By Dr. R.K. Nimai
Today, the 5th June on which the World Environment Day, 2019 falls will be observed with the theme “Air Pollution” by many in Manipur also. From 1974 this day has been observed and now about 100 countries joins the observation. This year’s theme is very relevant as about 7 million people die prematurely due to air pollution in the world and 92% of the global population do not breathe clean air. It has been estimated that the welfare cost of air pollution globally is about $5 trillion. The pollution of the atmosphere by ozone at the ground level is estimated to reduce the staple crop by as much as 26% by 2030. Thus, there is a need for timely action so that the matter is mitigated in time before more serious outcome happen.
On 22nd May, the International Day on Biodiversity was observed under the theme “Our biodiversity, our food, our health” which was very apt for a state like Manipur. We use to consume a large variety of plants collected from the wild but with the vanishing habitat, many of these plants are on the verge of extinction. Some few decades back, Heimang mathon (Rhus chinensis) was generally used in Singju but now it is hardly seen. Even heibi mana (Meyna spinosa) used in Singju is becoming rarer. It is good to take a large variety of plants as taking only one can impact on our health, as many of these plants contains alkaloids and other biochemical. Mixing the various plants reduces per se the level of specific alkaloids in our food. Many of these plants are drugs, which alter our body biochemistry. I still remember the words of Shri Bhatnagar, the then Vigilance Commissioner who when he visited Ukhrul in the eighties pointed to Yaipan (Curcuma augustifolia) flower and when I mentioned that it is vegetable, he counter queried whether there is any plants which the Manipuri do not take. This indicates for those coming from outside, the wide array of vegetables included in our diet, are overwhelming. But now the availability is becoming limited and with more mouth to feed, there is always a danger of these plants being lost for posterity. Though the theme was very relevant for the Manipuri unfortunately this day was observed more within the closed walls, rather than going out in the wild to understand nature, the interconnectivity between the different aspects of it.
Despite the claim that the air quality had deteriorated there is very limited papers on the study in this aspect in Manipur. Saying merely that the air quality had deteriorated is not enough; we have to have the information about the type of pollutants so that we can intervene with appropriate strategy. Using carious apps available, one knows that the air quality in Imphal is not good, but these do not provide the information as to the type and nature of pollutants. Intervention can only be after understanding the major causes of the pollutions. Our assumption is based on supposition. Many say that the increase in air pollution is due to the increase in the motorised vehicle population; which uses petrol and diesel as fuels. The latter is more damaging and in fact the central Government should put an embargo on the manufacture of small vehicles using diesel as its fuel. Many western countries have done this in the effort to reduce air pollution as diesel burning produce nano-particles which once inhaled is almost next to impossible to remove from the lungs. Another group says that the air pollution in Manipur is mainly due to the dust on the roads which literally blankets the leaves of the road side trees, especially during winter. The burning of jhums causes air quality to deteriorate as also the burning of the straws after paddy harvest. There may be many other apparent reasons, as it will not be contributed by a single cause.
Therefore the responsibility of the Manipur Pollution Control Board is immense and despite claims that several measurements indicate poor air quality, there is no quantitative or qualitative data available. It would be good, if the data is analysed and published or put up on public domain. Or alternatively, the raw data can be put up in the public domain through its website so that those who are interested can carry out analyses and come up with the probable causes and possible solutions. There is no data available on the content of SO2, CO2, CO, NO2, etc in our atmosphere. The percentage of dust particles is also not available. Thus it will be difficult to suggest remedial action to improve the air quality and therefore the MPCB has to come up with the data so that experts can suggest remedial actions. Everybody knows that burning anything causes pollution of the air but we just cannot do away with it; though we can switch over to less polluting fuels. It is impossible to avoid motor vehicles but a policy based on public transport and restriction on the purchase of personal vehicles can be put into place. Those who do not have parking space should be banned from buying vehicles. Roads are not meant for parking. Any vehicle found parked in the night on the road must be penalised heavily to discourage the owners.
Many countries have experimented with use of bicycles and have been fairly successful in mitigating the problem of air pollution. Bicycle lanes must be incorporated in the city design and rewards may be provided to those who regularly use them. Oil guzzling vehicles must be taxed severely to discourage owning them. Vehicle must be seen as a tool for going from one place to another and not as a status symbol. Only those who can pay a heavy tax may show off their prized vehicles.
Manipur valley is bounded all around by rings of hills. This is good in the sense that strong winds are blocked by them but on the flip side the air pollutants are not swept away but pool in the valley. The paddy straw rather than burning must be used as medium for mushroom cultivation or it is converted to manures using EM technology so that the pollution to the air is limited. Despite large scale efforts to reduce jhum cultivation, it is unsuccessful as it is a way of life. Changing a lifestyle is never easy and need to be slowly weaned away with awareness and alternative lifestyles. Terrace cultivation has not been successful as envisaged, especially in those areas which do not have permanent source of water and it would be good to try agro-forestry as the changes in the life styles will be lesser while the environment is also protected. In Kakching area, I have seen growing of U-morok under mango canopy. The Departments of Agriculture, Horticulture and Forest must work together in tandem to find out the suitable crops which are companion plants to each other. This will be a win-win situation for all concerned.
Air pollution is also caused by digestion of plant materials by microbes with methane (CH4) a major by-product and methane is 67 times more destructive than CO2 in causing green house effect. Ozone is formed when CH4 reacts with the atmospheric O2. Awareness and the consequential action by the people only can reduce air pollution. If the carbon sequestered by the plants is released by burning as fuel, the whole purpose is defeated. Hence the products of trees must be used in areas where these are kept for a long time like in buildings, furniture, etc.
The State Government in Education Department had announced participation in observing the World Environment Dayin a big way with tree plantation in schools and colleges with a target of 65,000 saplings to be planted. It is however not clear why only emphasis is given to tree plantation during World Environment Day observation. Is there is dearth of ideas, as the theme is totally lost. Tree plantation can be carried out during the Vanamahotsav Week from July 1 to 7, which is most appropriate and as it is during monsoon the chances of survival of the saplings will also be higher. Plantation of trees is good but it should be made to grow. There are reports that in public plantation the survival rate are about 45% and it must be ensured that it comes to about 65%, as 100% survival is not feasible. In fact, the state government in MPCB and Transport Department should come out in a big way to bring awareness on air pollution, check vehicles about the quality of its exhaust, etc rather than making the observation a mere tree plantation day. Or PWD, PHED and the :Local Bodies should take steps to reduce dust by greening the side-berm of the roads after levelling it slightly lower than the road surface, cleaning the drains and ensure that solid organic waste are not thrown in the drains to prevent putrefying them, etc. The only redeeming feature in this years tree plantation in the educational institutions is the assurance that the saplings will be looked after and those dead will be replaced. Watering during dry spell will increase the survival drastically.
Let us all observe the World Environment Day 2019 in the true spirit and not make it into a tamasha, where huge expenditure is incurred from public money without much tangible benefit.
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