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Northeast Echoes

Can we stop pollution?

Recently, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, organised a media briefing on air quality in the northeastern cities. The CSE study focussed on vehicular emission, particularly soot, emanated by vehicles run on diesel and the daily amount of suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the atmosphere on a given day. While the CSE resource person made a down-to-earth presentation shorn of jargons and which made it easier for non-scientists to absorb what was being demonstrated, it was the presentation by the Assam Pollution Control Board that was steeped with jargons and figures that made no sense to the listeners.

This is the new culture in our country. We speak to each other in a language familiar to the clique and which is Greek to everyone else. So while the scientists and engineers of the Pollution Board might understand each other’s language, the rest of humanity is out in the cold. Why would people want to reduce the number of vehicles on the road if they do not know the impact each vehicle has on air quality?

Today, all state capitals of the Northeast are clogged with traffic. It took one full hour to commute from Ganeshguri to Vivekananda Kendra Auditorium at Uzan Bazar, MG Road on May 9 due partly to the farmers’ rally led by Akhil Gogoi on that day. We are all noveau riche and the concept of car pooling or of insisting that schools have a bus that picks up and drops kids from a certain point is considered “iffy” and “uncool”. We buy a car for reasons other than necessity.

One, we wish to display our new-found affluence. Second, we argue to ourselves and with others that it is necessary to have a car to get moving to the destination of our choice and back. Public transport is not happening and in a city like Guwahati you do not even have local taxis that ply in other capital cities.

Cycle bank

Frankly speaking, there is only so much air pollution that our atmosphere can help clean and recycle back to us and only so many vehicles that our roads can hold. We’ve got to get thinking of more sustainable ways of living and moving around.

This is where innovative ideas of switching from motor cars to cycling in Manipur and the cycle rickshaw project promoted by Centre for Rural Development, Guwahati, need to be taken seriously. Apart from providing employment to hundreds of rickshawpullers who have been rendered jobless after people have switched over to other modes of transportation, the project is a model for clean and green transportation. Commuters from the middle or lower income groups still find rickshaws the most affordable mode of transportation for short distances.

The CRD with its Rickshaw Bank has brought hope to rickshawpullers by providing them soft loans to buy their own rickshaws, complete with insurance and licence at an affordable cost. The model of the newly designed rickshaw was developed by IIT Guwahati. The project, first launched in Guwahati, is now expanding to other parts of Assam and beyond. Led by Pradip Kumar Sarmah, a social entrepreneur who saw beyond his profession as a veterinarian, this cycle bank project has captured the imagination of several international universities who send their research scholars to study this unique social venture.

In India, roads and most facilities cater only to the “haves” of society. Look at the shrinking spaces for pedestrians across the region. Gangtok is the only place with a large enough space for pedestrians and a mall area that is off-limits to vehicles. At least people are able to breathe easy while walking around the heart of Gangtok. Shillong tried to copy this model in the market area of Police Bazaar but it is a poor imitation. The tiles are badly laid. And there is no sense of orderliness whatsoever. Both sides of the pedestrianised roads are encroached upon by hawkers. No administration in recent memory has been able to control this. Sikkim, on the other hand, has succeeded to make the mall area completely free of hawkers. The biggest alibi that hawkers in Meghalaya have used is that they are poor and trying to eke out a livelihood. And mind you, they have political patronage. Are we saying that Sikkim has no poor people wanting to do hawk their wares? Of course they do, but they are provided another place by the government. It requires imagination to bring change. That imagination is sorely lacking with our politicians and administrators. The word “environment” is not just about the wilds. The urban eco-system also includes well-designed and planned spaces.

Cars-only roads

While on the topic of pedestrians, anyone who does not own a vehicle has a hard time even crossing the road. No one believes in giving the right of way. Everyone is in a tearing hurry and the least said about driving etiquette, the better. There is not any etiquette because no driver is taught that by anyone. Once a person handles the steering he/she feels an incredible sense of power. This is true especially of young drivers, many of whom have got their driving licences by paying money.

Nowhere in the world is there such a disdain for pedestrians. In Barcelona, I was greatly impressed by the arrangement of the road. The largest portion in the middle was for pedestrians. The adjacent path was for cyclists and the two extreme sides of the road were for vehicles. That is the concern that these enlightened governments in developed countries have for their citizens. Here, we believe the road belongs only to vehicle owners. Anyone who has been to Shillong would have witnessed the chaos in the morning when schoolchildren are dropped to school and in the evening when they are picked up.

Pollute culture

The culture today is one child, one car. There are thousands of cars almost colliding with each other around the Laitumkhrah/Don Bosco area where most schools are located. And children and their parents who walk to school find it difficult to cross the road because cars simply speed off. Thankfully the traffic police help at such crossings.

This apart, think of the pollution levels in the 10 square km range that the Shillong municipality is spread. With dwindling greenery to absorb the carbon emissions, we are heading for big trouble. Surprisingly the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board has rarely ever published the SPM levels in the atmosphere. So we happily breathe poison quite unaware of the respiratory problems that our young ones are subjected to.

And the tragedy is that no one wants to stop and start thinking of the cumulative effects of vehicular pollution. May 22 is observed as World Biodiversity Day. Yet all that the forest and environment minister of Meghalaya and his officers could talk about is the need to increase forest cover. Can they do that in a city with a shrinking space even to walk?

There is a need to control and regulate purchase of vehicles in Meghalaya. In fact, the foremost offenders are the elite schools where all brands of cars are used to drop kids. Who says tribal society is egalitarian? Today it is about who has an SUV and what make it is!

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)