A small town in Uttarakhand has made it to the front pages of newspapers, and as the top story in many television news shows. Joshimath, a town of a little under 17,000 people in Chamoli district, is already well-known to trekkers, those wanting to explore the Himalayas, and Hindu pilgrims. But today, its claim to fame is that it is sinking.
It is also in danger of becoming an adjective – a descriptor of what happens when we ignore concepts of sustainability as we pursue so-called “development”.
Predictably, when the cracks in Joshimath’s buildings could no longer be ignored, the government moved on a “war footing”, as did the media. We watched videos and saw visuals of distressed residents pointing to huge cracks in their homes, read about a hotel tilting onto another, and listened to experts who said they knew this crisis was imminent.
Yet, the roots of the current crisis – of a town literally sinking – have probably not yet sunk in, either to the lay media-consuming public with an increasingly diminishing attention span, or to the people who pushed through plans to build power plants and blast the fragile mountains for roads, despite adequate warnings from experts.
There is a message here for the media – a message it continues to ignore. Even if you report on a disaster, integrate the perspectives that explain the reasons for it. It’s not difficult to do this. And if it’s done, chances are that more people will understand why many of the projects being pursued in the ecologically fragile environment of the Himalayas spell disaster.
Of course, as always, there are exceptions. Newspapers and digital platforms have carried excellent explainers that an interested reader can plough through (see and ). But useful as this is, it is not enough. The facts tracing this disaster to earlier policies are clear. They need to be repeated, they need to be integrated in the reporting.
Few can explain more simply than Dehradun-based veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra, who headed the high-powered committee looking at the environmental impact of the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand. He resigned last February because their recommendations were ignored. Read his and his that say all that needs to be said.
Another article in also reminds us that what’s happening in Joshimath today could happen in a number of other towns in Uttarakhand, including the popular tourist resort of Nainital, before too long. The reasons are the same: unsustainable development that pays no heed to the carrying capacity of the natural environment.
The new year has begun with another environment-related story on the front pages, one that gives all of us a sinking feeling. In 2021, of the 50 most , 35 were in India. The situation today is likely to be no different, perhaps even worse. Not just Delhi, but in dozens of other small and big cities in this country, residents are choking from poisonous air. You don’t need a viral infection to get lung congestion these days. You only need to breathe the air.
According to the , 90 percent of the world’s population breathes air that is worse than acceptable limits. But within that, it is people in low- and middle-income countries like India that suffer the most. In any case, India has diluted WHO standards for air quality although revising them is being discussed. At present, what is considered “good” air quality here in India is actually “moderate” or even “poor” air quality according to WHO standards.
Like the Joshimath story, the reports we read do not adequately explain the current air pollution crisis in India. Even as the air quality index climbs higher in city after city, there are some reports explaining the possible reasons: vehicular pollution, construction dust, industrial pollution, etc.
The factors contributing to air pollution, such as vehicular pollution, have been known for decades. Most readers today would not be aware that in the 1990s, one man fought determinedly for a change in the fuel used in public transport in Delhi. That was , who set up the Centre for Science and Environment. The air pollution levels in Delhi at that time were nowhere as bad as they are today. Yet, Agarwal, who suffered from chronic asthma and later succumbed to cancer, campaigned through CSE for a change in fuel used in public transport in Delhi from petrol and diesel to CNG. Several other cities implemented this in later years. The 2010 CSE report, , is worth revisiting even today.
But despite campaigns by CSE and other environmental groups about the polluted air in our cities, there is little to no outrage about the many projects being implemented that do nothing to address the problem. Instead, more roads are being built to accommodate a greater volume of vehicular traffic using fossil fuels, there is little to no compulsion on the building industry to implement dust alleviating strategies, and to keep a check on levels of pollutants emitted by industries and thermal power stations in the vicinity of cities remains impaired despite decades of debate about it.
Every year during the winter months, we see photographs showing us what we can see when we look out of our windows. Yet those with the power to take hard decisions – such as suspending all construction activity during the worst days, or restricting vehicular movement – choose to ignore what stares them in the face and invades their nostrils as much as those of ordinary citizens. Could this be because there is no public outrage?
Unlike in Joshimath, where the buildings with cracks face demolition, and the anxious and angry owners of these structures are out on the streets protesting, India’s urban residents seem to have accepted a slow death from poisonous air with apparent equanimity.
One reason for such a passive response can be attributed to the class factor. The people most affected by the poisonous air quality are the homeless and those who are compelled to do outdoor physical labour – basically the poorest in our cities whose voices are rarely heard. The better-off have windows they can close, with air-conditioning in their cars and homes that allows them to insulate themselves. Possibly, this is one reason why the problem of air pollution has rarely moved the powerful, nor led to drastic changes in the way we view urban development. For instance, as Shoaib Daniyal points out in , bus commuters who are the majority in any city rarely get their voices heard over private car owners.
In this gloomy scenario, here’s a suggestion for the media. What if in all the 35 cities on the top of that list of polluted Indian cities, local newspapers, radio stations and TV channels ran a daily count of not just the poor air quality, but of the number of people hospitalised and dying from respiratory infections? In the last three years of the pandemic, many media outlets did this, tabulating daily the number of people afflicted, hospitalised, or dead due to Covid. Surely, such a proactive step by the media would play a significant part in building up public opinion that could then put pressure on decision-makers to act.
That’s another item for my wish list for 2023.
Newslaundry is telling the story of the Joshimath crisis, and how Uttarakhand may have many other calamities in waiting. Contribute now to our latest Sena project, .
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