Billboard advertisements have appeared in parts of Beijing with pictures highlighting the negative impact of climate change and warning people to begin planning for a low carbon future. What is unusual is that the pictures displayed include shots of Mumbai and Allahabad, as examples of what should not be done. The picture from Mumbai shows children playing cricket on a dump of plastic garbage – to highlight the fact that garbage dumps have taken over children’s places to play. Another grim picture describes the low visibility in Allahabad during the recent sandstorm that hit the city. It depicts four persons facing the sandstorm and walking before a ‘Ganga Bachao’ billboard.
There is outrage in India over China’s depiction of Mumbai and Allahabad, when China itself is a major cause and victim of pollution and carbon emission.
Is the outrage justified?
India tends to be hypersensitive to any kind of international criticism while being the first to highlight even the smallest of praise, spoken or published, by the most insignificant international sources. Before we react to this event, we must understand the Chinese purpose behind the series of advertisements.
Firstly, Mumbai and Allahabad are not the only cities singled out, climate related problems from other countries have also been depicted as examples.
Secondly, the message behind all the advertisements is to warn people about the impact of man-made climatic change and the fact that people must prepare for a low carbon and sustainable future. It is not aimed at putting India down.
However, one has to agree that the picture of Mumbai and the one from Allahabad does not represent a true picture. While it is true that Mumbai is home to some of the largest slums and the overall quality of life can also be questioned, but it is equally true that one does not see heaps of garbage everywhere, as might seem from the picture.
Same is true for the sandstorm in Allahabad. As in any other city of India, Allahabad has its share of dust on the streets but sandstorms of the kind shown in the picture are not a frequent occurrence. Certainly nowhere near the kind of annual sand storms that cover most parts of northern and western China each year, where the problem is far more serious than any witnessed in India.
India and China: Concern, Criticism and Competition
Both countries have serious problems of natural and man-made environmental causes that have resulted in serious health problems for their respective people. Both countries tend to compare, criticise and compete in the international forums for one-upmanship on environment related issues, while people in both countries suffer from plan & policy mismanagement.
Take China, a larger country and one which suffers the most from poor policy planning. Right through the Mao-era and beyond, China has pursued projects on a massive scale, with little thought of future consequences. One saw this in Chairman Mao’s decree to produce steel in every home. While the objective was to make China completely self-sufficient in steel production, it only resulted in widespread famine that brought extreme hardship to its people.
Later, China began to build massive dams, ostensibly to harness electricity, while controlling water flow and distribution in a way it would benefit maximum people. With time it became evident that while water did reach a lot of places where it was not available earlier, it also resulted in massive environmental degradation and caused man-made floods that continue to bring misery to its people each year.
Post opening up its economy, China pursued a policy to establish massive coal-based power plants to feed the voracious appetite for power from manufacturing industries and cities that were coming up all over China. Thermal power plants of all capacities came up recklessly and began to significantly add to air pollution. As a consequence, large a number of people across China have been falling victim to the poor quality of air. This has raised concern both in China as well as among the international community.
Like China, India too has its share of man-made and climate related problems. A good example of reckless development and lack of planning is the flooding witnessed as a result of a cloudburst over Uttarakhand a few years back. Excess construction of dams, rampant concrete construction of houses, excess plastic pollution and poor development of civic services, all contributed to the disaster that followed. While the cloudburst was a natural event, the rampant deforestation over the years had reduced the natural soil holding capacity, resulting in landslides caused by heavy rains through the previous night.
India has not invested adequately on developing roads in urban and thickly populated areas and has continued to promote introduction of new cars in cities and towns despite most places having exceeded their vehicle holding capacity. This excess and unchecked growth in new cars, coupled with the running of older generation vehicles including cars, buses and trucks, are all contributing to high PM levels. The problem is common to China as well.
Like China in the last two decades, India too is on a fast growth drive and needs power to fuel this growth. Unfortunately, India is still focusing and investing in adding to fossil-fuel based power generation, and like China, India too has to contend with the resulting consequences. The problem may not have reached alarming levels as yet but the global opposition to India pursuing a fossil-based growth is increasing.
Public health, not Ego, should be the concern
India should not worry too much about the fact that China has mentioned Indian cities as an example but rather be concerned about the recent report published in Environmental Science and Technology Journal that highlights the risk of high respirable particulate matter (PM2.5) and its impact on human health. The study mentions that India witnesses over 4 lakh pre-mature deaths annually, while in Delhi alone, the figure ranges from 10,000 to 30,000.
The study found that more than 45% of pre-mature deaths occurring in Delhi could be avoided by improving the quality of air. The air pollution level in Delhi was found to be four times the national standard and 15 times the level set by WHO. In fact, WHO has observed that the pre-mature death rate can be reduced by 85%, if the city could improve its air quality level. Globally, over 2.1 million pre-mature deaths could be avoided by improving the quality of air.
Therefore, India needs to be more concerned with the increasing problem of pollution and the deteriorating state of our environment rather than worry about what China opines about our cities. They have enough problems of their own and it’s time for us to focus on ours.
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