Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Did we love 2020's clean air enough?

The lockdowns changed the way people engaged with the environment and created greater awareness about rebuilding for a cleaner tomorrow. Will it sustain?

Sumaira Abdulali
Published: Jan 6, 2021 01:31:05 PM IST
Updated: Jan 6, 2021 02:23:14 PM IST

Did we love 2020's clean air enough?India and China, on a GDP-driven growth curve, have extracted more sand in the last decade than the West had in the entire 20th century

We turn the unknowable corner of 2021 and a new decade begins. In dystopian 2020 and the interminable lockdown of Covid-19, among economic, social and societal woes, we rediscovered our world and saw it in new ways: Blue skies, quiet cities, birdsong and wildlife in urban areas. “Rebuilding better”, we say, acknowledging mistakes, particularly inadequate environmental protections, that led to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A major report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), says “Almost 100 percent of pandemics (for example, influenza, Sars, Covid-19) have been caused by zoonoses.” The report estimates the worldwide cost of Covid-19 at $8 trillion to $16 trillion (6.4 percent to 9.7 percent of global GDP) and likely global economic damages of future pandemics at $1 trillion annually. “Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than Covid-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases.

The Indian response to Covid-19 was forceful, with the biggest lockdown in the world. During the lockdown, India faced climate-related events, including floods and landslides in Kerala, cyclones in Maharashtra (also in Mumbai, for the first time in a century) and the Northeast. The problems of the lockdown made relief efforts more difficult. A study by Climate Central, published in the journal Nature, indicates that major Indian cities are among the most vulnerable to sea level rise and may flood annually by 2050.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, acknowledging our urgent need for environmental protections, on World Environment Day said, “The theme for this year’s World Environment Day is biodiversity. This is especially pertinent in the current circumstances. During the lockdown, the pace of life may have slowed down a bit, but it has also given us an opportunity to introspect upon the rich diversity of nature around us.” Acknowledging the severe pollution in Indian cities, he said, “Much of the avian fauna had sort of disappeared due to sound and air pollution, and now after years people can once again listen to their melodic chirping in their homes.”

Despite the PM’s assertions, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change cleared 40 new coal mines in some of our most fragile forests and issued a draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification drastically amending environmental laws to relax safeguards. This draft was challenged in various high courts, and led to more online activism and protests than ever before, especially from young people. Online groups were informed by data from traditional grassroots activism and were able to engage urban youths across different skill-sets in greater numbers. 

The Indian EIA notification was first proposed after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, in 1986, and like others across the world, is a tool recommended by UNEP to safeguard ecosystems by assessing potential impact of projects at an early stage. The 2020 amendment was severely criticised by environmentalists across the country as regressive and unconstitutional, particularly provisions restricting people’s powers to object to projects in ecologically vulnerable areas and people’s power to report violations. Among other activities no longer requiring prior EIA clearance, including thermal power plants and roads (some through national parks), is sand mining, an issue on which I have worked extensively for almost two decades despite facing physical attacks from the sand mafia in 2004 and 2010.

Sand is the second most extracted material in the world after water, according to the GRID-Geneva of the UNEP, in its first international report on sand and sustainability in 2019. Our entire civilisation that is built is made of sand, used for cement-concrete, glass, computer chips and almost everything else surrounding us. India and China, on a GDP-driven growth curve fuelled by cement-concrete building, have extracted more sand in the last decade than the West had extracted in the entire 20th century. Sand stocks, while they may appear plenty, are not inexhaustible and the world is starting to run out. Water has recently started to be traded as a commodity in California. Sand, so integral to our urbanisation plans and GDP growth, may be next. 

A decade ago, in 2010, Dr Shyam Asolekar of IIT-Bombay, in a public interest litigation filed by Awaaz Foundation in 2006, presented the first paper on solutions to sand mining to the Bombay high court. He recommended recycling of construction and demolition waste, use of quarry dust and satellite tracking of sand mining sites and transport vehicles. In those days, no one knew that sand mining was the massive environmental hazard at the local, national and global level that it has now turned out to be. Climate change then was an emerging idea and circular economy, recycling and sustainable development were not as commonly understood as they are today. In 2020, he presented tested, implementable solutions: Legacy waste in our garbage dumps can be used as raw material to substitute 100 percent of India’s sand requirement. Raw materials to produce sustainable aggregate include recycled construction and demolition waste, plastics, metal slag, fly ash etc. According to the research, demonstration projects have been found techno-economically feasible. In the last decade, India has pioneered technologies, including roads built of plastic waste. The government of Maharashtra has mandated use of recycled construction and demolition waste and recycled plastic in some building projects.

India has the potential to lead the world in recycling waste materials into building aggregate, says UNEP GRID-Geneva that is currently exploring sustainable solutions to sand mining, including alternative building technologies, reduced-sand concrete and recycled materials to substitute sand as aggregate. Accelerated by the pandemic, the need for a shift to circular economy using homegrown technologies, drawing on our own unique challenges and resources, can be mainstreamed and presents new business opportunities to established Indian businesses. Startups and youth can engage to find and implement solutions to serious problems like sand mining and other environmental issues using interdisciplinary approaches informed by grassroots research and activism.

In my youth, we believed the world would stop without coal and oil. Today we know that alternative energy sources are economically viable and India has become a leader in the field of solar energy through initiatives like those of Barefoot College which trains people to individually install solar energy panels. Many young people wear clothes and shoes from recycled plastic and other sustainable materials with pride, encouraging some fashion houses to mainstream and advertise their own sustainability. I look forward to the day when people can choose to live in a house built of sustainable recycled materials like plastic, previously considered ‘waste’, to substitute cement-concrete. India has the resources, will and ability to drive such change through engagement of industry leaders and politicians. Young people, too, in the interest of the world they will inherit, are discovering new ways to contribute from diverse sectors in startups—from technology and finance to activism, research and politics.

Covid-19 is a pandemic brought about by the transmission of an animal virus to humans. A key recommendation of the IPBES report is: “Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production and government policies and budgets.” India has acknowledged this need. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman assigned 2,955 crore to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change in Budget 2020-2021, with an addition of 460 crore towards pollution control.

During the lockdown, I measured the noise and air pollution levels in Mumbai. The festival season was the quietest ever and air pollution levels were also under control during Diwali despite the absence of a total ban on firecrackers. Unlike other Indian cities, Mumbai controlled pollution through cooperation and understanding of citizens, festival organisers, police, administration and politicians who have learnt, over the last 20 years of environmental awareness programmes, that Covid-19, like noise and air pollution, is a health issue and is a reason to restrict dangerously polluting activities.

The role of awareness and education cannot be overstated. I receive more requests than ever to speak at youth-led online webinars to a growing audience of young people keen to do their bit. Collaborative initiatives such as the Clean Air Collective, a collective of NGOs, are discovering ways to escalate activism even during lockdowns, making it convenient for more people, especially the younger ones, to engage with environmental activism.

My own experience with voluntary involvement of lawyers and other professionals makes the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches, from grassroots data collection to engagement with administration, law, politics and people, clear. It is more apparent than ever that national and international policy needs to be informed by actual ground level oversight of people so that policies are enforceable. Only awareness and people’s participation can achieve this. Every human being engages with the environment in one way or another, willingly or unwillingly, and makes a difference. Inputs from people in every sector are important to make a positive change and rebuild better.

The withdrawal of ‘normal’ human activity during Covid-19 lockdowns displayed and allowed us to measure its actual impact on environment. While imposing severe hardships on almost everyone, it gave us the time to pause and reconsider. It allowed people before to experience nature in urban areas like never before, and gave rise to new ways of doing things, including online work and potentially long-term reduction in work-related travel. Our most difficult challenges generate our greatest opportunities. Investment of our cross-sectoral time, effort and professional expertise in the environment is investment in the long-term well-being of our planet. A worthwhile challenge indeed.    

(The writer is convenor of Awaaz Foundation)

(This story appears in the 01 January, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)