Building the future

These have to be the weirdest and the most tumultuous times we have lived in. But they are also the most confounding. Coronavirus seems to be unleashing the best and the worst in our world today. On the one hand, we have news of cleaner air — not only in Delhi but also in other parts of the world. There is evidence of a dip in greenhouse gas emission. There is also evidence of human fortitude, empathy, and, above all, selfless toil by millions who work in health care and essential services. It’s their determination to win the war against the virus and to save lives that will be the hallmark of this epic struggle against Covid-19. 

On the other hand, we have increased use of plastic because we have to fight this infection; there are cities that are giving up the practice of segregating household waste because they just can’t keep up with the growing medical waste and plastic personal protective kits. So, we are going backward. Then, people don’t want to travel in public transport. They fear congested public spaces will add to the risk of contagion. So, as cities open up, private vehicles are bound to increase on city streets. It’s the same with fossil fuel emission, which contributes to climate change.

It’s also the time when we are witnessing the worst of human nature — from the lack of action to provide money and food to the vulnerable, including the workers who lost their jobs and were desperate to go home; to the callousness to divide people based on religion or race; to, of course, the untold misery of many who lost their loved ones because they could not get help in time. It’s all there.

But let’s look ahead because there will be light at the end of the Corona tunnel and the world we build now will be our future. And, as I say this, let’s also be clear that this is not a rhetorical or an open-ended quest for answers. It is about doing the impossible — finding ways of doing things differently now, when the health crisis is at its peak. We can’t wait for the normal to return because then it will neither be new nor different.

And it is possible. The strategy is to find inventive answers, which will work for multiple challenges. Take air pollution in our cities. We know that vehicles are a major contributor to toxins in the air; of these, the worst are heavy-duty trucks that ply in and out of our cities. In January (pre-lockdown), some 90,000 trucks entered Delhi each month; in April (during lockdown), it was only 8,000. So, how do we avoid pollution as we resume our pre-lockdown days back?

The fact is that India has made the transition (during lockdown) to a much cleaner fuel and vehicle technology. In the case of heavy-duty vehicles, this would mean a reduction of 90 per cent between pre-April (BSIV) and current BSVI. It is also a fact that the automobile industry is in massive financial distress. Here, we have a win-win solution. If the government was to devise a smart scheme to provide truck owners subsidy for scrapping their old vehicles and replacing them with new ones, it could be a game changer. But the trick is to make sure that the old vehicles are scrapped and recycled and do not end up adding to pollution somewhere else.

It is the same with public transport — today it is under pressure for safety. But it is also a fact that without public transport, our cities cannot move. We now realise its importance. So, a financial stimulus to rebuild cities for the future to move people, not vehicles, can begin now. We need to restart public transport with all precaution; we need to augment it fast and find ways to support cycling and walking. The data shows that the bulk of the daily trips are below 5 km in our cities — so it is possible.

But the scale of disruption we have seen today demands a similar scale of response as well. This can be done, but it needs imagination and concerted, obsessive action. When it comes to industry and its pollution, it boils down (literally) to what is burnt. So, if we can make moves to first change the fuel — from coal to natural gas — pollution will come down drastically. Then if we can move to electricity for combustion, and if that electricity can be from cleaner sources (natural gas, hydel, biomass, and renewables), it will work for local air pollution first and then also combat climate change. Again, this is within reach.

But all this is premised on the belief that we humans want a better tomorrow. Covid-19 is not a mere oversight or an inconvenient accident; it is a result of the actions we have taken to build a world that is both inequitable and divisive, and discounts nature and our health. So, let’s not be naïve that tomorrow will be better — it will and can be better but only if we make it.  
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment

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