“Let us resolve to create a New Normal of development and growth that shall guarantee our march on the pathways of green engineering and green technologies propelled development with happiness and creating smiles on the faces of billions of our people around the globe and assure a healthy living on planet Mother Earth. Let the right to breathe clean air and to have clean potable water be made a fundamental right of the citizens of the global world,” says Prof PB Sharma, ice Chancellor of Amity University Gurugram.
“The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.
Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message:
To care for ourselves we must care for nature.
It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices.
It’s time to build back better for People and Planet.
Says the UN message on this World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature”.
In a free-wheeling chat with the Editor of The Indian News, Jayashankar Menon, the academic and environment expert, Prof P.B. Sharma speaks about a gamut of things relating to environment, economy and Post COVID-19 scenario. Excerpts:
TIN: How do you think we can address to the call of the UN for a radical departure to our approach to development so as to achieve the vital harmony of nature?
PBS: The colossal loss of life, man hours lost due to illness and discussant enormous expenditure that we incur on the health care services to tackle diseases caused by environmental pollution is yet to be properly accounted in our developmental economics to understand the bliss, happiness and prosperity that is attainable if we pay our sustained attention to maintaining a good health of environment.
Our forefathers understood this nexus very well and that is why they integrated together the interest of man and the interest of Mother Nature to create a happy and prosperous India that was the Golden Eagle of the world. But make no mistake we have not lived up to these values in our post independent India despite the fact that we had all the opportunities to do so. But it is still not too late now that we have an opportunity to create a New Normal for our developmental economics and human life.
TIN: How do we go about serving the interest of mankind and nature?
PBS: The advancements of Science and Technology have undoubtedly done a great service to the mankind the world over, but its misuse has also created utter distress and a great penalty on environmental as well as human health. We have the wheels of power moving our industries, giving us capability to move fast on road, fly in air and even traverse in space and attempt to concur the cosmos. But the great advancements of Science and Technology have also given man capabilities to exploit nature, consume fast the vast natural resources, create enormous waste and create conditions that adversely effect our life and even pose a massive threat to our existence on planet Mother Earth. We need to effectively curb this madness and cultivate the ‘spiritual power of science’ that shall provide both the capabilities of modern science but also the attitude and inspiration to serve the interest of man and that of Mother Nature together.
TIN: What is the take away from the ongoing KOVID-19 pandemic scenario?
PBS: Thanks to Covid-19 Lockdown that resulted into putting a brake on our quest to destroy ourselves by our unabated discharge of deadly pollutants in air, in water and also destroying the natural biodiversity and ecological balance. The return to the blue sky during Corona Lockdown and improved quality of air and the significantly improved quality of water in our holy rivers, Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari and Kaveri clearly compel us to pause and ponder seriously over our responsibility to protect Environmental health, in turn assure human health and provide national and global economies the vital strength to reconstruct new trajectories of growth and development that shall conform to the sustainable development goals that all nations of the world have committed themselves to attain by 2030.
These SDGs promise us transformation of the present world into a prosperous, happy and healthy world on a course of economic and social development in which no one will be left behind. I am sure the present conference shall prove itself to be a major platform for creating the vital thrill, excitement and firm commitment and resolve to make this promised transformation a reality by our strategic plans and sustained actions.
TIN: How do we address the worsening air quality in our metro cities, especially Delhi?
PBS: I must not hesitate to remind our citizens that the Air Quality of Delhi and NCR region has been a matter of grave concern for the last few years. Alarms were raised when AQI touched 999 in the month of October 2016.The problem was further compounded with the crop residue (Pallari) being burnt by farmers of the NCR region that surround the capital city of Delhi. It was ironical that on the same day it was found that the AQI was 14 in New Jersey, 16 in Munich and 30 in London. We also knew that New York/New Jersey, London and Munich were as polluted or even worse than Delhi in 1950s, 1960s and up to 1970s, but the timely interventions of the policy makers, planners and the government that recognized the problem with a sense of urgency and thus rolled out strategic policies and actions that ultimately resulted in mopping out both air and water pollution in these mega world cities. With many of the Indian cities being repeatedly listed as the worst polluted cities of the world, the health of one-sixth of humanity living in India is at grave risk, I need not over voice.
TIN: How about the global pollution scenario?
PBS: New research and findings are constantly indicating severe impact of air pollution on life and human health, in addition to the larger impact on Climate Change. On the other hand, in spite of significant worldwide progress made in improving air quality, 92% of the world population still lives in places where air quality much exceeds the WHO guidelines of 20 micro grams per cubic meters for particulate matter such as PM2.5. According to WHO Report 2018(6) an estimated seven million deaths were associated with air pollution. This cause of mortality accounts for 11.6% of all global deaths.
TIN: Coming back to India, what are the challenges we face in terms of environment pollution and what do we need to do to justice to our growth of economy?
PBS: As far as India is concerned, on one hand we have great opportunities of accelerating our economic growth to make it $5.0 trillion Economy by 2024, on the other hand, we have a monumental challenge of tackling of Air and Water Pollution in India.
With 14 out of 15 world’s most polluted cities being in India as per IQ Air Report 2019, we have the gigantic task of mopping out Air Pollution from our mega cities and industrial towns, state capital and satellite towns. A sense of great urgency on the part of the government and the society at large is required to mount strategic actions on war footings to put the house in order.
TIN: What are the initiatives taken by other nation in terms of addressing this environment pollution issue?
PBS: The case studies of New Jersey, London, China and Singapore are highly revealing as they provide a window to the utmost seriousness with which the problem of Air pollution is to be addressed through a well-planned strategic vision and well monitored execution of the action plan. Singapore and China should provide a great learning experience for us as to how the monster of Air Pollution is taken head-on and on a fast track, the nation is to be pulled out of the disaster of our own making, while the tempo of economic growth is sustained.
Beijing, the Capital of the most populated and prosperous country of the world, that was labelled as one of the 20 most polluted city in the world in 2013, today is out of the list of 200 most polluted cities of the world with PM2.5 staying around 42.6 on annual average.
TIN: What about the efforts of the Delhi Government to contain the rising pollution?
PBS: Recognizing the urgency to tackle the monumental challenge of Air Pollution in Delhi, soon after the festival of Diwali in October 2016 when AQI shot up to 999, the Government of Delhi went into rationing its vehicular traffic by implementing Odd-Even Phase-I in January 2016 and again Odd-Even Phase-II in April 2016. AUH conducted its Air Quality Studies during the Odd-Even Phases and its report clearly established that significant improvement in AQI in capital city of Delhi was achieved, partly due to reduced traffic density and partly due to better driving conditions and no traffic jams, cutting down travel time for commuters during these rationing periods. However, the efforts were mocked by some without realising that the western disturbance bringing dust storm in April 2016 deprived the benefits of improved air quality due to sudden increase in PM10 during Odd-Even Phase-II. Apparently, the pressures of public due to inconvenience of Odd-Even forced the Government of Delhi to give up the idea Vehicular traffic rationing.
TIN: Do you think the efforts will be continued post-Lockdown scenario in Delhi?
PBS: Surprisingly now that un-Lockdown 1.0 has begun there is no emphasis on odd-even or measures to prevent return of our mega cities and industrial towns to pre-COVID degradation of environmental health. Why should the New Normal not be bold enough to emphasise on bringing Electric Vehicles in plenty on the roads of Delhi and all mega cities without further delay and why not green engineering and green technologies be made the thrust of R&D and innovations that are funded by the Govt of India.
TIN: Can you talk about the Union Government’s efforts of in terms of commissioning the National Clean Air Programme 2019? Where do we stand now?
PBS: As India is sitting on an Air Pollution disaster, the ruling dispensation, as early as January 2019 had commissioned the National Clean Air Programme, NCAP 2019 aiming at cutting down air pollution by 30% from the levels of 2017 in the next five years.
But the prime question is that whether NCAP could be further strengthened with even bigger aims and with more effective strategies and actions, now that we have reliable monitoring network and opportunities to implement innovative solutions backed by Artificial Intelligence, AI embedded in our strategic decision making tools and trying out revolutionary technology shifts towards green engineering in various sectors such as energy, automobiles and industries. Nothing prevents us the people of India and our Government in Centre and in States to revamp our NCAP 2019 to NCAP 2020 and resolve to put policies and actions in place to achieve the levels of Air pollution not higher than 20% of the levels of 2017 by 2024 and not just 20% reduction as was originally planned in NCAP 2019. Such like bold initiatives are needed to save lives and create the bliss of development and growth. And it is doable.
It is our considered view that the need for the strategic policy framework and actions on war footing cannot be over emphasized. As such, we should explore and adopt a positive approach to brainstorm on solutions that shall cause a quantum improvement in Air Quality in the most polluted cities of India, that include Delhi and its 04 satellite towns in NCR, namely, Gurugram, Faridabad and Ghaziabad, now that the COVID un-Lockdown has begun.
TIN: There is this drastic improvement of air pollution post COVID-19 Lockdown. How do we sustain this?
PBS: I must not hesitate to add that having seen the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on improvements in environmental health and commensurate reduction in Respiratory Diseases, Heart Strokes, Kidney failure and even Liver and Brain disorders, as the superspeciality hospitals have remained largely less occupied to receive such cases, it was thought that the graded opening of Lockdown would be associated with concrete plans, implementable policies with a firm resolve to maintain environmental health while we reboot our economic activity.
But I am sorry to say that there no such mention in any of the announcements of the Union Government nor such a commitment finds any place in the massive package of Rs. 20 lakh crore for tackling the COVID impact on people and on the national economy. This we need to seriously pursue with the Centre and state governments as the opportunity to put our house in order is now that we have understood the value of life shoulder and above other economic considerations.
TIN: Can you elaborate on the case studies of London, NY, Beijing and Singapore with respect to their tackling hte air pollution, at the same time, accelerating their economic activities?
PBS: The case studies of London, New York, Beijing and Singapore, with respect to their tackling the monumental challenge of air pollution and giving fresh air to breathe to their citizens while the industrial and economic activity was accelerated, this must not be confused with their COVID crisis management that is largely due to the failure to recognise the problem at an early stage and ward off from influx of visitors bringing infection into their countries.
TIN: Air pollution is there. But what about other pollution?
PBS: While we understand the nexus between Environmental health and the Human health, let it now lose our sight that apart from Air pollution, it is water pollution, food adulteration and the mental agonies caused by the increased noise pollution in the cities and also in the hinterlands that is playing havoc with human health. Therefore, the expert from various Academic Institutions, Research and Development organisations Regulatory Bodies and the NGOs have the great opportunity to engage in the gigantic task of mitigating environmental degradation and they further have the opportunity to raise its serious concern now that a New India is in the making post COVID-19 and the great opportunity to draw a New Normal is now with us as a Nation that has given to the world the mandate to have a happy and healthy life of 100 years for human beings as the Vedas proclaim “JivemSaradaSatam”.
TIN: Apart from air pollution, water pollution has become increasingly dangerous. What are the efforts we are taking in terms of addressing this issue?
PBS: when I look into the water pollution, it is frightening to note that almost 60% of sewage in India is being discharged untreated into the water bodies and river streams. As per the CPCB report of 2015, it was revealed that out of 61,948 million litres of urban sewage generated daily, as much as 38,000 million litres go untreated. This is the crux of the problem. Unless we invest heavily on wastewater treatment and make zero waste water discharge a matter of compliance, we shall continue to pose a major threat to our lives in India.
In fact, It makes a big sense to treat sewage and recycle treated waste water. In all our Amity Universities in India, we have adopted a near zero waste water discharge policy and have implemented most modern sewage and waste water treatment systems that also include recycle and reuse of treated waste water for use in flushing in toilets in the campus buildings including residences and hostels as also for use in maintaining a lush green campus environment. This along with extensive rain water harvesting makes our Amity campuses water secured and this alongside with green energy harvesting and energy efficient building design have earned us Platinum LEED Certification for our Amity campuses from US Green Building Council.
A success story in this regard is also from the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), in Tamil Nadu, that formulated a set of service standards setting the scene for accelerated wastewater reuse and the “Zero Water Discharge in Chennai” programme in 2018. All stakeholders, including government authorities, the private sector and citizens, were mandated by a set of regulations and bylaws to ensure maximum reuse of water and wastewater to safe quality standards.
The Corporation on its part ensured 100% sewage collection and treatment of 70% sewage water and recycle and reuse of treated waste water. This has resulted in 15% of total water demand being met from recycled waste water, with 378 MLD capacity STPs installed and further 90 MLD planned by 2021 and another 360 MLD by 2030, that shall make Chennai as the “Zero Waste Water Discharge” city in India by 2030 as per waste water report 2018 by International Water Association.
As such it is doable and must be made mandatory for all Metropolitan cities and also for large university campuses, co-operative housing societies, Corporates and Industrial establishments. The government on its part must invest heavily on urban waste water treatment and on research and innovations in the area of water science and waste water treatment technologies and declare it a thrust area of high national priority.
TIN: How do we address the issue of e-waste in India?
PBS: It would also be appropriate at this stage to mention the menace of e-waste in India that is posing a monumental theat to human health as already India is the fifth largest producer of e- waste, currently estimated to 5.2 million tonnes per annum in 2020. Further, India legally imports 50000 tonnes of e-waste from abroad. While e-waste recycling is a source of income for many people in India, it also poses numerous health and environmental risks because of illegal recycling using rudimentary techniques that can release toxic pollutants into the surrounding area posing a serious health hazard.
TIN: Of late, Bio-Medical health hazard too is looming large in the Indian horizon. How do we deal with this menace?
PBS: This certain is another area of environmental health hazard that we should pay an increasing attention to, especially the hazardous bio-medical waste from our hospitals in India. Currently this is the least talked about area of concern, while COVID-19 Pandemic must awaken us on the dire needs for effectively disposing the hazardous biomedical waste as the threat from the microbial kingdom can play havoc to our lives and livelihood.
TIN: Last, but certainly not the least, what is the appeal that you want to make in terms of addressing all the above mentioned issues?
PBS: I would conclude by making my humble submission to eminent environmental experts, policy planners, young researchers, concerned citizens and NGOs involved in monitoring, Modelling and analysis of environmental pollution and its impact on environmental and human health to engage in deep study and research, evolve innovative solutions, implementable solutions and awaken the people at large of the importance of maintain clean and healthy environment in cities as well as country sides as it is ultimately the health of environment that shall determine our life expectancy, even our survival on planet Mother Earth.
Let us take a resolve to create a New Normal of development and growth that shall guarantee our march on the pathways of green engineering and green technologies propelled development with happiness and creating smiles on the faces of billions of our people around the globe and assure a healthy living on planet Mother Earth. Let the right to breathe clean air and to have clean potable water be made a fundamental right of the citizens of the global world.
I shall fail in my duty if I do not place on record the painstaking efforts invested by the Organising team led by Dr Jitender K Nagar of Delhi University under the able mentor-ship of distinguished Principal Dr GK Arora and the visionary guidance from its patrons and advisors in making a Webinar based National conference on June 5, 2020 on World Environment Day, organised at this scale so successfully that we have such a large virtual assembly of eminent speakers, researchers and young scientists and inspired participants all committed to creating a bright future for the mankind and a firm resolve to assuring excellent health of the environment yet accelerating development and inclusive growth.