Are we really connecting with Nature?

Musings on World Environment Day: Let’s make a start by addressing issues closer to us

Priyanka Agarwal | June 5, 2017


#Bangalore   #SDGs   #MDGs   #Nature   #World Environment Day   #Environment  
(Photo courtesy: Twitter/@UNEP)
(Photo courtesy: Twitter/@UNEP)

The internet is flooded with updates on activities planned for this World Environment Day (WED) for “Connecting People to Nature”. For years, activities in the name of WED are limited to tree-planting events and nature walks organised by and for all and sundry, and this year is no different. It deeply troubles me to see that people fail to realise the significance of this day and the main motive behind this year’s theme. Observed every year on June 5, this day according to the United Nations is supposed to serve as “the ‘people’s day’ for doing something positive for the environment, galvanizing individual actions into a collective power that generates an exponential positive impact on the planet”. Unfortunately, it has got limited to serving as an opportunity for everybody to display empty gestures directed towards saving the environment while knowingly or unknowingly they mercilessly destruct it.
 
With each advancing year, the glimpses of our self-destructive dreadful future can be seen in the form of extreme climatic events as a result of anthropogenic activities. Loss of green spaces and trees, issues of solid waste management, deteriorating quality of water, reduction in availability of freshwater, over-usage of fossil fuels, rampant consumption of plastic and its derivatives, over-harvesting of natural resources, habitat destruction and extinction of species are the alarming issues that need to be addressed both at the global and local level.
 
In fact, there are many problems even around us that we remain unaware of or not sensitised enough about, owing to our ignorance. I am currently working in the (erstwhile?) Garden City of India, Bangalore, and unfortunately I have unwittingly become a mute witness of the city’s slow demise every single day. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, recently declared that Namma Bengaluru will be an unliveable dead city in five years; by 2021. 
 
Even then I do not see a sense of urgency among any stakeholder to do something about it; be it in the budgetary allocations by the authority or in people’s movement or efforts towards tackling it. The interests of people remain limited to tea-time conversations, voluntary weekend movements or programmes, writing articles in digital and print media blaming government and authorities. Findings through research on the related topics by a few think thanks get fade away after a bit of media coverage here and there and then we are back to business as usual, honking our way, traversing through treacherous roads out to the workplaces and back to our apartments that are built on lake-beds.
 
The grim Bangalore picture
 
Dramatic increase in urbanisation has drastically affected the beautiful lakes in Bangalore. These lakes have been largely encroached for urban infrastructure – 16 lakes got converted to bus stands (‘ENVIS’). As against 51 healthy lakes in 1985, only 17 good lakes exist today, most of which are toxic with very little dissolved oxygen. The city is facing the burgeoning issue of waste management. An estimated 3,500 tonnes of solid waste garbage is generated per day with per capita waste generation of 0.4-0.6 kg per day (source: BBMP). Currently, there are only 938 parks (excluding Cubbon Park and Lalbagh) covering only 0.55% (391.83 hectares) out of 70,900 hectares of Bangalore city for a population of 8.426 million  (horticulture department, BBMP). According to a study by the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Bangalore, the area occupied by the water bodies reduced to just 1,005 hectares (1.47%) in 2005 from 2,324 hectares (3.4%) in 1973. On the other hand, the built-up area during the same period increased from18,650 hectares (27.3%) to 30,476 hectares (45.19%). Such large changes are reported to adversely affect livelihoods and biodiversity through frequent flooding and micro-climatic changes in the city.
 
There is no denying the fact that awareness and action towards environmental issues is comparatively higher than a few years ago. The shift from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also displays the need to keep environment at the centre of every targeted developmental goal. Numerous organisations and movements have been established and started worldwide to create awareness and find concrete solution to the current environmental issues. Regrettably, most of these turn ineffective owing to general lack of interest and commitment by the citizens.
 
So what can be done?  
 
A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that impacts are going to continue even if rigorous mitigation measures are adopted. Solutions to existing issues should not be looked at just in terms of technology, but change in human approach is required. It is high time we connected with environment at a deeper level than what is generally being done symbolically and holding temporary events. We need to work towards sustainable and permanent change in lifestyle choices and our consumption patterns. A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to identify what each one of us can do to address environment related problems proximate to us. There is a need for platforms like a ‘People’s Environment Network’ to make the common man aware of the problems proximate to him and listing of roles that each stakeholder can play to address them.
 
We should start by addressing issues nearer to us; easier to implement, simple solutions to which can be adopted both at an individual and community level. The best way to celebrate this day is by realising that collective action with targeted solutions is the way forward. A step towards this is taken by the organisation I work currently in, Public Affairs Centre (PAC) – a not-for-profit think tank dedicated to good governance and environmental sustenance, in the Environment Governance Group. PAC decided to practise what it preaches – by taking efforts to make its two-acre campus carbon-neutral. PAC has now installed solar PV hybrid power plant sufficient to meet the energy requirements of its research and administration wings with the surplus being fed to the electricity grid on weekends. A rainwater harvesting system was also put in place with an estimated harvest of 7 million litres of water annually which is used for various office requirements and to recharge wells installed aids in recharging groundwater levels in the parched industrial area.
 
In addition, an automated weather monitoring station is set up within the campus, the output data from which is displayed on a screen in the reception area. Apart from these major game changes, we have taken a step further by putting in place compost pits in the un-used areas of our campus where wet-waste is collected after segregation and is composted and used for small-scale organic farming of vegetables within the campus. PAC green campus initiatives through this integrated and comprehensive model involves a growing diversity of motivations, such as energy and water security, setting example for other organisations. Therefore, if organisations have the will they can start change right at the workplace as well.
 
Existing policies have strict rules and regulations but the problem of effective implementation due to lack of awareness and intent is a big obstacle. Active citizenry can play an important role here to increase accountability. We should refuse to participate in this destruction process and resolve as a community to find solutions to problems affecting us and our city. If it is not done sooner, in the process of destroying this city, we will in turn become the victim of this destruction.
 
Agarwal is a programme officer with the Environment Governance Group at Public Affairs Centre, a Bangalore-based not-for-profit think tank.
 

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