Prajna Pathak


Asian pollution, "Time" magazine reported recently, has crossed the Pacific and affected California and Washington. Pollution knows no boundaries, nor does it need a visa to enter a country. Hence, pollution-wise the world is one. Yet, when it comes to cleaning up, the world is not one but many. This ironical paradox is a tragedy of modern times.

Katmandu, nestled among the highest mountains in the world, had been, until fairly recently in history, free from pollution. However, nowadays, massive pollution and eco-problems diminish the quality of life in this once pure, lush, and fertile valley. Katmandu's air is dusty and smoke-filled; its rivers are like open sewage, and its garbage lies scattered everywhere like hay to be dried in the sun. The narrow streets of Katmandu are jammed with smoke-belching three-wheelers, buses, and scooters. Water for drinking, washing, and cleaning is scarce. With too many people and the corresponding destruction of the surrounding forests, the rivers are drying up, rainfall has become unpredictable, and extreme temperature fluctuations prevail. Every year the papers report landslides, floods, and famines. Acid rain destroys crops and buildings, while the unbreathable air causes cancer, emphysema, and other afflictions. Moreover, air pollution contributes to such global environmental problems as the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, and loss of agricultural productivity.

Yet the denizens of Kathmandu appear oblivious to the fact that their city owes its sustenance to the wilderness which surrounds it. They appear unaware that the world is like an organism whose different parts are interdependent. As Pete Wilkinson writes in his book, "Friends of the Earth": "A typical dogmatic view--that if an area contains no human life, then it's there to do whatever you like with it. Nobody sees that there are other passengers on this planet with us and they have a function to perform. And here we are preparing to chop the whole lot down before properly finding out what that function is. It's just crazy."

Thus, disastrous consequences follow air pollution in Kathmandu and elsewhere, yet the problem persists. Why? Several interlocking reasons contribute to the current impasse in our country and elsewhere. For politicians and business magnates, immediate gains are more attractive than clean air, forests, and long-term sustainable plans. The public, for its part, is apathetic and misinformed. Thus, corruption and lack of wisdom on the part of the politicians, and apathy and ignorance on the part of the public, conspire to muddy our waters, contaminate our soil, and defile every lungful of air we breathe.

Another part of this complex equation of environmental degradation is this: too many people and most of them ill-educated or illiterate. Nepal's population has tripled in the last thirty years, while Katmandu's more than quadrupled. The free border with India is an open invitation to a flood of Indians. Nepal's own fast rate of population growth (2.5%) is adding more to the already swollen-up number. Moreover, migrations from the hills and other parts of the country are boosting the number of Katmanduites. Slowly but steadily the lifeblood of this capital is draining. More people means more dirt and less cleanliness, more poverty and less prosperity, more houses and less greenery. Katmandu has thus become the most polluted place in the whole country, and this is so mainly because there are too many people, too many corrupt politicians, and too little public consciousness.

The vision of a nightmare due to human beings tampering with the ecosystem is anticipated by Philip Larkin in his poem "Going, Going". He says that he had once thought that however we mess with filth and pollution, the earth will always be clean and that however much we cut down trees, trees will remain. But, he says, in England "all that remains for us will be concrete and tyres" because" greed and garbage are too thick-strewn to be swept up now."

We need to remember and practice what our ancestors did in the past to preserve the ecosystem. As Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel-Prize winning scientist, says in his "Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins": "The farmer knows something that the whole of civilized mankind seems to have forgotten, namely, that the resources of life on our planet are not inexhaustible." But apart from this pollution of the physical world, there is yet another form of pollution which is awesome--spiritual pollution. Lorenz continues, "When civilized man destroys in blind vandalism the natural habitat surrounding and sustaining him he threatens himself with ecological ruin. . . Least of all does he notice how much this barbarian process damages his own mind." Lorenz reinforces this point most strongly when he writes: "How can one expect a sense of reverential awe for anything in the young when all they see around them is man-made and the cheapest and ugliest of its kind? For the city-dweller, even his view of the sky is obscured by the skyscrapers and chemical clouding of the atmosphere." Lorenz rightly points out the enormous harm pollution does physically, aesthetically, and morally.

What can we do? There is not one easy answer. It is not enough to say that we should not use so many motor vehicles, should not keep open borders, should not allow mass migration into Katmandu, should not cut down trees, should not throw garbage in the streets, should not pour sewage into rivers. . . What is needed is a concerted effort that brings various different perspectives into focus.

Statesmen can do a lot. A caring leadership could mobilize the masses, raise consciousness, organize rallies, and educate the people to the dangers of pollution and overpopulation. Such leadership could help us have fewer children and clean our homes, streets, and neighborhoods. Strict laws regulating engine emissions should be passed and enforced. Better urban and rural planning programs must be implemented. Rural areas need to be furnished with the necessities of life. Schools, health clinics, libraries, water supplies, and roads are needed in every village. Only then mass migration to Kathmandu and other cities will dwindle. It may also be necessary to give people land and house construction loans as incentives to move from Kathmandu into rural areas. Only then will Kathmandu's air become breathable again.

The earth is for all creatures, great or small. Only a well-balanced ecosystem can ensure the continuity of life. Pollution is the worst foe of a healthy ecosystem. It is not just a national problem, for it can and does cross national boundaries. All the world's nations must sit down together and try to do something so that our children can lead healthy lives. Let us not go for great words but let charity start at home and slowly radiate outward to encompass the entire globe. Polluted Katmandu means polluted New York, Tokyo, Cairo, and Rome; just as clean Kathmandu means clean Beijing, Johannesburg, Sydney, and Detroit. One scientist's words about the greenhouse effect are true for air pollution: "the recipe for health and wealth is simple; the wisdom to use it, absent." This lack of wisdom may ultimately turn the world away from light to darkness.

To conclude the essay I can do nothing better than quote from Anuradha Chaudhary's wonderful "How Sane Are We?": "If we fail to take decisive action, if we fail to bring about fundamental changes in our ways of thinking and doing politics, we just might sink and drown." I hope we are sane enough to hang together or, as Ben Franklin said, we shall surely all hang separately.

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