Delhi’s air pollution has turned from low to severe over the course of the Diwali weekend due to burning of crop stubbles in nearby states and people bursting crackers in violation of a Delhi state government ban.
While the festival of lights inevitably brings the problem of smoke and ash spewed by crackers, the bigger worry is that of farm fires—a phenomenon that has been gradually choking the national capital even though the vehicle load has somewhat eased because of Covid.
The problem of crop stubble burning is hurting our society in multiple ways. It virtually buries Delhi under a cloud of haze every year, as well as destroys beneficial soil bacteria. Thousands of tons of paddy straw, convertible to green fuels or manure, simply go up in smoke.
The recurring administrative paralysis has now put the ball in the Supreme Court’s domain. Indeed this is one situation that requires wisdom, sagacity and stringent action for the benefit of society.
Burning crop residue is a crime under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981. On 10 December 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned crop residue burning in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab where the practice is prevalent.
In M.C. Mehta vs Union India, the Supreme Court had asked the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to stop their farmers from stubble burning immediately.
It has also warned that their entire administrative and police hierarchy, from the Chief Secretary to the sarpanch to the local policeman, will be held responsible even if one instance of stubble burning occurs in the future.
The apex court held state governments responsible for stubble burning and said that instances of stubble burning would be penalised. It has made the local and civic bodies as “personally responsible” as the errant farmer who puts fire to his crop residue, putting in effect the ‘Polluter Pays Principle.’
STICK ALONE WON’T BE EFFECTIVE
But wielding the stick alone won’t work. Only this week, the number of farm fire incidents in Punjab crossed an all-time high of 73,000. That too, within days of FIRs being lodged against farmers and arrests being made in adjoining states of Delhi. A solution to this complicated rigmarole requires, besides political will, sincerity and earnestness for the sake of everybody’s health.
What prompts farmers to burn their rice stubble in northern India?
A combine ‘harvester and thresher’ used in harvest of paddy, the machine leaves behind a significant length of straw and stubble on the field. This straw, lying on the field, comprises the stalk and the leaves of the crop with limited nutrients. It is reported that is September-October each year, farmers burn an estimated 35 million tons of crop waste from their paddy fields as a low cost straw disposal practice.
With often only a couple of weeks gone between the rice-harvesting season and the start of wheat-sowing, farmers burn the debris to clear the field quickly for the new crop. For them, every day matters.
The apex court has realised that regulatory action won’t be enough to resolve the problem. After all, the majority of our farmers are small and marginal, who struggle to employ farm machines needed for sowing, let alone afford equipment required to clear stubble from their fields.
In its wisdom, therefore the court has directed that a sum of Rs 100 per 100 kg (quintal) be provided, especially to small and marginal farmers, along with farm machinery free of cost to prevent them from burning the stubble.
However, such a measure would amount to states having to pay Rs 2,000 per acre to support such operations besides the additional cost of providing the machines. Moreover, the 2-4 week time window available between harvest of the summer crop and sowing of the winter varieties presents a time challenge. The result is that no state has embraced the proposal earnestly.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has expressed the hope that a new technology developed by the Indian Institute of Technology to spray a chemical that will convert the leftover crop into manure might provide the solution.
Other scientific solutions can be used productively as well. For example, conversion of rice straw into bricks or blocks for use as biogas or ethanol which can substitute pollution-causing petrol and diesel.
It is here that a robust enforcement mechanism, well regulated, under the central government can go a long way. Earlier this month, the Central government introduced a new law through an ordinance to curb air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. The new law dissolved the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) and instead set up a commission with over 20 members.
It also says that “any non-compliance or contravention of any provisions/rules or order/direction of the Commission will be an offence punishable with a jail term up to five years or with fine up to Rs 1 crore or with both.” This will apply to the red zone for stubble burning—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh apart from the Delhi-NCR region.
However, matters related to agriculture are not only sensitive but also complicated. With farmers comprising the country’s largest workforce spread across thousands of farms dotting the countryside, the job of policing them becomes all the more complex. Under the Constitution, agriculture falls in the concurrent list, which means neither the Central government nor state government can regulate this completely.
The Central government is due to submit another report to the Supreme Court to outline the proposed measures to stop stubble burning. Still, the bottom line is that New Delhi will need the support and cooperation of adjoining states for addressing the problem.
PADDY STRAW, A POTENTIAL GOLDMINE
Given the dynamics, the only practical solution can be when both farmers and their state governments respectively see a sufficiently strong financial motivation. World over green fuels are catching on as geographies such as the European Union and Japan are moving towards zero-emission.
India is sitting on a potential goldmine. Thousands of tons of paddy straw can be converted into green fuels like ethanol or even compressed natural gas. Of course, such a solution will require a chain of supportive infrastructure such as warehousing to store the paddy straw bales as well as sufficient processing capacity for their conversion into fuel.
Equally importantly, India will need to set up an efficient logistics system for collection of the paddy straw from the farmers and transporting them to storage hubs. This will not be an easy challenge. However, given that the Food Corporation of India already has the storage infrastructure for wheat, rice and other crops for which it pays a minimum support price, the state machinery should be able to cope with this demand.
Such an initiative will be timely as the government is keen to boost its ethanol blending programme, which currently stands at 5% compared to a targeted 10% for petrol. While it may take time to implement this fully, the programme can go a long way in trimming India’s bloated crude oil import bill.
The problem of farm fires has again underscored the need for better technology for our rural sector. Drone technology has already rescued a swathe of northern India in combating the menace of locusts. Speeding up of the draft rules can go a long way in detecting and fighting stubble burning.
Moreover, effective digitisation can make the task of spreading awareness among farmers that much easier. In essence, the means are very much at hand, if the will is there. Since India has pledged to drive down its emission intensity as part of the Paris Climate Change accord, it is hoped that robust regulation and scientific solution would drive in a new era in handling stubble burning—sooner than later.
Poornima Advani is former chairperson of National Commission for Women, and runs a legal firm called The Law Point. The views expressed are personal.
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ON THE HEELS OF AMUR FALCON IN PICTURESQUE NAGALAND
As the winter months set in, the country welcomes vast numbers of migratory birds flocking to its shores from various parts of the world. These migrating birds spark off the beginning of the birding season in India when thousands of people, from India and abroad, head to the sanctuaries to see their birds of interest. From then on till March and sometimes even early April, birds like the Siberian Rubythroat and the Baikal Teal draw thousands of birdwatchers to their temporary abode, becoming the big draw and stealing the spotlight from the local dwellers.
India interestingly provides a temporary stopover for a less publicised migration event, the flight of the Amur falcon from its home in Russia all the way up to South Africa to avoid the harsh Russian winter. The Amur Falcon is a bird of prey, breeding along the southern Russian far-east, north-east China and North Korea, and migrating to South Africa for the winters after a brief stopover in India. This annual migration is said to be the longest of its kind, and come the months of October and November, thousands of these birds make a halt in the area near the Pangti village and the Doyang reservoir in Nagaland before continuing on their onward journey.
The Doyang reservoir, which came into being when the Doyang river was damned for hydroelectricity purposes, is otherwise a quiet, picturesque location, overrun by birders and photographers alike when the falcons arrive. Trees and power lines along this entire area are suddenly festooned with these raptors, their sharp, chittering noise ubiquitous in these areas during this time. Paradoxically, it was amongst the treetops and in the bamboo fields in the area (and not on the power lines) that the falcons were the most skittish, flying off repeatedly on the slightest indication of human movement, possibly a reaction to a time when they were hunted as food by the people. While the fear of the human beings continues, the Amur Falcon is a very successful conservation story. Several local communities have gotten together to not just protect the Amur Falcon, but also the local, endemic bird populations, leading to a significant uptick in numbers. The very same hunters today act as the protectors of the species, their hunting past a crucial aid in their efforts to keep the birds safe.
Pangti and its surrounding areas did not yield any other bird life of note during the trip, and one moved to Khonoma for the endemics. A typical mountainous territory, familiar hill country species like the Great Barbet and the forktails are spotted frequently. A hike up the hillocks yielded the Golden-throated Barbets, a resident bird from the Northeast and Bangladesh. Their vivid colours make them a much sought after bird, but it was the skill and the local knowledge of Angulie Meyase, our birding expert, which enabled us to spot the bird sitting amidst the green foliage.
One of the more interesting finds in Khonoma was the Mountain Bamboo Partridge, found hiding amidst the shrubbery. The bird by itself is not rare, but an interesting piece of history attaches to it. The Bamboo Partridge, Bambusicola Fytchii, is named after Lieutenant-General Albert Fytche who served as Chief Commissioner of British Burma from 1867 to 1871. Lieutenant-General Albert Fytche apparently wrote extensively about the Burmese people, describing them from his interactions with them in course of his travels and official duties, describing their customs, Buddhism, costume, language, literature, legal systems, and the role of women. As part of this effort of documenting life in Burma, he apparently also produced fine colour printed plates of the Mountain Bamboo Partridge and also of an orchid Dendrobium Fytchianum, which was also thereafter named after him.
The best way to see the Amur Falcons and the birds Nagaland is to fix up time with Meyase (094360 71046). Meyase arranged for the stay and the travelling to the birding sites. He would be best placed to provide guidance on the best time to visit Nagaland, depending on what one wants to see. Though Pangti is in the process of building up its infrastructure, the concept of homestays has been available in areas like Pangtis. Meyase had also arranged for accommodation in some very beautiful properties during our stay at Khonoma and is really the one-stop shop for all things birding in Nagaland. Apart from knowing the lay of the land, Meyase puts a whole host of conservation stories and histories into perspective, and one does not merely get to see the birds, but also learns about the local population doing its utmost to protect the birds.
UN report shows staggering rise in climate disasters
The first 20 years of this century have seen a staggering rise in climate disasters, a new UN report has revealed.
The report, titled ‘Human Cost of Disasters 2000-2019’, published by the UN Office on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) on Monday, showed that there has been a dramatic rise in disasters over the last 20 years, due to a rise in climate-related disasters, including extreme weather events, reports Xinhua news agency.
The last 20 years have seen the number of major floods “more than double”. The report also records major increases in storms, drought, wildfires and extreme temperature events. Over the last 20 years, major recorded disaster events claimed 1.23 million lives, impacting 4.2 billion people, many on more than one occasion, resulting in approximately almost $3 trillion in global economic losses.
The report said that disaster management agencies “are fighting an uphill battle against” an ever-rising tide of extreme weather events. More lives are being saved but more people are being impacted by the expanding climate emergency.
Although better recording and reporting of disasters may help explain some of the increase in the last two decades, researchers insisted that the significant rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike, with floods accounting for more than 40 per cent of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people – storms 28 per cent, earthquakes 8 per cent, and extreme temperatures 6 per cent.
“This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires,” according to the report.
Currently, “the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more”, unless industrialized nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2 per cent annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.
With IANS inputs
SC gives more time to Goa mining firms to remove mined ore
In a major relief to mining companies in Goa, the Supreme Court on Tuesday extended the time, till end-January 2021, for the removal of the minerals mined on or before 15 March 2018.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian said, “The lessees (mining firms) are granted time up to end of January, 2021 for the removal of the minerals excavated/mined on or before March 15, 2018, subject to payment of royalties and other charges.”
On 30 January, the apex court had granted six months to all lease holders to transport the mineral already excavated and this period expired on 30 June. The bench noted due to lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the exercise could not be completed, and a few firms filed applications for extension of time with effect from 1 October.
However, the respondent in the case, NGO Goa Foundation, argued that the state government should have invoked Rule 12(1) (hh) to confiscate the minerals allegedly lying at site for the past more than two and half years. In terms of Rule 12(1) (hh) of The Minerals (Other than Atomic and Hydro Carbons Energy Minerals) Concession Rules, 2016, the mineral not removed within a period of six calendar months is liable to be confiscated to the government.
The NGO had filed an application for clarification in September, after the expiry of six months period granted by the apex court, by the judgment.
On this, the SC said: “The quantity of mineral to be removed by each of the lessees shall be determined by the concerned officials with reference to the records of the government maintained at the relevant point of time; If within the time stipulated above, the lessees could not remove the mineral, the government shall invoke the power under Rule 12(1) (hh).”
One of the contentions was in connection with the quantity of mineral allegedly mined on or before March 15, 2018, but lying unremoved from leasehold area.
The state Advocate General stated that the government has complete details about the mineral already excavated and lying at site. “The lessees cannot remove more than what the records of the Government, already maintained in the course of discharge of official duties of the concerned officers, reflect,” the state government had contended before the top court.
In January this year, the apex court had modified its earlier order, allowing the mining firms to transport validly mined iron ore from mines in Goa, within six months, on the condition that they have paid royalty to the government authorities.
The verdict by the apex court was delivered on a plea by mining firm Chowgule and Company Private Ltd. In 2018, the SC quashed the second renewal of iron ore mining leases given to nearly 88 companies in Goa in 2015, banning mining and transportation of iron ore in Goa.
With IANS inputs
Making slum life colourful and environment-friendly
Millions of people are forced to live in an environment filled with frightening
health hazards, excrement, poorly managed waste and plastic. No wonder the
battle to save our environment should begin from these very places.
Here in India, especially Mumbai, most of us are more than aware of the havoc that slum conditions continue to reap for our communities, and in turn, our people. Across our nation, there are millions of individuals living in these unstable environments; environments filled with frightening health hazards, disease, excrement, poorly managed waste, never-ending piles of plastic, and the list goes on, and on, and on.
Whilst this may be the case, we know that at the very heart of our slums, the only thing that truly exists is pure, unfiltered humanity. Beneath the layers of grime, dirt, and poorly managed infrastructures, lies a raw and inherent human urge; an urge to survive, an urge to find a place to call home, a place to raise children, a place to cook and to eat, to laugh and to cry, to learn and to grow, a place to shelter from heavy rains, a place to have hope, hope for a better life, one that is filled with possibility and opportunity.
Social and economic heterogeneity weakens the community and some households are headed by women who must earn a living. This situation has consequences on the health and development of small children and often turning small children into a workforce. On one hand, slums may be a place for individuals to call home, but on the other, they also serve to neglect the very same individuals.
Often found to be in areas close to open-sewer systems, there tends to be very little or no education concerning proper waste management and correct sanitation. The frightening array of negative implications that these shocking living conditions can cause truly are endless. But we must never forget that the people found living within slums are not just any people, they are our people, and they must never be forgotten.
In many instances, it seems that society and our government have conveniently just forgotten about the many people surviving in these areas. Or maybe they just have chosen to turn a blind eye and move their vision away from the unsightly and hard to swallow truths that are so clearly visible to the rest of us.
For the purpose of this article, we feel it necessary to discuss some hard facts concerning slum life for the many unfortunate, and might we add, underrepresented, and marginalised individuals that are barely being housed in overcrowded slums across our nation. A major part of these environmental problems we are facing today have risen out of the steady increase of population, harsh topography as well as lack of proper planning for the development. Especially in Mumbai this has led to an ever-growing demand for the basic civic services and amenities.
The provision for housing and shelter, water supply, sewage and sanitation, health care services, transport facilities, etc, are becoming scarce and costly for slum dwellers. This has a direct effect on the living conditions of the poor who were already subsisting on the margins of their existence. Our research has outlined that a large proportion of the statistics provided for slums in India are highly underestimated. In Mumbai itself, where our project is based, an estimated 55% of individuals live in slums or similar conditions.
It is important to note that it is likely that this percentage is much higher in reality. Mumbai, also known as the ‘city of dreams’, couldn’t be further from the truth in my opinion. These slums and squatters create environmental pollution through their unorganised and unsystematic waste and sewage disposal, congested and unplanned housing. Millions of individuals flock to Mumbai and other cities in India in search of a better life, but in most cases, this is most certainly not what they find. Instead, individuals find themselves barely surviving in ramshackle constructions, surrounded by litter and very often, human excrement.
Slums are often a breeding ground for disease, and within recent months, those living within slums have been some of the worst affected by the destructive coronavirus. Slums are known to be ideal locations for respiratory diseases, decreased life expectancy, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and exploitation. Since water is the basic necessity, the sufficiency and quality of its supply directly affects the well-being of the society living in that particular city. Safe collection and treatment of waste water is almost equally important as the supply part, since inappropriate handling of waste water and sewerage create disease-prone living environments.
For these very reasons, and many more, we are compelled to make a change and to do so, we believe that taking care of our people should be our nation’s top priority. Air and water pollution, lack of personal hygiene, noise and cultural pollution are among the most considerable environmental problems in the area.
A unique initiative Through the Missal Mumbai/India initiative, we are working towards empowering and giving a voice to our people, the forgotten people, the underrepresented people, and those that have previously been neglected by our failing social systems. We believe that with time, hard work, care, love, and compassion, we can help empower individuals in slums to make small changes that will benefit their environment for years to come.
We help educate families on how to take care of their environment for the benefit of their health. By helping to educate those living in slums about the danger of improper waste management and sanitation issues, we hope that residents will start to look at their environment differently, and the dangers that poor management can cause.
By using art and colour, we hope to help individuals view their environment in a different light. Although we are all too aware of the problems that slum-life houses, we also know how unbelievably strong the power of creativity is too.
Through colour and creativity, we want to empower individuals to transform their environment into a place that they can really call home. Since our conception, we have noticed that by using art and colour, some of the slum environments that we have worked in have become more welcoming and friendly, but most importantly these activities have created a much-welcomed change of perception for these desperately undersupported communities.
Every big change in the world today came from a dream, a dream to help those without support, those without hope, and those that continue to be neglected. Rouble Nagi is a social activist who runs the Misaal Mumbai/ India initiative, which started with Paint Dharavi in 2016. Over 150,000 houses have been transformed so far. The main aim is to educate people through art about the importance of children education, empowering women, creating job opportunities for youth, cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation, waste management, etc.
Edited by Ambika Hiranandani
How communities can become more water resilient
Currently, the human population touching 8 billion people is already thirsty for more water. A UN study estimates that by 2100 the population of the world will touch 11 billion, which means there will be millions and millions of parched throats if we don’t act fast. Unequal access to water will exponentially increase the disparities and catapult us into a world where inequalities thrive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only hastened the inevitable reality — mindfully conserve, save and protect or else, face harsh consequences. Water, a resource that is 70% of our bodies and supposed to be free for all — a basic need and right — will now become a metric of evaluating the wealth of a country by the abundance of their water supply.
Global commercial interests are also investing heavily in and buying up water resources. All of us have a role in ensuring equitable distribution and access to water, and it is incumbent upon us to change our behaviour, mindsets and habits.
Keeping water bodies clean, reducing the over-consumption of water, striving for equal distribution of our resources and adding innovative solutions, like small water enterprises, are some of the solutions before us.
Keeping water bodies clean and rejuvenating them could be one of the biggest challenges, primarily because of the intricate interconnectedness of water bodies. If not directly as tributaries, every single water source of the world is connected to groundwater. Contaminating even one part can lead to another part being affected. When we clean a water body, factoring in this network of water systems — visible and not so visible — is critical. Great attention must also be paid to water quality.
Pollutants entering water due to water transportation (watercraft) need to be monitored. Reducing the over consumption of water at a local level might not sound exciting but is actually one of the most impactful ways of protecting this resource. Monitoring the amount of water that a household needs and distribution of the resource based on needs to prevent over-exploitation can help curb consumption. To bolster this very idea, the team at Why Waste? has come up with an app to help consumers calculate their daily water footprint and engage in fun challenges to help them realise where and how they’re overusing water, while teaching them ways to optimize water usage. [https://app.whywaste.io]
Educating people about “virtual water” (hidden water), that goes into the making of every single commodity around us, is critical. A cheeseburger requires 700 litres of water to make; a single pair of jeans requires 2,000 litres of water to make; and a sedan car requires 30,000 litres of water to make. Human consumerism is destroying the planet and depleting resources at an unimaginable rate.
We live and use resources as if we have 1.75 Earths! Curbing consumerism while maintaining economies can be hard but it is important. It can start with promoting goods and products that are locally made, with fewer resources, and fully sustainable. Waterborne diseases take a huge toll on families — especially women and children.
A simple intervention of access to safe, affordable water can prevent a majority of illnesses, saving huge sums of money for the family and the health system as a whole. There is a national focus and momentum to ensure piped water in every household. However, innovative interventions like small water enterprises have been effectively bridging the gap until such a time when the vision of piped water to every home is fully realised.
Many states across the country have installed the Water Purification Plants, commonly referred to as Water ATMs, which ordinary citizens, especially from the lower economic strata of society, can procure at nominal prices. While wealthy families can afford to have sophisticated filtration systems in their homes, these plants have been a blessing for the underserved to get safe water.
Water Knowledge Resource Centres are springing up, alongside these Water ATMs, all across the country in many cities in partnership with local municipal bodies. These centres are serving as knowledge hubs, promoting public awareness, sensitising them on water and sanitation, conservation, judicious use of water and amplifying good practices, especially during the pandemic to improve public health. All concerned are coming together — citizens, civic authorities, water supply officials, NGOs — to share their water related grievances, discuss and act on solutions.
Campaigns engaging and led by communities are needed to raise the public consciousness. ‘Clean Hands Save from Diseases,’ a part of the Global HandWASH campaign, is currently underway led by water NGOs in 11 states of India. The corporate sector has a role in this too. Honeywell, for instance, is supporting the installation of foot pedals for handwashing at hundreds of Water ATMs across the country. Let us talk about the unequal distribution of resources, especially safe drinking water.
It is imperative upon the haves to think of the have-nots and help address this imbalance. This will take a fundamental mindset change and empathy building. Water truly exists in a cycle. It is the one single resource that can be easily reused and recycled, reduced and refused. But it requires collective effort from every single human being on this planet, especially the privileged. Bangalore, for example, is staring at a grim drinking water future.
However, the heartening news is that it has an active citizen’s community working tirelessly. Individuals, like S. Vishwanath (aka ZenRainMan), have led by example in solving Bangalore’s water crisis. His home runs completely on recycled rainwater and he hasn’t paid for water now in years. He is helping people reach this resource, using it judiciously and preserving it.
Several apartments across Bangalore have also begun taking up rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling at a large scale to reduce dependency on the conventional water sources. Initiatives like the “Half Bucket Challenge” have helped bring about a huge change in the mindsets and habits of people. Why Waste?’s #GlassHalfFull movement to conserve water in restaurants went viral in 2019 and continues to have a massive positive impact on the industry with the support of National Restaurants Association of India. Starting the movement with barely 30 restaurants, it has now spread to reach over 5 lakh restaurants. India has dug 22 million borewells as we have been relentlessly “mining” ground water. We say “mining” here because we are doing absolutely nothing to replenish this resource.
Due to concrete paving, water doesn’t seep into the ground anymore. This fast-depleting groundwater resource is critical for our agrocentric economy, besides sustaining the water bodies that need to be recharged. Berlin has shown that cities can transform themselves into sponge cities. How can we transform our water-starved cities into sponge cities?
The images and recent memories of Chennai and Shimla with their dire water situation are too vivid for us to ignore, pretend everything is going to be alright, or that someone else will address this issue. Let us come together and tackle this on a war footing, lest a war breaks out on water!
Garvita Gulhati is the founder of Why Waste? and Ashoka Young Changemaker. Venky Raghavendra is a social entrepreneur and SVP, Saf Water Network.
Edited by Ambika Hiranandani
The lyrical voices of our subcontinent
There has been a marked shift into activist climate-centric art, led by an array of interdisciplinary
thinkers from across the subcontinent. The output has been as surprising as it is exciting.
In this moment of environmental crisis, there’s little point in listing out the major ecological issues facing the subcontinent — borne out of culture, geography and even geopolitics. And unsurprisingly, artists and creatives across South Asia are addressing this state of emergency head on.
The 2020 Lahore Biennale addressed climate at its core, asking “how might we reflect on our place within the cosmos today, at this conjunction of planetary climate crisis and polarities between societies?”
There has been a marked recent shift into activist climate-centric art, led by an array of interdisciplinary thinkers from across the subcontinent. The output has been as surprising as it is exciting.
What has emerged is a group of creators across South Asia who bridge the sciences and the arts: Artists, filmmakers, professors, architects, and writers — each of whom is telling the story of our times.
Their work addresses suffocating urbanisation and infinitely destructive construction and development projects, population growth, the absence of sanitation and sewage infrastructures, animal farming, the destruction of tenuous natural ecosystems and a lack of regulation and layers of incompetence, corruption and negligence in conservation and preservation.
Multi-faceted in vision, approach and experiences, they include trained doctors, lawyers, even computer scientists who are making films, presenting installations at biennales, writing poetry — responding to our shared environmental crises through their varied practices.
Artists like Ravi Agarwal who have for decades worked across creativity and science are having a unique moment — climate change and the environment seem to present a lyrical confluence of these two halves of our world: Our planet, our humanity, and the science needed to protect it.
One of India’s most well known contemporary artists and photographers, Agarwal’s work has been exhibited at Sharjah, Kochi, India Art Fair; and yet in his “day job” he is the founder director of the environmental NGO Toxics Link and has pioneered work in waste and chemicals in India.
And increasingly, creative practitioners are defining themselves as activists for the planet and reaching outside of the bounds of the art world in their collaborations.
Artist and professor Risham Syed digs deep into the urbanisation of Lahore and aligns with a civil society-led resistance to the fast and mad construction over fertile land, the destruction of the Ravi river, overcome by greedy developers and the requisite grasping administrators and stakeholders.
Syed’s students are part of the journey for change with her, the community she brings to the fore in her work. There is strength in diversity, and there is a power from younger voices as much as from the established stars in this field.
Artist studies on water
What feels most central and inexorable for the art world of the Indian subcontinent today remains the issue of water. Running through as a connector — like the seven major rivers of the subcontinent — bringing sustenance and driving glaciers and life down through thousands of kilometres into all corners of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Andaman Sea, artists are drawn to the stories of water in their South Asian present.
Curator Zahra Khan chose Naiza Khan to represent Pakistan at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Together they showcased Manora Field Notes, a subtle and beautiful ode to Manora Island, off the coast of Karachi and in the Arabian Sea — a tiny fishing village presented as a microcosm of the country’s history — of which water, the politics of it, the impact of climate change all figure deeply in their central narrative.
The poet and art critic Himali Singh Soin grew up in Sikkim surrounded by mountains and has been drawn to the representation of time through the lens of the continuously shifting and increasingly vulnerable landscape and ecosystems of the Himalayas. Singh Soin has gone deep on issues of water and the melting polar ice caps, winning the 2019 Frieze artists awards for her research proposal on remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic circles, building a complex narrative on a melting fossil — ice — that has witnessed historic changes throughout time. And Murree resident Saba Khan tells me about Pak Khawateen Painting Club (translated from the Urdu as Pure Pakistani Women’s Painting Club).
The Khawateen are a group of women artists who venture to the frontier of the Indus river for plein air painting of nationalistic infrastructure projects. These include mega hydropower dams in the country’s vulnerable northern areas and barrages in the poor south. In their own words stereotyped “as a benign, bourgeois group of patriotic conformists”, these female artists wear uniforms inspired by Pierre Cardin’s 1960s design for Pakistan International Airlines’ air hostesses and interrogate sites built by powerful men to generate power and energy for the country — subverting those very prescribed roles.
Architecture and sustainability
For architects across the subcontinent, commentary has been turned into action. Karachi based professional architects Tariq Alexander Qaiser and Marvi Mazhar have done extensive research and documentation on Karachi’s mangroves – part of an ecosystem that stretches between Mumbai, Karachi and along the coastline of Iran.
The two worked together on the Mangrove Project, documenting the destruction of this necessary ecosystem as part of the KarachI Biennial in 2019 titled.
Incorporating mixed media and soon to be borne out in the form of a documentary film by Qaiser, “Flight Interrupted: Eco Leaks from the Invasion Desk” considers how Karachi’s toxic environmental crisis has stagnated ecological relationships between her land, waters, and citizens. Both Mazhar and Naiza Khan are students of the deeply political forensic architecture program at Goldsmiths College in London.
The program was founded by a team of architects who decided to use their training to explore space to expose war crimes and social injustice — rooted through the lens of mostly violent countries — Palestine, Turkey, Minneapolis. Activism is at the core of their study. Certainly other practitioners are questioning the making in their own practice, Singh Soin works to minimise the carbon footprint of her work and output.
Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum was listed earlier this year by Prospect Magazine as one of the greatest thinkers for the Covid-19 era, “at the forefront of creating buildings in tune with their natural environments. Tabassum’s practice is built around local materials, sustainable practices and working with communities to consider nature and the environment; she recently unveiled designs for lightweight houses made from locally-sourced materials that perch on stilts and can be moved when the waters rise during Bangladesh’s now regularly occurring devastating floods.
And the celebrated architect and activist Yasmeen Lari has now for decades explored the use of sustainable design and construction techniques in her native Sindh, designing adobe style refugee housing for earthquake victims in Kashmir in 2015 and propagating the mud chulha to bring independence for women and sustainable material usage to homes in rural Sindh. Lari recently won the Jane Drew Prize for women in architecture — an award previously reserved, it was felt, for those who built more, better, higher.
Where are we going next?
The idea of less, of holding back, of creating space seems more salient than ever. Not just for how and why and where we build, but equally for how we live and begin to treat one another. In a world going online, with borders feeling more penetrating than ever before, location matters. Zain Masud, curator of the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, is one of many who continue to interrogate why and how art is placed in the context of history, climate, community.
In an era of social justice movements, pandemics, and an almost complete loss of control on the next 12 months of our world, surely “art” should mean something to the places in which it is being physically situated and displayed. Leaning into the lessons these designers, thinkers, philosophers are bringing to the fore will serve us all well as we sit at the edges of a hazy and parched (or even possibly submerged) future.
Suhair Khan works for Google and is currently based in London. Her work has mostly focused on the intersection of technology, creativity, culture and (recently) sustainability. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Architectural Association in London and founder of the Open/Ended design residency. Edited by Ambika Hiranandani
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