The urban rural divide in the context of the Covid pandemic is clearly discernible. The percentage of infection and causality is very high in case of cities. The bigger the worse. No doubt overcrowding is one reason. A study about the pandemic in Delhi has found that the lungs of people living in Delhi are already weak. Hence the high percentage of serious cases.
A well greened city like Bengaluru has no better in air quality. Its notorious traffic jams makes each vehicle ten to twelve times more dangerous. So, only planting trees is not enough. Cities anyway pose inherent limitations on space and there is a limitation on how many trees can be planted.
Whenever I go past the city outskirts I pity the trees of the farmhouses. I imagine how in a future that is not far away ninety percent of these trees would be cut to make space for a new apartment complex or villa or school or office or some other commercial establishment.
Cities are exploding with population. A city like Bengaluru houses twice the population of a country like New Zealand. While more houses are built to house the increasing population there is hardly any plan in place to neutralize the damage to the environment.
Cities are expanding in as bizarre manners as possible. An outer ring road becomes a road inside the city in just five years. Every year a city claims more and more areas as part of its urban jurisdiction so as to collect more tax and so that the property rates can appreciate. Policy makers seem to favour the increase of urban area as urban areas contribute more to the GDP than the rural areas. Once again economics wins over environment.
I am all for urbanization. But it should not come in the form of bizarre horizontal expansion of the big cities which are already so much strained to provide basic amenities and congestion free roads and which are already deprived of greenery and clean air.
To ease the congestion in big cities the concept of satellite towns had come up a few decades back. But unfortunately these are satellite towns no more even though they may be still existing on paper as such. Hardly any gap exists between these so called satellite cities and the big cities.
Perhaps governments should draw a lakhmana rekha around big cities and say that it should not expand beyond this point. Let there be vertical growth. Let more and more sky scrapers come up. Cities like Singapore, that have natural limitations to horizontal growth, have found ways to accommodate growing population and increased economic activity. At least such a step will not destroy the greenery of its outskirts. Moreover, as the distance from place to place within the city does not increase, it may to some extent curb vehicular pollution.
Perhaps governments should turn attention to develop tier-II cities. Here again care should be take to avoid horizontal expansion. There are some industries that require allied industries to be located nearby. But why should the IT and ITES industries be concentrated at one place? In fact if the internet capabilities are improved employees can work from their native places. The pandemic has shown that it is possible. Even after the pandemic is over such practices can be encouraged to reduce burden on traffic.
Steps should be taken on priority to reduce vehicular pollution – whether it is by introducing more and more vehicles using green energy, or improving mass transit systems that run on clean energy, or using other alternatives like enforcing work from home for certain number of days for sectors where remote working is possible, or ensuring that place of works are located near the respective place residence, or any other suitable method.
Remote rural areas are not totally devoid of air pollution. Take the case of stubble burning. In addition to causing air pollution, it impacts the quality of the soil. Lots of awareness drives are needed to persuade the farmers not to do this.
Or, take the cases when polluting industries are relocated from cities to hinterlands. The sooner we get rid of polluting technology of any kind it is better. Till such time policies should be in place to mitigate the damages done by the industries whether these are in urban areas or remote areas.
But it is not so easy. Because, adoption of environment friendly technologies increases the cost of production which in turn impacts the competitive edge. For example if it is made mandatory that before the the liquid or gaseous wastes are exited to the environment each industry must treat them to reduce harmful contents, this will obviously increase the cost of production. The Chinese industrial hubs have been struggling with severe air pollution for decades since the industries did not go for such such extra costs to mitigate the damage to environment. China has retained the competitive edge. But it has come at great human cost. Most of the Chinese industrial cities have become uninhabitable.
In view of today’s globally competitive open market system, such economic consequence, always puts local policy makers in a dilemma. Things are complicated. But nothing is worse than being callous. Sometimes developed countries ignore such humanitarian issues of developing and underdeveloped countries. If they were, they would stop buying products from Industries that do not implement technology to reduce harm to the environment.
However, the current pandemic has shown that what is a local problem today has every potential of becoming a global problem tomorrow. If environmental problems are caused due to technology, the solutions also come in the form of technology. Speed with which new technologies are adopted and new policies are made and implemented makes the difference. But that can happen only if all of us us across the globe woke up to the clear and present danger.