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Earthquakes, Floods And Smog: Theirs And Ours
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
People in a village along the borders in Poonch district watched a bus on a hill across the Line of Control rock ferociously before it fell into the gorge in October 2005 when a massive earthquake with its epicenter in Muzaffarabad rocked the sub-continent. They watched helplessly even as they were the closest inhabitants to the site of the ill-fated bus. The relations between India and Pakistan were about the friendliest in many years at that time - the peace process was on and both sides were finalizing details on opening of entry routes on the Line of Control as a Confidence Building Measure among other things. Yet, massive destruction on either side, especially in Pakistan Administered Kashmir, did not pave way for collaborating information and expertise in rescue, relief operations and looking at a future of combating natural disasters, the consequences of which are felt on both sides, whether it is floods, quakes and now the alarming levels of pollution. Through the ups and downs of the relations between India and Pakistan, the situation has been the same. Human tragedies fail to invoke a sense of urgency to work together, much less create a sense of bonding among two nations that have a shared culture and a past.

India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, not as an accident of geography but as an accident of history that marked an unnatural division. Politically and economically, the two countries carved out their own respective futures which are dissimilar from each other. But socially, culturally and climatically - it is still not easy to tell the two apart and that is why the destinies of the two nations are inter-twined and connected like that of Siamese twins. Their common issues of illiteracy, backwardness, poverty and superstitions are a legacy of the past. Their different political journeys have not changed much the way of living, thinking and inheritance of all their ideas, emotions and contradictions - that foster individual and collective actions which have a bearing on climatic conditions among other things. Their common and shared geographical topography is something that makes them inescapable from geographical disasters and this shared destiny consequently imposes on them the necessity of recognizing that divided as they may be and embroiled in contentious issues against each other, it would do precious little if they continue to turn their backs to each other or much worse, train their guns on each other.

The recent cover of smog that has enveloped much of north India and major parts of Pakistan is yet another grim reminder that they are threatened by common issues and need to devise common strategies to combat them, rather than flaunt their belligerence as a badge of honour. Reports, quoting global experts, point out that smog-filled cities in north India and Pakistan will continue to experience dangerous level of air quality in the next several months, hazarding people's lives and forcing them to a life of slow poison. November is just the start of the smog season and the air is difficult to breathe on both sides of the borders. This condition of air quality is induced both by the geographical location of the impacted belt as well as the human actions like combustion of fuels, burning of crops and garbage, construction activity and dust. The inversion layer in the atmosphere traps the cold air, causing dense smog. But ways of life that have multiplied the pollution levels contribute to it in a big way. The answer, therefore, lies in changing those ways of life. Joint strategy and co-operation are not only romantic ideas but necessary in view of the impact that environmentally degrading actions on one side alone can have on the other side.

On both sides, levels of PM 2.5, the particles most damaging to health, were more than 30 times the World Health Organisation's safe limit. On both sides, lakhs of people have died due to pollution in recent years. But neither Islamabad, nor Delhi have woken up from the deep slumber to even recognize increasing pollution as a serious issue or an emergency. For years, these pollution levels arouse some feeble concern and hit the headlines because of the way they impact lives but only seasonally. Barring knee-jerk reactions like shutting down schools, putting some vehicles off the roads, stopping construction and industrial activity and gearing up the health infrastructure, nothing much is done. The seriousness of the situation so far has not even inspired the two power centres to take charge and co-ordinate with the impacted state or provincial governments and draw up strategies within their own respective countries. If this exercise begins now, it will still not be enough because smog like many other geographical and geological challenges apparently is a cross-border challenge, far more dangerous than cross-border terrorism, and needs to be treated as such.

The two sides have earlier failed to respond to warnings provided to them by recent catastrophes like earthquakes and floods. It wasn't just about saving lives and joining in relief work. The human contributing element in these natural disasters has shown that human activity on one side of the borders impacts the other side as well. These disasters in the past have reflected the need for both India and Pakistan to share scientific information pertaining to the possibility of future disasters and also develop joint strategies to minimize the risks. But these never happened. Any dragging of feet now would be criminal. The present smog conditions are a public health emergency and there is need for some out-of-the-box thinking paving way for radical action plans, policies and strategies. There is need to set aside political differences and work for the common goals of eliminating smog from South Asia and ensuring clean and sustainable development. This is no mean task as it entails a major shift in the government policies and urban planning. Besides, it also makes it imperative to make the important transition from militarizing conflicts to resolving them amicably.

South Asian regional co-operation over common challenges has always been the casualty of military doctrines that dictate the politics of the region, India and Pakistan primarily setting the tone of the discourse. A reversal of this military doctrine and military action in fact should be understood as a primary need for meeting the environmental challenge faced by the region, not only because it will help create a culture and atmosphere of talking but also because there is enough evidence to show that excessive militarization is one of the contributing man made factors impacting the region environmentally. Siachen's vanishing flora and fauna, the melting glaciers and the drying up of or flooding of rivers fed by it is just one case in point. There is dire need to embark on the journey from wars to co-operation. A major reason now is that people on either side of the border have a fundamental right to clean air and right to breathe.

News Updated at : Saturday, November 18, 2017
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