In 2018, a Gurugram schoolboy noticed the plethora of single-use plastic items in posh eateries. These disposables, such as straws, spoons, wrappers, sachets, etc are made from polypropylene, a material that can neither decompose easily nor can be recycled easily. The boy, Aditya Mukarji, made a presentation on the subject to a nearby café, explaining the viability of using environment-friendly ones made of paper or steel. Encouraged by the response, the teenager approached others. His campaign snowballed and in two years it convinced over 150 restaurants, hotels and institutions to go plastic-free.
In 2009, Monisha Narke returned home to Mumbai with a master’s in industrial engineering from Stanford University. She began segregating waste at her flat in Mahim, undeterred by the fact that she was the only one doing it. Soon, she converted her neighbours. Narke and her group went on to rainwater harvesting, tetra-pack recycling and organic gardening. Today, she runs a non-government organisation, ‘RUR: Are you Reducing, Reusing, Recycling?’
In 2017, Pune schoolboy Haaziq Kazi was washing his hands when his Eureka moment came. The washbasin whirlpool gave him the solution he was looking for. The 11-year-old had been thinking of ways to mop up the plastic and other waste in the oceans which is ingested in one form or the other by nearly 66 per cent of all fish and which kills some one million birds annually. Kazi decided to use the same concept to suck in waste from the oceans. His project ended in ERVIS, a large prototype ship that acts as a gigantic vacuum cleaner with many cleaning tubes attached to many dust bags. He presented the idea at the TED-Ed Weekend in New York in June 2017 to a rapturous response.
Earth Day mantra
‘Think globally, act locally’ is the mantra to apply, as we look forward to Earth Day (April 22), which marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. The three examples also capture the theme of Earth Day 2021, which is, Restore Our Earth.
The first step towards this is climate literacy; basically, our planet is warming up too fast, leading to increasingly freak weather. The current global average temperature is 0.85 degrees Centigrade higher than it was in the late 19th century.
The main cause for this is carbon dioxide released from the burning of oil, gas, and coal. It is one of the gases which act a bit like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun's heat and stopping it from leaking back into space.
As the earth’s atmosphere heats up, it collects, retains and drops more water, changing weather patterns and making wet areas wetter and dry areas drier.
Climate change calamities
The damage from such climate change calamities is colossal. Amphan, the super cyclone that hit Kolkata and parts of Odisha last May and the floods in many parts of the country between June and October rank among the ten most expensive extreme climate events in 2020, says a study by Christian Aid, a UK-based non-profit organisation. Collectively, these ten events caused damages of over Rs 10 lakh crore ($141 billion), 322 times higher than India’s annual budget for the environment.
While reducing the emission of carbon dioxide by switching to solar and wind energy and cleaner fuels is the long-term solution to climate change, every citizen and every city can do their bit to reduce global warming.
Mumbai’s main challenge is coping with the rising sea level caused by the melting polar caps and glaciers. Along the Indian coast, the sea is rising at the rate of 1.7mm per year and scientists predict that by 2050 there will be prolonged flooding in Mumbai’s low-lying areas during the monsoon.
Mumbai at risk
Despite this, the coastal road project is in full swing in Mumbai. Its mangroves, a low-cost natural defence against erosion by the sea, are treated in a casual manner. In fact, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws that protect the coastline from rampant urbanisation are being systematically diluted and dismantled.
Mumbai witnessed a deluge on July 26, 2005, in which more than 400 perished. Last June, Cyclone Nisarga was a close call.
Mumbai calls itself the financial capital of India but it flushes 655 million litres of untreated sewage into the sea every day. Last year, the National Green Tribunal fined BMC Rs 34cr for this. The city’s landfills are overflowing but new dumping grounds are yet to be found.
Rivers or open sewers?
Mumbai’s four rivers should have been tourist spots but they are indistinguishable from open sewers. The nullahs near industrial areas are full of untreated effluents. Industries release noxious gases at night which combine with car fumes and construction dust to form a deadly haze over the city. The hills around the city are quarried to the extent of destabilising their slopes. The sand mafia is so powerful that it operates with impunity.
On paper though, Mumbai is one of the six Indian cities to be chosen as a member of the C40 cities – a global network of cities committed to tackling climate change.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once dismissed climate change as a figment of our imagination, now acknowledges it as a major challenge. Environment, though, is not on the top of his list. Nor is it on the top of Aaditya Thackeray’s list, though he pays lip service to it as the state’s environment minister.
Mumbai’s eco-warriors have seen some success in campaigns on mangroves, on cleaning rivers, on illegal quarrying, on smoke from landfill fires and on open spaces but given the lack of political will, protecting the environment is an uphill task. The tide may be turning though if Aarey is any indication; in 2019, ordinary citizens put up a spirited fight to save the small forest in Goregaon from being cut for a metro carshed.
The city has had environmental activists such as the late Salim Ali, the late Shyam Chainani and the late Darryl D’Monte. Carrying the baton forward are Stalin Dayanand, Sumaira Abdulali, P K Das, Naina Kathpalia, Neera Punj, Debi Goenka, Nandkumar Pawar, Sunil Agarwal, Jagdish Gandhi, Janak Daftari, Dr Sandeep Rane and Rajkumar Sharma, to name a few.
It is also heartening to see grassroot activists such as Ketaki and Jai Bhadgaonkar of Bombay61, which works to improve community participation and craft bottom-up solutions.
Looking out for Mumbai
Meanwhile, citizens need to start demanding basic amenities in slums, efficient garbage management, stormwater drains, a serious effort to curb water and air pollution, water-permeable pavements and ponds to tackle flooding, contour maps to demarcate flood-risk zones, water harvesting, action to tackle the heat island effect, electric buses, solar roofs on public structures, open spaces, a tree policy, better footpaths, cycle tracks, etc. The forthcoming civic polls present the best opportunity.
Protecting the planet should begin with protecting our own city, our own localities, just as Aditya Mukarji, Monisha Narke and Haaziq Kazi did. Your city is your home. No politician is going to save it for you. In fact, you have to save it from them.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.