Something in the airLooks like Dustmandu is going to continue to live up to its name for the foreseeable future
If we were to take the framers of the 2015 constitution literally at their word, it seems possible that Kathmandu denizens could bankrupt the government quite easily. For in Article 35 that deals with the citizens’ right to clean environment, the fundamental law of the land not only categorically grants everyone the right to live in a ‘clean and healthy environment’ but also stipulates that victims are even ‘entitled the right to compensation from the polluter’.
Dust from Melamchi
As everyone who lives in or has been to Kathmandu recently will agree, no agency is perhaps more responsible for the Capital’s suffocating environment than the government itself. It is primarily the widening of the roads and the Melamchi drinking water pipeworks that are responsible for making us breathe in copious quantities of dust every time we venture out.
It is Melamchi though that has come out as the villain of the piece so far. Despite all the directives given by one high official after another to fix the problem, and assurances by the concerned that something is going to be done, we see little evidence of it. The question on everyone’s lips is what our water mandarins were doing when all the road widening was taking place some time back, to now come out and start breaking up freshly black-topped roads all over Kathmandu. Why was it not possible to simultaneously lay the pipes then and not wait until everything was spick and span to start the process all over again?
Granted, project planning requires things to happen sequentially, with one target having to be met before the next phase begins. Considering that Nepal cannot afford to tear up roads and re-lay them over and over again, had there been some proactive, and thinking, technocrats in charge, exceptions could certainly have been sought to put in the pipes when roads had already been dug up. Not to mention the savings that would have entailed the project and the country, Kathmandu could have been spared the dust scourge that is exacting a toll on everyone’s health. But that is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Going back to the government, another reason to take it to task is over carbon-based pollution. The story about the brick kilns is an old one and even after more than a quarter century of environmental activism, the kilns continue to brazenly spew smoke from all corners of the Valley. Displacing the kilns is hardly an answer as some have advocated, since it will only shift the Capital’s problems elsewhere. And, given the never-ending construction boom in Kathmandu and the bricks likely to be trucked in should the kilns be moved out, the net impact on the environment will probably be the same, if not worse. Not that the technology for less-polluting exhaust from brick kilns does not exist. What is required is more stringent regulations, and more effective implementation. Unfortunately, what we often get is regulation and no implementation, or, as often happens, stronger regulations serve only to increase graft.
On the question of regulations, it was with some amount of fanfare that the government introduced the ban on public vehicles older than 20 years from plying in Kathmandu. First off, one does wonder why the government thinks that some Nepalis (ie, from Kathmandu) are more equal than others to introduce such an important regulation for the Valley alone. The roll-out itself has not been smooth though. That was a plan announced two years ago, and yet no one seems to know with any certainty how many vehicles have been affected. Neither does the purpose of the rule appear clear, although everyone seems to assume that it is to check carbon pollution. Until, of course, one learns that the Safa electric three-wheelers that form an integral part of the public transport network were also taken off the roads.
It beats reason though why such a rule should have been introduced at all. If the purpose was to control carbon-based pollution, a vehicle’s age or status as a public carrier is perhaps the least scientific way of determining what is safe. Observant individuals will have noted that there is any number of private and government vehicles that are guilty of emissions of the worst kind, and also equally guilty are many of the quite-new public vehicles. Even if the 20-year rule had some validity in science, what about vehicles that are 18 or 19 years old? Are we to suppose that once the 20-year barrier is breached, pollution from such vehicles suddenly becomes intolerable? And, what about those owner-drivers who lovingly care for their sole means of livelihood that would put to shame most of us, but on whom the rule would fall with equal and indiscriminate weight.
Anyone can see that the matter could be easily resolved by introducing rules on emission levels that are applicable to any vehicle, whether just out of the showroom or of 50 years’ vintage. It would also require the government to guarantee the quality of fuel, and simply introducing a higher grade of fuel, as we have done with the import of Euro 4 fuel recently, is no answer. Random spot checks should be carried out to ensure fuel suppliers’ compliance to the standard while similar inspections of vehicles will be required to ensure that vehicles have been maintained in a condition appropriate to reduce emissions. Most importantly, it would also get rid of the sick joke of the green sticker attesting to a vehicle’s having met environmental standards for the year. But, again, more regulations means more opportunities for graft, and that is the tougher nut to crack.
Following the constitutional provision on clean environment mentioned above, the government has also been given an escape clause that goes: ‘Nothing in this article shall be deemed to prevent the State in making laws to maintain adequate balance between environment and development for the purpose of acts of national development.’ For some reason, the balance always seems to be in favour of development, and against the environment. In a few months, the inconvenience of the dust will be washed away by the flow of water from Melamchi for the parched city. But if we are hoping for a reprieve from dust, we will have to think again. For, yet another project is in the offing, the one to lay underground cables for power distribution in Kathmandu. Dustmandu is going to continue to live up to its name for the foreseeable future.