Across classes, castes and regions, jeans are ubiquitous in today’s India. Yet this week in a UP village, a 17-year-old girl was allegedly killed by her own family for defying their ‘no jeans’ diktat. She had started wearing jeans during a stay in Ludhiana. This is a grim reminder that the policing of women’s clothes, often dismissed as banter, presents real threats to their educational and work mobility, and even life.
CMIE data indicates that Indian women’s labour participation rate is 11% as compared to men’s 71%. Lack of safety in public places is a credible contributing factor for this shocking situation. But conditions are often bleak inside homes too. NCRB’s 2019 report says a majority 30.9% of crimes against women concern ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’. NCW notes a sharp rise in domestic violence in the pandemic year.
Plus job cuts of the year have imperilled many a young woman’s big city dream, of greater freedom than at home. It is true that India now has a higher proportion of women STEM graduates at the tertiary level than some developed nations, and their overall GER in higher education has exceeded men’s. The problem is conditionalities: She can go out but she cannot wear the ‘wrong’ dress or meet the ‘wrong’ boys. Women pay a very high price for such injunctions. Let’s stop pretending they are benign.
Subhash Ghashing, 21, took out his mobile phone and logged on to play an online warfare game at around 12.15 a.m. on July 18. While heavy rainfall lashed the city, Subhash continued his virtual adventure in a makeshift balcony-cum-storage space, unaware of the real-life misadventure that was lying in store. His approximately 150 square feet house in New Bharat Nagar stood at the topmost residential lane on a hillock in Chembur, Mumbai, part of around 4,000 such houses packed like matchboxesand spread on the hill slope.
The night before, his cousin sister’shaldiceremony (a pre-wedding ritual) had gone on for a long time, with close relatives visiting from different towns. Inside the small room, his brother-in-law and four-year-old niece were asleep on a bed, while others, including his sister and parents, were on the floor. Gifts and other items bought for the wedding took up the remaining space.
“It was pouring. I have never seen anything like that. Muddied water was flowing from the top of the hills. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise. It felt like something had come crashing from the top. It was soil, lots of it, with rocks,” Subhash recalled.
Unable to take the impact, the walls of his house broke down and he was thrown out on the road. “There were three other houses in line behind us. All of it went under the slush and rocks. That must have saved us. My family members were injured, but I took them out and thankfully, no one died. But look at our house,” he said, pointing to the destroyed room where he had lived for 21 years.
At around 12.30 a.m., a two-decade-old retaining wall, a structure designed to resist the lateral pressure of soil, constructed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), almost 15 to 20 feet away from Subhash’s house, crumbled under the pressure from the muddied water flowing from the top of the hill. In certain areas, weep holes on the wall were clogged, leading to the accumulation of water and soil. The wall heaved and buckled under the pressure and collapsed in a matter of seconds. With it, it took around seven lives.
The road to New Bharat Nagar is no less than a short hike for a newcomer. As one enters through the Hindustan Petroleum gate on Mahul road in Chembur, no two-wheeler can go beyond a point, let alone a fire brigade truck or an ambulance. A walk through the ascending, narrow lanes, dotted with small houses on both sides and countless pipelines snaking across the ground, takes one to New Bharat Nagar, where the recent landslide killed 19 people. All were sleeping peacefully when tragedy struck at midnight.
Vijay Gupta, a local political worker with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), used to live in the area till a few years ago. He was one of the first individuals from outside who rushed to the spot after receiving a call from a resident. “I rushed here immediately and called the authorities. But it took a few hours before they reached,” said Vijay.
The District Disaster Management Plan, 2019, for the Mumbai suburbs charted out by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) states, “Several areas around hill slopes in Greater Mumbai are prone to landslides. The risk is more during the monsoon and heavy rains. Areas around hill slopes in Ghatkopar, Bhandup and Kurla in the Eastern Suburbs are prone to landslides, resulting in increased exposure of slopes to erosion and water infiltration. Slum populations residing on these hill slopes are at high risk.”
The plan had identified 252 spots spread across the Mumbai suburbs, including Malad, Dindoshi and Jogeshwari in the western suburbs, that are prone to landslides. It repeatedly pointed out that slums were vulnerable primarily because of their location, density and lack of access to infrastructure.
Civic officials estimate that around 70,000 to one lakh families in Mumbai live in those 252 spots. A ward official, from one of the vulnerable spots, said people lived in such dangerous areas despite knowing the risk. “Land prices are out of reach for common people, especially the working class labourers who stay here. Hence, they choose these spots that are cheap and affordable,” he said. As families grow, the official said, they tend to add more floors to the existing structure.
Adjacent to Subhash’s house lives the Sakhare family. The Sakhares, the Gorses, the Ghavares, the Pardhes and the Dupargades are relatives and have been living in New Bharat Nagar for over two decades. Their families have grown as more and more flock to the city in search of a livelihood.
Rupesh Sakhare, 24, was asleep when he heard the loud noise. As he opened the door to check the situation, he saw Priyanka Agrahari, 15, another resident of the area, soaked in water and mud, crying and climbing up to her home. “I asked her what she was doing outside so late in the night and why she was covered in mud,” Rupesh said.
She pointed to her house, which was at a higher elevation than that of his. “She had been washed away from her house with the force of the water. She could have died. But some young men pulled her out in time,” he said.
Rupesh and his brother, Bhimrao, rushed to see what had happened. Their uncle, Pandit Gorse, and his family lived adjacent to another retaining wall built by local MLA and Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik. The Gorses had given a room on rent to Priyanka’s family, who had built an extra floor on the existing house using the retaining wall as support. The room that was built had completely blocked the drainage pipes meant for water seepage in case of heavy rainfall.
“When we rushed there, we saw all five houses under the mud. The layer was over 8 feet thick. A feeling of fear and helplessness took over me,” Bhimrao said. “I saw my family — my sister, brother, uncle and aunt — buried under the thick layer of mud,” he added.
Memories of a similar tragedy at Malin village in Pune district, where an entire village was crushed under a landslide after heavy rainfall, flashed through his mind.
Lives are at risk in these comparatively cheaper localities. The slums on the hill slopes at Vikhroli, in the eastern suburb of Mumbai, is another such location that the civic body had identified as vulnerable. Ten others had lost their lives due to a landslide at Surya Nagar on the same day when the tragedy at Chembur occurred.
Authorities from the BMC’s S Ward, of which Vikhroli is a part, had written to the office of the District Collector, Mumbai Suburban, and also to the Disaster Management Cell in May and June this year, about the possibility of landslides in Vikhroli, Powai and Bhandup due to heavy rainfall. The letter had also sought an arrangement for alternative accommodation to those in danger. Another letter to the Disaster Management Cell had even mentioned the inaccessibility to the interiors of the slum areas in case of an emergency.
In reply, the Collector’s office said it was the responsibility of the civic body to prevent and remove encroachments irrespective of land titles.
According to data collected by Anil Galgali, an activist and social worker, a total of 290 people have died and 300 others injured in Mumbai due to landslides between 1992 and 2021. A decade ago, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had ordered an action plan for the resettlement of those living in the slums on hill slopes and especially those in highly vulnerable places. The Urban Development Department (UDD) had been asked to design the plan, which is still in the preparation stage. Officials within the UDD stated that such a plan would require changes in the existing guidelines for granting additional Floor Space Index (FSI), and involve huge finances, etc.
After the tragedy July 18, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray held a meeting with senior government officials from all departments, including those with the Disaster Management Cell. “Mumbai has a number of places that faces threats from landslides. At many places, retaining walls have been built. All these walls need to be examined with experts from the Indian Institute of Technology [IIT] and other institutes. Other options, if any, need to be analysed and implemented. The existing walls need to be strengthened,” he said.
The Chief Minister also directed the civic administration to shift those in danger zones to houses built for Project Affected Persons (PAPs) in the city. Around 38 residents from Chembur have already been shifted to a nearby area called Vishnunagar. The BMC said it had also moved four families from GTB Nagar’s Mukundrao Ambedkar road after a landslide was reported in a nearby hill area.
Slums on hill slopes is not the only problem in Mumbai. According to news reports, close to 50 people have already lost their lives due to buildings collapsing in 2021. The civic administration annually sends notices to dangerous and dilapidated buildings, asking citizens to vacate homes. “But the question is, where will they go? There has to be rehabilitation on a case-to-case basis,” said Bilal Khan, an activist with Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA).
Bilal pointed out the need to set up infrastructure, for which, experts would have to be roped in. The activist also pointed out the need for accurate data. “We work and react whenever a disaster strikes. This has to be changed. A long-term strategy is needed,” he added.
Urban planners and designers see this as a problem that can only be solved if adequate housing is made available. Instead of completing the target of building over 15 lakh houses in 20 years under slum redevelopment schemes in Mumbai, the State government has managed to build only 1.5 lakh. “Why would anyone build on a hill slope or a riverbed or on rocky terrain unless they are left with no options? Slums come up on land that are naturally unliveable. These were all non-buildable lands. Slum-dwellers know that the location is unsafe, but they have invested in that,” said Pankaj Joshi, principal director at Urban Centre Mumbai, which works on urban planning, research, design, advocacy and community outreach.
“In Mumbai, land that houses slums has not increased, but the density has grown manifold, with two to three floors being constructed over the base slums. This has not been built following any structural engineering principles. They are extremely weak and can collapse at any time,” he added.
He explained that this was resulting in an increase in the population living in slums. At the same time, more people were living in fragile structures that, if met with a disaster, would hardly be able to withstand the impact, he added.
Pankaj said the latest Development Plan for Mumbai had noticed these dangerous slums in each of the wards. “But the question is where will you rehabilitate them? The only option is to build more houses,” he said.
Maharashtra’s Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad said he was aware of the problem. In his initial days after taking charge, the Minister had clarified that his priority would be to help builders build more houses under slum redevelopment schemes, which could be given to slum-dwellers. “We can support the civic body in low-cost housing schemes, which may require huge funds. But that has to be a policy decision for which deliberations at a higher level are required,” he said.
According to Sayli Udas-Mankikar, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), all slum land had to be treated as affordable housing reservations. “The Slum Rehabilitation Authority should fulfil its first objective of undertaking comprehensive planning of slum lands by modifying development control regulations in order to enable the production of affordable housing through the redevelopment route,” she said.
A similar tragedy
Around 25 kilometres away from Chembur stands Ambedkar Nagar at Kurar village in Malad, a western suburb of Mumbai. Two years ago, in July 2019, a retaining wall constructed by the BMC had collapsed due to the forceful flow of water from the Malad Hill Reservoir amid incessant rainfall. It killed 31 and injured over 110.
On July 18, those who are yet to be rehabilitated faced the nightmare once again.
“I lost my son in 2019. Water entered our hut and took him away from me. On Sunday, I held his two-year-old daughter to my chest and ran out in the dark. I thought the tragedy was being repeated and I did not want to lose more members of my family,” Munni God said, as she recalled her son Shravan’s death. Close to 75 families — who are yet to be rehabilitated — from Ambedkar Nagar were forced to spend the entire night in the heavy rain after water entered their huts made of tarpaulin and supported by bamboo.
“We women work as domestic help in these big buildings,” said Supriya Goregaonkar, pointing to the newly built high-rises that offer a scenic view of the lush-green hills to buyers. “These days, we go to work in the morning, cook for the families in the afternoon and then worry about our safety at night. We were promised rehabilitation. But now, no one listens to us. The government should worry about us when we are alive, not spend money on our kins after we die,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for many who work as labourers, carpenters, tailors or as watchmen. Walli Sheikh, a carpenter who is unable to find work these days, can’t stop worrying about the safety of his hut. “We cannot build apucca[brick] construction here as this is forest land. But despite being eligible, we are not rehabilitated,” he said.
Aneesh Yadav, a resident who is fighting for the rehabilitation of the remaining families, shows a letter dated August 28, 2020, from G. Mallikarjun, Director, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), who had asked the BMC to take action to rehabilitate the families. The letter said the remaining families were in a danger zone and the process of rehabilitation needed to be initiated soon. A 1997-Bombay High Court order, too, had directed the administration to shift these families from forest land and rehabilitate them. No action has been taken yet. “We have written to the Chief Minister requesting his intervention after the Chembur tragedy. It was only then that a team of civic officials came to meet us and recorded the details,” he said.
During every election since the 1997 court order, politicians have promised these residentspuccahouses. “All of us have voter IDs and we do vote. They want our votes and if we are shifted from here, they will not get our votes. We feel cheated and neglected. We live in the hope that at least one politician out there will fulfil the promise,” said Shriram Kadam, who works as a security guard.
Meanwhile, after surviving the mayhem that the rains had brought with it, the wedding of Subhash’s cousin sister went on as scheduled. “How could we possibly postpone the date? It was simply not possible,” he said. Already embarrassed that his brother-in-law had to suffer an injury on his trip to attend the wedding, Subhash made arrangements for his sister and her husband at a private hospital and sent them back home.
“The wedding had to go ahead as planned. Yes, it was difficult. But we completed all the rituals in the presence of four family members and sent my sister with her husband. I came here to join the others in digging the mud and cleaning my home,” he said.
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) needs to be complimented for conducting seroprevalence studies on its own. The latest seroprevalence done in June 2021, for which the data was released a few days ago, has shown that the city population has COVID-19 antibodies in 81% of the population sampled. This is one of the highest rates seen anywhere. The study only measured antibodies, as there are no easy methods to check cell-mediated immunity or neutralising antibodies. Some studies in other countries have shown that besides the antibodies, there is a substantial proportion of infected people who will not show antibodies but will have cell-mediated immunity.
Studies in Ahmedabad in earlier rounds of sero-surveillance showed that up to 30% of the population with past infection, which is not recent, do not show antibodies in such surveys. It is possible that the waning of antibodies and cell-mediated immunity together can indicate that an additional 10-15% of persons might be protected. Therefore, the proportion of people with some immunity protection at the population level in Ahmedabad may be close to 90-95%.
On herd immunity
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is one of the most progressive municipal corporations to use serosurveys evidence to plan and decide the course of action. As part of the COVID-19 control work, besides the routine testing, tracing and isolation work — that most cities or districts have done — the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation also invested in conducting periodic sero-surveillance of its own. It is time to use the efforts of Ahmedabad city as a case study to revisit the discussion on the threshold for herd immunity.
At the national level, the National Institute of Epidemiology (NIE) of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has conducted four rounds of serosurvey; the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) too conducted a nationwide serosurvey. The States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, have done citywide population-based serosurveys. The sero-surveillance from cities show the percent of the population infected with the virus and has antibodies in a specific time period. The threshold for herd or population-level immunity is a local geographical phenomenon, wherein the population or herd is intermixing with each other and spreading the disease within itself. Hence, it is reliable only to estimate the level of immunity at the city or town level, given that there are no sizeable amounts of migration occurring, changing the population dynamics of transmission.
For example, in Gujarat, two nearby cities, Ahmedabad and Baroda, behave as two separate communities or herds as there is not much travel and intermixing between the people of the two cities compared to mixing within the same city. So, both cities may have very different immunity levels — say 80% in one and 20% in another. So, the disease might infect many people, as a greater proportion of the susceptible are present in the city with 20% immunity but not spread greatly in the city with higher levels of protection, say 80% immunity.
Some serosurveys which combine smaller numbers from multiple studies might be misleading. For example, suppose we do a common study between two cities. In that case, we may estimate 55% of persons having immunity — inferring that both cities have a high degree of vulnerability. While a limited inference will mean that the disease will spread equally in both cities, it is not completely true as one city will have a lower burden in the future, with 80% of people having some form of immune response. Each of the major cities or towns must conduct its own sero-surveillance to estimate the level of protection and estimate the proportion of the susceptible population in that city.
A nationally representative sample of serosurveys is useful to provide a bird’s-eye view of the situation. The NIE should be complimented for its efforts and for conducting four rounds of serosurveys over the last 15 months. The efforts led by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India and the World Health Organization’s tuberculosis programme in the field and technical partnership led by the NIE are praiseworthy for any public health agency; comparable to the best in class in a rigorous process, and peer-reviewed publications in high impact journals.
The results from these surveys showed that antibody levels increased from 0.7% in April 2020 to 67% in June 2021. There is also not much of a difference between urban-rural, and male-female groups. A higher prevalence is seen in people above the age of 45, in vaccinated people and health-care workers. But one must understand that all these are average numbers from a study of a total sample of about 29,000 people. As the sample is taken scientifically, we have to assume that it represents the true situation in the country. While the aggregated data at the national level inspires the good work done by the NIE-ICMR scientists and other researchers in the collaboration, it is not a reason to celebrate in enthusing unreasonable optimism. We should be careful and not jump the gun in declaring that we are nearing the threshold of population immunity at the national level.
We can still have major outbreaks in specific geographical regions in the future, as seen in the United Kingdom, Israel, and others. There will also be regional and State-wise differences. Urban areas, as sampled by the ICMR study, showed a prevalence of 69% — slightly higher than in the rural areas, which had a figure of 65%. The rural areas have a greater spread of the virus similar to urban areas, despite rural areas being less congested with lower social interactions. There is not much crowding in the rural areas as seen in urban areas. Compared to the Indian urban sample of the ICMR, the Ahmedabad city seropositivity is higher at 81%. The time ahead will be a marker to know how many cases will be detected in Ahmedabad and how transmission dynamics and seroprevalence will change in the future. Hence, the surveys in this city provide a good case study for the country to review and plan city-specific actions.
Ahmedabad experienced a very bad second wave. A similar second wave was also seen in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other big cities. If sero-surveillance is done in these cities, we may see very high levels of antibodies. Urban local bodies and State governments should launch rapid and successive rounds of serosurveys.
Aiding policy making
A more efficient way is to set up sentinel surveillance sites in all public hospitals and estimate the trend in overall seroprevalence. One such effort was done by Karnataka in utilising the strengths of the National Aids Control Organization’s field team along with technical supervision by multiple academic institutions in Bengaluru, including the Public Health Foundation of India, the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Statistical Institute, etc. These efforts can guide and inform decisions on the extent to which the city’s business, educational institutions, and markets can be opened up. Wider and faster vaccination coverage is an additional and absolute necessity.
The distribution of vaccines, stepping up the hospital response, and severity in future waves can be understood and addressed by the periodic antibody prevalence from serosurveys. Based on sero-surveillance studies, such an evidence-based approach will be very useful in the process of decision making while unlocking cities and increasing economic activities. Till supply constraints are completely resolved, it will also help deploy scarce vaccine resources to the places in most need of them. Also, sero-surveillance does not cost much — at a price of Rs. 500 per test, it will cost Rs. 25 lakh to test 5,000 people. This is not a major cost for any major city. We constantly face one problem: cities do not have mechanisms to use evidence generation and analysis expertise from public health professionals including epidemiologists.
In summary, every major city with a population of more than 10 lakh should do a rapid sero-surveillance survey and set up sentinel surveillance to confirm the protection levels in the existing population and plan. It is time to use the information on existing levels of antibodies in the population to guide evidence-based policymaking. These efforts will help understand and mitigate the risk of opening up the economy and society, and deciding the priority for vaccination. Over 40 cities have a million population, and another 300 cities have a population between one lakh to 10 lakh. There is an urgent need to take up sero-surveillance studies to help guide the COVID-19 control strategy throughout rural and urban India.
Dr. Dileep Mavalankar is Director, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar. Dr. Giridhara R. Babu is a Professor, Head-Lifecourse Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India
The Great Indian Bustard, a gravely endangered species, with hardly about 200 alive in India today, came under the protective wings of the Supreme Court of India in a recent judgment. The Court said, inM.K. Ranjitsinh & Others vs Union of India & Others(https://bit.ly/372sm5v), that in all cases where the overhead lines in power projects exist, the governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat shall take steps forthwith to install bird diverters pending consideration of the conversion of overhead cables into underground power lines.
The overhead power lines have become a threat to the life of these species as these birds frequently tend to collide with these power lines and get killed. The Ministry of Power, in an affidavit dated March 15, 2021, has said: “The Great Indian Bustard (“GIB”) lacks frontal vision. Due to this, they cannot detect powerlines ahead of them, from far. As they are heavy birds, they are unable to manoeuvre across power lines within close distances. Thus, they are vulnerable to collision with power lines.”
In protecting the birds, the Court has affirmed and emphasised the biocentric values of eco-preservation. The philosophy of biocentrism holds that the natural environment has its own set of rights which is independent of its ability to be exploited by or to be useful to humans.
Biocentrism often comes into conflict with its contrarian philosophy, namely anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism argues that of all the species on earth humans are the most significant and that all other resources on earth may be justifiably exploited for the benefit of human beings. Expressions of such line of thought date back many centuries and find mention inPolitics, a well-known work of Aristotle, as also the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant amongst many others.
The ‘Snail darter’ case
A noteworthy instance of the application of anthropocentrism in the legal world is in that of the “Snail darter” case in the United States. In 1973, a University of Tennessee biologist David Etnier, discovered a species of fish called the “Snail darter” in the Little Tennessee river. Etnier contended that the snail darter was an endangered species and that its existence would be gravely threatened by the continuation of development works relating to the Tellico Reservoir project. Following this revelation, a lawsuit came to be filed challenging the continuation of the Tellico Reservoir project. The challenge travelled all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States of America inTennessee Valley Authority vs Hill, held that since the “Snail darter” was a specifically protected species under the National Environmental Policy Act, the executive could not proceed with the reservoir project. However, after the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, Congress enacted a law excluding retrospectively the snail darter from statutory protection. The project progressed and the fish suffered.
Species in danger
Humans share the world with countless other species, many of which are nearing extinction on account of man’s imprudent insensitivity. About 50 years ago, there were 4,50,000 lions in Africa. Today, there are hardly 20,000. Indiscriminate monoculture farming in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra is leading to the extinction of orangutans. Rhinos are hunted for the so-called medicinal value of their horns and are slowly becoming extinct. From the time humans populated Madagascar about 2,000 years ago, about 15 to 20 species of Lemurs, which are primates, have become extinct. The compilation prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists about 37,400 species that are gravely endangered; and the list is ever growing.
Some green shoots
Some aspects of constitutional law on ecoconservations are significant. The Constitution of India declares that it is applicable to the territory of India. While making such a declaration, it very obviously refers to humans within that territory and its predominant aim was to give them rights, impose obligations and to regulate human affairs. The Constitution is significantly silent on any explicitly stated, binding legal obligations we owe to our fellow species and to the environment that sustains us. It is to the credit of the judiciary that out of these still and placid waters, it has fished out enduring principles of sustainable development and read them,inter alia, into the precepts of Article 21 of the Constitution.
Amid such a gloomy landscape, one is heartened to observe some green shoots emerging.
Pieces of legislations are slowly evolving that fall in the category of the “Right of Nature laws”. These seek to travel away from an anthropocentric basis of law to a biocentric one. In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognise “Rights of Nature” in its Constitution. Bolivia has also joined the movement by establishing Rights of Nature laws too. In November 2010, the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the first major municipality in the United States to recognise the Rights of Nature (https://bit.ly/3iHkKuK). As a first step, these laws empower people in a community to “step into the shoes” of a mountain, stream or forest ecosystem and advocate for the right of those local communities”. These laws, like the Constitution of the countries that they are part of, are still works in progress.
In times like this the Supreme Court’s judgment inM.K. Ranjithsinhupholding the biocentric principles of coexistence is a shot in the arm for nature conservation. One does hope that the respective governments implement the judgment of the Court and that the fate of the Great Indian Bustard does not go the way of the Snail Darter.
N.L. Rajah is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court
The Ganga might have stood witness to many stages of India’s civilisation, as Mahatma Gandhi once noted, but in recent decades it has become a conduit for sewage, solid waste, industrial effluents and other pollutants. It is depressing, though not surprising, therefore, that a new study by an NGO has found evidence of a modern-day scourge, microplastics, in the river, with the highest concentrations in Varanasi and Kanpur, followed by Haridwar. What the data show is the alarming presence of plastic filaments, fibres, fragments, and in two places, microbeads, with their composition pointing to both industrial and secondary broken-down plastics from articles of everyday use. These range from tyres, clothing, food packaging, bags, cosmetics with microbeads, garland covers and other municipal waste. The finding of significant levels of microscopic particles invisible to the naked eye at below 300 micrometres to 5 millimetres in the country’s holiest river calls into question the progress of two high-priority, well-funded missions of the NDA government, Swachh Bharat, to deal with solid waste, and Namami Gange, to rid the river of its pollution. Surprisingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for the river clean-up, originally scheduled to be implemented by December 2020, has not saved it from serious deficits; official data indicate that 97 Ganga towns may be discharging about 750 million litres of untreated sewage a day into the river. An environmental activist, Guru Das Agrawal, died in 2018 after fasting in protest, and his letter to Mr. Modi did not change the situation.
Microplastics, recorded in recent times in the remotest of places — Mount Everest, Arctic snow, Icelandic glaciers, the French Pyrenees, and the depths of the Mariana Trench, among others — pose a hazard as plastics production outpaces the ability of governments to collect and manage waste. Successive governments issued waste management rules, but dropped the ball on implementation. Although the Centre recently issued a draft to tighten the Plastic Waste Management Rules, cities have failed to implement existing rules as well as the Solid Waste Management rules, on ending single-use plastics, waste segregation, recycling labels on packaging, extended producer responsibility for manufacturers and recovery of materials. Moreover, growing plastic waste will far exceed the capacity of governments to manage it, given that recycling has its limits. Swachh Bharat, therefore, must mean not merely keeping waste out of sight, achieved through costly dumping contracts, but sharply reduced generation, full segregation and recycling. Plastic waste around the world is threatening the food web and the crisis demands a new global treaty modelled on the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement. India needs to demonstrate that it is serious about a clean-up at home.
The British government’s demand to renegotiate parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement with the EU has set the stage for another round of clashes between London and Brussels. Just seven months after the agreement came into force, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government now says the Protocol, which was accepted by both sides to avoid physical and economic barriers between Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, hampers trade inside the U.K. When the Brexit agreement was signed in 2020, Mr. Johnson agreed to set up checks at the British side for goods entering Northern Ireland. This meant, in order to avoid an economic barrier between the two Irelands, Britain effectively set up one between the British mainland and the Island of Ireland. The decision had economic and political repercussions, affecting British traders every time they move goods across the Irish Sea. Within Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalists who support unification are in favour of the Protocol, while the unionists, including the Democratic Unionist Party that was once an ally of Mr. Johnson, do not want it. In a difficult economic and political situation now, Mr. Johnson’s conservative government is seeking a way out.
The government wants all customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland to be removed. It has also sought to end the role of EU institutions in enforcing the Protocol and introduce a dual regulatory system that would allow products to freely circulate in the province if they comply with either British or EU standards. But the problem is that this is part of an agreement which Mr. Johnson signed in 2020, and welcomed. The EU has said it remained open to “practical, flexible solutions” to the controversial clauses. Many had warned even before the 2016 Brexit vote that Northern Ireland would be a thorny issue if the U.K. chose to leave the EU, given Ireland’s violent history. The economic integration and soft borders between the two Irelands were one of the key aspects of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought peace to the island after 30 years of Troubles. Now Mr. Johnson, a Brexit supporter, is caught in a difficult situation, thanks to Brexit. For London, continuing with the protocol will have economic and political consequences. If the U.K. moves the customs checks to the border between the two Irelands, it can upset the peace agreement. In the event of the absence of an agreement, either party can suspend the Protocol using Article 16, which means the crisis would be back to square one. Both sides should realise the seriousness of the situation and be ready for talks. Any amends to the Protocol should not compromise on the conditions that guarantee peace in the island of Ireland.