The grimness of the year 2020

The year 2020 would be forever etched in human memory as perhaps the worst year that ever passed in recorded history. Apart from world problems like in the sphere of politics, international relations, and world trade, income disparities, social issues, growing intolerance, and other cyclical troubles, the year has been defined by the pandemic caused b y the latest corona virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome corona virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) which spreads the disease called COVID-19. This has been the most widespread, difficult-to-contain catastrophe ever known to cripple whole countries, terrorise societies to social distancing, isolation and mass self-quarantine.

Starting out from China at the end of 2019, this disease has spread all over the globe with some countries taking the hit earlier than others. However, by March-April 2020, the whole world was in the grip of the pandemic and the economic fallout has been disastrous for many countries. Stories of personal loss, at a time when tens of thousands of jobs were being lost per day and thousands of businesses were closing down all over the world and several industries going into hibernation with no idea when they could operate again have filled all avenues of media as people huddled living or dying alone or in desperate groups of destitutes too poor to afford minimum personal living space.

As the pandemic gripped the world, countries went into lockdown mode.

Suddenly, over the horizon

To all intents and purposes, the world had changed. There was a silence everywhere in the thoroughfares, shopping and business districts, residential areas and parks and other public spaces. No one knew when life would resume in its normal cadence, sights and smells and sounds again. Yet, from the despair of isolation, uncertainty and fear there arose a sight that of rare beauty – like a miracle out of the morass our lives had become.

In the first days of April, a week from the nationwide lockdown, amid the all woes, something from another world almost, a sight that brought inexpressive joy to all beholders, appeared on the horizon. It seemed like a miracle, and yet it was there – in plain sight. On the 3rd of April, the residents of Jalandhar woke up to a phenomenon which most citizens saw for the first time in their lives. They could see the snow-clad Himalayas from their rooftops with their naked eyes! They were not sure if their eyes were playing tricks with them, but they were looking at the Dhauladhar range from the Kangra region of the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh! Residents took to clicking pictures and taking videos of the mountains which lie at a distance of 213 kilometres away. Around noon the images and selfies were on social media.

Residents of Hosiarpur, closer to the Himalayas, had been posting photos of snow-peaks visible from their town for a few days before to the sightings in Jalandhar but now – more than a week into the nation-wide lockdown, the air was even clearer. Older women were now worshipping the skies with folded hands. One of them was quoted saying, “When we could not go to shrines like Chintpurni, Jwala Ji and Chamanda Devi during Navratras, God has enabled us to pay obeisance to the Goddesses from here and offer our prayers sitting at home”. It was a full generation since the mountains have been visible from the city. Pollution had dropped to the lowest level in 30 years. IFS officer Sushant Nanda tweeted, “What nature was… And what we had done it.”

Amarjit Singh, living in Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar, told reporters of the daily press, “Our elders said they used to see mountains from the rooftop. But we have never witnessed this spectacle in our life. It is a magical sight for us. At least in my life, I have never seen such a view from our rooftops. It goes to show that if a month of restraining can ensure such a view then we must make it a habit of exercising environmental restraint.”

The people of the Doaba – the entire area between the two rivers of Satluj and Beas, did not need any equipment to measure the air quality on this day. Earlier, the snow-covered tops of this range could be visible from Jalandhar and Phagwara only if it rained, but on this Friday, an extended view of the range was visible right down to the lower parts of the hills – as though they were just a few kilometres away. This was the first time this magnificent sight had presented itself to Jalandhar in 30 years!

Hardly had the excitement died down when sightings of the snow range of the Himalayas began to pour in from other parts of Punjab. One of the most polluted industrial towns in India, Ludhiana, had its sightings of the snows by 9thApril. As the air became clearer all over the state, the people of Pathankot started to get on social media to share the snow views from their town by the 21st of the month.

This miracle of nature continued through other towns dotting the northern boundaries of India over the next few weeks. By the end of the month, Saharanpur, in north-western Uttar Pradesh, reported its views of the snowy heights – the peaks of Gangotri. The Air Quality Index (AQI) had dipped to below 50 for the first time in three decades and an entire generation that had grown up of stories from elders who could see the snows from this mofussil town this was almost like a sight of the heavens. The photographs posted on Twitter by Indian Forest Service Officer and Secretary of the UP State Biodiversity Board, Ramesh Pandey, went viral. He wrote that the peaks of Bandarpunch and Gangotri had never been seen before during the entire tenure of his posting in Saharanpur. This is because the AQI reportings from Muzzafarnagar and Saharanpur are generally at the level of “Very Poor” at 300 units.

In the first week of May, the Himalayas in Nepal were seen from a village in north Bihar. In a now-viral picture-post, Ritu Jaiswal, the Mukhiya of the Gram Panchayat of Singhwahini village, a short distance from the border, posted that she seen the highest mountain in the world – Mount Everest which is 190 kilometres away, inside Nepal. She wrote in Hindi on Twitter that “…nature is balancing itself…”

The last time such excitement was generated by sudden sightings of the Himalayan snowline from Indian plains was in 2013 when the kanchunjungha was spotted from Raigunj,in the North Dinajpur district of West Bengal,  550 kilometres away. For thousands of residents of this small town, this glorious view lasted for three hours from 9 in the morning of October 8th 2013.

Kanchenjungha stands at 28,169 feet and is the third highest peak in the world. For the townspeople it was their first sighting of this revered mountain since the early 1980s. The phenomenon was possible because of four days of heavy rain that had cleared the air of dust particles, according to meteorologists and environment experts.

After this event, the next surge of excitement brought about sightings of the Himalayas because of a sharp lowering of atmospheric pollution was during the Indian lockdown in the summer of 2020.

The facts and figures behind this phenomenon

The Jalandhar sighting was because of the lack of pollution owing to negligible traffic, shut down factories and the general curfew on movement and work over the earlier 11 days since the start of the lockdown.

The environmental effects were immediate. The Indian Expressed reported that the grossly polluted Ludhiana had become the city with the cleanest air in the country. This shows how easy it is to curb atmospheric pollution, and the results can be seen on a matter of days. New Delhi, which had topped the charts as the city with the highest level of air pollution in the world, recorded a fall of 71% in pollution in merely a week of lockdown.

Cars, flights, factories were shut all over the country and in the first day of restrictions, India’s Central Pollution Control Board found that Delhi’s pollution had fallen by 44%. Their report stated that in total, 85 cities across India saw less air pollution in the first week of the nationwide lockdown.

In the example of Jalandhar, just to take one case, the first 17-day period in March 2019 failed to register a single day of “good” air quality. In the same period in 2020, when the coronavirus scare was beginning to slow down commercial and industrial activities to near zero levels, 16 of the 17 days had “good” quality on the national index.

What this means for the world

The lockdowns throughout the globe has been an unintended but eye-opening and welcome message to the world. India, which is home to 21 of the 30 most polluted urban areas of the world, according to data compiled by IQAir AirVisual 2019 World Air Quality Report. In the list of the first ten cities with the worst air quality in the world, six lie in India.

The Senior Environmental Engineer of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, Harbir Singh, cited to the Indian media, “The lockdown has dramatically improved the air quality in the city. We can see that restricted traffic, as well as restricted activity in the industries emitting pollutants into the air, can work wonders for the environment. Normally, the movement of traffic, dust levels and the generation of industrial emissions are so high that it takes a toll on the air quality. Amidst the COVID lockdown, this has been made possible providing a much-needed break for the environment. The lessons we can take away from this is that if industrial and traffic activity is regulated – the environment begins to breathe.”

Referring to different parameters of the quality of life that comes about with reduced air pollution, Dr Rajinder Kaur, Associate Professor, Environmental Science, Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar, said, “The dramatic dip in air pollution is brought in with the lockdown. At homes and on our rooftops to we see an increased variety of birds od rare breeds which were previously not being seen. The visibility of stars in the sky has also increased to a level we used to see only in our childhood. While the lockdown like conditions isn’t feasible for development and economy – taking a cue from this – the strict implementation of environmental, traffic and industry regulation laws, however, can ease the environment greatly even after the lockdown.”

The proof is for all to see, even outside the metrics of measuring labs. Social media is flooded with images showing how clear the sky looks, even in those cities which are otherwise known to record high pollution levels.

A message to our time

At MSK, we have been testing and sampling air pollution in workplaces like offices and also in factories and workshops for several years now. The sophisticated equipment used by our technical staff and their samples measured by scientists at our laboratory has given us data on how polluted indoor and outdoor spaces can be, and the hazards that this causes – on the lives of those who inhabit and work in these environments.

We are fully aware that the catastrophic pandemic had brought the country to a grinding halt leaving the economy and livelihoods in severe crisis. Yet, we take lessons from this message from nature which can correct itself to an extent when we stop polluting activities for a length of time. This can be as short as a couple of days to a week.

We also know that ceasure of industrial activity would bring the wheels of micro and macro economics to a standstill and this can never happen in the world we now live in. But we can advocate on behalf of the environment and on behalf of thousands of lives that are directly impacted by the harmful. All we say is that everyone should be mindful of the damage we cause to the environment with our day to day activities. Industries, road traffic, machinery – all contribute to the carbon levels in the air. If we are careful, less wasteful, and generally caring, we can make a difference even if it is a small diminution of the pollutants we release into the air.

For testing, sampling, and inspection – our services can always be relied on. We are experts on assessing air quality and our experience and knowledge would give directions as to how pollution levels can be lowered. But there is a lot that the people, workers and whole communities, can do by themselves. The earth and the environment belong to all of us. Let us use our time on this planet more mindfully.