A few days ago, India became the country with the second highest COVID-19 cases in the entire world. Its cases are continuously rising, thousands of people are dying, and it will soon surpass the United States for the top spot in confirmed cases. My thoughts are constantly with the people who are suffering, including all the families that are being shattered across the world.
There’s no doubt that 2020 has easily become the most infamous year in many people’s lives. We are living through difficult times and we are experiencing a moment in history that couldn’t have been predicted by anyone. The memories and experiences from this one singular year will stay with us for the rest of our days. I know that the past few months have drained us socially, physically, and economically. Trust me when I say that it’s okay to feel anxious, sad, or nervous. We are human beings after all. However, I strongly believe that it’s more important for us to try and feel a sense of hope, confidence, and optimism.
It’s the reason why I wanted to share this piece that I wrote a few months ago in April, as an assignment for my Education for Sustainability course that I was completing at the time. I wrote it in collaboration with my father, who was stranded over 11,000 kilometres away in Punjab, India. Because initial fears of this pandemic were not as high as they should’ve been in February, my parents had purchased flight tickets to visit their relatives in their homeland. I dropped them off to the airport on March 9, 2020, thinking that time would quickly pass and they would return home just a month later on April 9. However, the pandemic worsened within a short amount of time and my parents were grounded in India for a few additional weeks. They finally managed to return to Canada on April 24 and spent another two weeks in quarantine.
That time was filled with uncertainty but I decided to make the most it by having an important discussion about the environment, which has definitely benefited the most from this pandemic. While many countries were under lockdown, it felt as if Mother Nature was temporarily free from her restraints and the Earth was beginning to breathe again. Me and my father discussed this phenomenon in-depth by comparing it to multiple time periods in his life and focusing on the cleanliness of the environment.
I know that this may not be much to uplift many people, specifically those in India, but I encourage the anticipation of better times. Amidst an ominous global pandemic, I simply wish to sow a seed of positivity. The following was written on March 31, 2020:
In the middle of this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, my father, Jatinder Chahal, is currently under a government-mandated nationwide lockdown along with 1.3 billion other people in India. Initially, my father’s trip to the state of Punjab started out as any other ordinary trip, with him visiting his native land and reuniting with some of his relatives. However, it took a drastic turn when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the biggest lockdowns in human history on March 24, which will remain in effect for another two weeks until April 14. This lockdown has restricted people from leaving their homes, while also banning travel by road, air, and rail.
As I patiently await my father’s return to Canada, I thought I would take advantage of this moment to create a Question and Answer (Q&A) session. I organized this Q&A session into three distinct areas of focus. The first section focuses on my father’s childhood experiences with the environment in India, as he was growing up in a small village during the 1970s and 1980s. The second section focuses on my father’s last trip to India, which was in November of 2017, and the experiences he had with the same environment during that specific time. The final section briefly focuses on my father’s current experiences and observations with the environment while he is under lockdown with the hundreds of millions of people around him. I attained all my information by conducting an online video call with my father and then translating the most significant findings from Punjabi to English. The following questions and answers represent how we all have a personal connection with the environment around us, from childhood to adulthood.
Childhood (1970s to 1980s)
1. What is your fondest memory of the environment as a child growing up in your village in India?
My fondest memory as a child was when I used to go to my ancestral farmland filled with lush green fields of wheat, corn, mustard, and sugar canes. There was a deep well that was used to irrigate the crops. I, along with my cousin, used to take baths in a clean pool of water. We used to drink sugar cane juice and eat hot, delicious jaggery made from sugar canes. The air and water quality was so good back in those days. There were fresh rivers that weren’t polluted, and you could even swim in them. Organic home-grown vegetables were used for food. Dairy products were also produced at home from buffaloes and cows on our own farm. I never felt like anything was wrong with the environment or the climate.
2. How was the environment so clean back in those days and what did people do to ensure this?
At that time, there still wasn’t much awareness about the environment and a lot of it was taken for granted. My family members, relatives, and community members hardly ever thought about contributing towards the preservation of the environment. However, the population of India was also less than half of what it is today. Fossil fuels had very little impact on the environment at that time. There were very few vehicles on the roads, as well as smaller and fewer factories in rural India. The carbon footprint was extremely small compared to what it is now.
3. To what extent did your school classes focus on the environment?
Growing up, I did not have any knowledge about the environment because there was a serious lack of education about this topic in my school. From elementary to senior grades, I did not have any special subject focusing on the environment, and neither was it ever mentioned in any of my science classes. We also didn’t have internet, so we weren’t exposed to all the information and scientific data that is available today. It is unfortunate that I never heard of this issue being discussed by any teachers, politicians, celebrities, school mates, friends, family members, and relatives. Our entire society was simply ignorant about the environment when we should have been educating people about it.
Last Trip to India (November 2017)
1. How was the environment different in your village during this specific trip compared to when you were a child growing up there?
The environment was really bad when we arrived at Delhi airport in November of 2017. There was so much thick smog everywhere that our next connecting flight to Amritsar got delayed over two hours because of it. Schools were closed in Delhi due to the smog and the air quality was very hazardous for people’s lungs. The situation was no different in my village when I finally got there. It was covered in thick smog because of rice stubble burning after the farmers had cut their crops. I had never seen or experienced such thick smog like this in my entire life. Along with stubble burning, this smog was also being caused by so many vehicles on the roads and no proper garbage or recycling facilities in cities. I saw people throwing garbage on empty lands and even burning it. My ancestral village of Sheron is located near the Beas river, one of the five main rivers of the state of Punjab, which originates from Himalayas mountain range. The water from that river used to be so clean that we could literally drink it and swim in it. Nowadays, it’s extremely polluted and poisonous. Two years ago, I found out that all the fish in this river had died because of toxic waste being thrown into it from a nearby liquor plant. There were no strict measures being taken by the government to prevent it from happening and killing innocent marine life.
2. From 1987 to 2017, how did the general attitude towards the environment change within Indians during that crucial 30-year period?
The general attitude towards the environment had not changed much in India during those 30 years. In some areas, it has gotten worse. There is still not enough awareness being promoted to save the environment from getting polluted. Sometimes, I feel as if the people here do not seem to care about their own water and air is being polluted. Trees are being cut in large numbers and the government is not taking any strict actions or passing new laws to prevent the destruction of the environment. As I mentioned earlier, there used to be way less cars on the road when I was a child. At that time, there were only two to three cars to be found in the entire village, but that rapidly changed within 30 years. Now, every other household in my village owns a few cars and mostly every household in the nearby city owns at least 3 cars. On top of that, there are no emissions testing facilities to be found, which could be used to ensure the safety of the vehicles and test their carbon emissions output. When I used to commute to school from my village, I had always used my bicycle or walked to get there. Nowadays, most students’ first option is to take their personal motorbikes, which is less environmentally friendly and causes more pollution.
3. What surprised you or disappointed you about how the environment was being taken care of during this trip?
During that trip, there weren’t a lot of surprises but there were a lot of disappointments. I was so disappointed that nothing was being done in relation to environment. There were no serious initiatives being taken by the people or by the government to clean up this country. There were a few small groups planting more trees in certain areas but that is not enough. Another example I have from childhood is that our family had no plastic bags for shopping, so we used home-made bags knitted from cloth. During that trip in 2017, I saw so many plastic bags being thrown away everywhere. On the side of the roads, on front lawns, on beaches, literally anywhere you can imagine. Why doesn’t the government take the initiative to ban plastic shopping bags for a start? By taking small steps like this in the right direction, it will go a long way in making a difference towards resolving India’s environmental challenges.
Current Trip during Lockdown (March 2020)
1. How do you feel about the environmental conditions throughout this current trip, specifically under the lockdown?
Ever since we have been under the lockdown, the air quality feels so pure and clean without any smog at all. Because of the strict ban of non-essential vehicles on the roads and less people farming and working in factories, it has had a major impact on decreasing air pollution. Other problems are still the same, such as garbage handling, but the improved air quality alone makes such a tremendous difference. I am able to view the clear blue sky, the sunrise, and the sunset from my windows and balcony every day. Prior to the lockdown, there was just a short public curfew and I decided to visit the Beas river that I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t seen it that clean since my childhood days and it looked beautiful.
2. Is India heading in a positive or negative direction in terms of taking care of their environment?
I don’t think India is heading into a positive direction at the moment because no one seems to genuinely care about the environment. The general public isn’t aware of the serious climate issues because of the lack of education and advocacy. The government is not playing a good role by ignoring beneficial solutions for their present situation, as well as failing to implement solutions for the future. It is unfortunate that it took a worldwide pandemic for heavy pollution to clear up in India. At this critical time, India and other countries like China and Italy have the perfect opportunity to push the reset button and decrease their fossil fuel emissions to help save the future of our planet.
3. What do you personally recommend for the future of India’s fight against climate change?
I personally recommend that the Indian government should come up with impactful laws, regulations, and educational policies that are strictly enforced to save this environment. Too many years have gone by where the public and the government have acted as bystanders in the fight against climate change. Now is the time to use this as a wake-up call and educate the people about being environment friendly and treating climate change as a priority. The more people become educated, the more chances we have in protecting and preserving the environment for the generations to come. People deserve to grow up in an environment without any toxic waste, pollution, litter, or smog. In the future, I hope to see my native land and childhood environment remain clean with breathable air, drinkable water, and people adopting an environmentally friendly approach to living their life.
India has the second largest population in the world, and every single one of those people has the potential to make a difference by contributing a small effort towards the cleanliness of our planet. This Question and Answer session was eye-opening for me to hear about such drastic changes with India’s environment since the 1970s. My father experienced his childhood environment as a clean, safe, and enjoyable place to grow up. His perspective changed during his trip in November of 2017, when he experienced extremely high levels of pollution and smog that made him feel uncomfortable and unhealthy. Currently, he is experiencing a complete reversal of these effects due to the nationwide lockdown that is indirectly reducing pollution on a massive scale.
There is no denying that human activities have a profound impact on the cleanliness of our environments and the climate change of our planet. If a country as large as India manages to implement a relevant and achievable policy such as the Green New Deal, it will go a long way in not just protecting their country’s environment, but the entire world’s. As Naomi Klein says in her book On Fire, the very idea that we, as atomized individuals, could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate is objectively nuts. However, a group effort of over 1.3 billion people could literally turn the tide in the most important battle for the survival of our species and our planet.
I will conclude this session with a few pictures that my father has taken in the past few weeks from his window, balcony, and close to the Beas river. These pictures represent the India that I envision for the future. Not a desolate place filled with smoke, smog, dust, and litter, but a beautiful place filled with clean rivers, lush greenery, blue skies, and a precious horizon.