Chief Minister’s Grievance Cell recently asked Srinagar Municipality (SMC), educational institutions, and Urban Local Bodies to put an end to the practice of burning of abscised leaves, willow and popular twigs, ‘as it creates air pollution’.
Consequently SMC issued order and banned burning of fallen leaves and twigs citing the environment concerns as the main reason. On the face of it the decision seems to make sense, if leaves and twigs were being burnt to get rid of them in winters. But what we need to understand is that do people burn leaves in autumn and winter for this reason only or it is the only source of energy available to them during the chilly days of winters.
The discovery of fire goes long back, perhaps to the time mankind started inhibiting the earth. The purpose of making fire though has remained the same throughout the time and space. Mankind has long been using trees and their parts (leaves, twigs) to cook the food and keep themselves warm in cold weather conditions. The other reasons earlier inhabitants of the earth used fire for, like to keep the wild animals away, were discontinued as people discovered better ways to protect themselves. In similar fashion in the last couple of centuries, and particularly in the West, people discovered alternative sources of energy, and burning of wood and tree parts for meeting the energy needs reduced. Till the greed crept in, planet earth seemed to possess enough to meets everyone’s needs.
Like in many parts of the world, the population in south-east Asia has no access to alternative sources of energy, and they rely on traditional practice of burning wood and plant products to meet the energy demands. Same is the case in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Valley, which witnesses very harsh winter months.
Traditionally, people in the valley have been using Kangri, which uses coal obtained after burning of leaves and twigs to keep themselves warm during harsh winter. Barring some households in urban areas and towns, people in Kashmir rely heavily on burning of fallen leaves, twigs and wood to meet the bare minimum requirement of keeping themselves warn in winters. In villages and far-flung areas, people use fallen leaves and twigs for cooking their daily food. Now if we consider banning the practice of burning leaves and twigs, in the absence of alternative energy resources, which by the way also are shed in winters on their own, the decision sounds like a punishment to people than a move to save environment.
There is no empirical data or studies conducted in Kashmir on the quantum of pollution produced with the practice of burning of leaves and twigs to make coal. This may actually be too little as compared to the pollution vehicular traffic produces which burns thousands of liters of fossil fuel every day. And there’s no doubt that burning of these fossil fuels (chiefly petrol and diesel) harm the environment and ozone layer, besides having carcinogenic effect. The purpose here is not to reproduce the empirical data about the various pollutants and gases that cause ozone layer depletion, global warming or more immediate health hazards but to seek where the priority of the government should be. If anything needs to go first to prevent air pollution in Kashmir, it’s the consumption of fossil fuels in vehicles and industrial units. If government and more particularly SMC thinks these were ‘necessary evils’, (motor vehicles and industries) then it must rethink its decision on the recent ban. People in Kashmir receive very little electricity in winters. Government has also imposed ban on sale of heating appliances. How shall a common man survive the winter in the wake of all these bans? In this scenario the poor and less privileged population will suffer the most. The ban may also increase the price of coal used in kangris in the days to come.
Burning of fallen leaves is discouraged in most parts of the West due to environmental concerns. There the people don’t rely on trees and plants to meet the energy requirement. Plus they have pickup facilities available that lift leaves and twigs of plants from roads, public places and even homes and turn it into compost for organic farming after dumping it at safe places. Do the government and SMC have men and machinery available to pick up the leaves and twigs in areas where it has imposed ban and dump it at some place where it can turn it a valuable resource? More importantly, is government able to make available alternative sources of energy to common people? The step reflects the disconnect of the government and its agencies with the people and the conditions they live in.
Blanket ban on burning of leaves and twigs is an ill-advised decision and needs immediate rollback or amendment. The answer to curtailing air pollution is making of well-thought-out plans and not making the life of common people difficult. Let Kashmir first reach a stage where alternative sources of energy are available to people before we can think of banning something that is essential for surviving the harsh winter.