By Dawa Dolma, Stawa 10-19
Leh has recently received some unexpected attention after Government of India's recent move to convert Ladakh into a Union Territory. This article is not so much about the politics surrounding that move but rather about an important yet under-explored challenge Leh faces: Vehicular pollution. Leh is no longer the Leh I grew up in. But that's natural to any area under the current model of neo-liberal development. I still decided to write about these negative changes in the Leh I knew with the hope that the hype created by the centre's move will help garner much needed attention to the bad air quality in the region.
To give some statistics, according to the 2011 census, Leh district had a population of 133,487 and the total number of registered vehicles in the area in the period between 2008 and 2018 was 17,232 according to the Assistant Regional Transport Office, Leh. To put this in a comparative sense that is equivalent to one vehicle for eight persons. For someone who knew Leh twenty years ago, this is a cause for alarm! The increase in the number of vehicles is unprecedented. If one is to look at the reasons for this, there is a host of reasons starting with the increasing number of tourists to a lack of proper waste management system and enhanced purchasing power of locals.
According to the data from the Assistant Regional Transport Officer, Leh, between 1998 and 2008, the number of registered light motor vehicles was 792, which leaped to a massive 7,841 between 2008 and 2018. This is worsened by the fact that there is no monitoring system to check the quality of air as mechanisms that were put in place have become defunct.
Air pollution is a relatively new concept in Ladakh as it used to be a virginally clean place. However, the emergence of massive infrastructural development and rapid changes in lifestyle has led to environmental deterioration. At the same time, Ladakh's ecosystem is extremely fragile and it takes years for ecosystems to recover from any sort of disruption. Therefore, understanding air pollution and envisaging ways to mitigate it are critical to deal with the environmental crisis facing Ladakh.
Climate change and global warming are vague and protracted challenges that people commonly overlook even if they have become a reality. Ladakh is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Air pollution is partially responsible for these changes. Presently, the people of Leh are not aware of air pollution and its impact on climate change and global warming especially since air pollution is not visible.
When asked about this, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh, Dr. Sonam Wangmo said, "In Leh, more than 60% of households own more than two vehicles for their convenience. In addition to commercial and non-commercial vehicles, heavy vehicles like trucks, buses and heavy army vehicles are worsening this issue. The exhausts of these vehicles are the primary source of air pollution."
Retired Civil Engineer, Tsewang Norphel, who is popularly called the Glacier Man, emphasises that since Ladakh is a high altitude area and cold desert, vehicles emit more carbon dioxide than the plains, which has adverse impacts on the environment and people.
This is further compounded by the dismal state of public transport in Leh. According to the Assistant Regional Transport Office, Leh, the number of public buses has reduced from 111 to 60 in the last 20 years. In 2018, the district administration belatedly tried to remedy the situation by promoting public transport amongst locals. As a user of public transport, I find it extremely tiring as there are no fixed timetables, lack of definitive bus stops and too few buses. Overcrowded buses in hilly regions like Leh move rather slowly, thereby delaying the journey as a whole. This causes great inconvenience to people who cannot be blamed for preferring private vehicles.
There is also the issue of toxic emissions of vehicular pollution, especially diesel-run automobiles that contain PM 2.5 and PM 10, which damage genetic material and are linked to major lung diseases such as lung inflammation, asthma, and lung cancer. Air pollution is also linked to non-lung ailments such as heart attacks, strokes, heart disease and cognitive disorders. More importantly, it leads to increased mortality among infants, miscarriages, and foetal growth problems.
Imposing taxes on people with more than one vehicle will be a good starting point to mitigate the issue. Government also needs to strengthen the public transportation system. Maybe they can start by ensuring that buses run on time! All parts of the urban sprawl of Leh must be covered by the transportation network. In the absence of such meaningful changes, I don't see any point in having awareness programmes about public transportation.
In addition to the government, the people of Leh are also responsible for making Leh a more live-able place. This responsibility should not be limited to anyone but include every individual who has the right to clean environment, clear water bodies, and most of all, breathable air. For instance. carpooling among staff, peers, and co-workers can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions. It is also quite economical when the fare is split. Once the number of vehicles on the road reduces through these measures, more parking space will become available to people. Finally, however dreadful it is right now, we can opt to use public transportation with the hope that the government will do something soon to improve their condition.
Air pollution is not merely a technological problem. It is also a political problem, and the government should not ignore it. It must nominate an Executive Councillor for the environment. Implementing ecological restoration programmes such as planting trees and adopting green life-styles will also help. At the same time, it also needs to pursue the use of renewable energy and environmentally-sound growth policies.