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IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists

IIT Ropar Director Dr SK Das caused a stir with his plain speaking in the first of its kind Regional Conference on Environment in Chandigarh on Saturday in the presence of National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairman Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel by asserting that judges and bureaucrats at the helm had no great understanding of environmental issues and that scientists and researchers should be brought to the centre stage in finding solutions to the problems of air and water pollution and solid waste management.

Can anyone in the gathering (mostly comprising administrators from Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh and many judges) claim to understand the real problem of air pollution in NCR Delhi or the highly polluted Yamuna, he asked and himself answered that he was sure none. Environmental problems are scientific issues requiring scientific solutions, and better left to the scientific community to find, he asserted and observed that the game is lost if we start considering the problems of pollution in isolation because these are integrated problems requiring careful study, analysis and finding integrated solutions.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Photos By : LIfe In Chandigarh

He was the first speaker in the fourth and last session of the conference on the topic “Role of Research, Innovation & Technology in Facing Environmental Challenges” chaired by former Punjab Chief Secretary SC Aggarwal, who is member of the NGT State Monitoring Committee. In his concluding remarks Aggarwal concurred with Dr Das to the extent that he himself believed that “we often jump to solutions without understanding all aspects of a given problem.”

Other prominent panellists from reputed scientific organisations like IIT Delhi, CSIR-NEERI and NIPER Mohali in the session also underlined the scientific basis of the environmental projects they had undertaken.   

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Dr Das was scheduled to speak on a Centre of Excellence on Environment and Water which has been created in IIT Ropar to address water pollution challenges in Punjab through innovative technological interventions.

There was visible consternation in the gathering when Dr Das began making his observations, but since at the outset he had sought to apologise if his plain speaking as an academician and researcher were to hurt anyone’s sentiments, the outburst was apparently taken in a positive spirit. Punjab, Principal Secretary Science, Technology and Environment RK Verma, the principal motivator of the conference, quickly intervened to check possible fallout. He informed the gathering that Punjab government was also working on scientific lines in collaboration with IIT Ropar in its recent environmental initiatives. 

“No Time Left, Act Now”

 “No Time Left, Act Now” was the theme, and the underlining message of the regional conference, organised by Punjab Directorate of Environment & Climate Change, and appreciated by all. And, the mood of the impressive gathering, comprising leadership of judiciary, government, non-government organisations and the scientific community, on issues of environmental protection and management truly mirrored that urgency for action.

Justice Goel, who sat through the conference, intently listening to personal experiences, knowledge and suggestions being shared on the platform, hailed the conference as a unique one as it involved mass participation of stake holders from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Union Territory of Chandigarh and even Uttar Pradesh.

Punjab was obviously very heavily represented at the conference, right from the top bureaucracy, to senior officers from the implementing departments and representatives from the districts, including commissioners, deputy commissioners, additional deputy commissioners, SDMs, municipal commissioners, executive officers of various municipalities and block development officers.

RK Verma informed that a series of such conferences for serious deliberations have also been planned at the zonal level in Punjab.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Devise New Models: Justice Goel

Emphasising the need for brainstorming at all levels to devise new models of waste management suited to peculiar local conditions, Justice Goel in his keynote address during the plenary session on “Healthy Environment for Healthy People” said this regional conference could itself be a model for others to emulate.

He confided that his innings as chairman of the green tribunal started on a note of disappointment at the attitude of the official machinery mandated to act against environmental degradation. But his experience had shown that the main issue is that of ownership. “If the official machinery and the public take ownership, and show the will to act, there is no dearth of mass support and finances,” he asserted.

The NGT Chairman shared that there were broadly two models of waste management – the command and control model and the market driven model – and both had failed to deliver. The citizens of this country, perhaps still harbouring that spirit of non-cooperation which they displayed against the British government, continue to mistrust the government, and are unwilling to cooperate with the law. The governments of the day have also failed to fully inspire the confidence of the public. The other model, market driven, is also not working as it is proving too costly and there is a dearth of responsible service providers, he observed.

Integrated Model Required

Justice Goe propounded an integrated model, combining the strengths of all existing models,  and running a massive awareness campaign to solicit mass participation in implementation of this model.

Stressing that there is no conflict between law and industry, he explained that none of the green actions are intended to stop industrial activity. “We all want economic activity, growth and creation of more jobs. In fact greater compliance with the green laws will only lead to greater economic activity,” he maintained.

He made out a strong case for unlocking the huge parcels of prime land occupied by more than 4100 mountains of garbage in 4100 cities of the country. Apart from the fact that our cities will never get clean air till these dumping sites continued to raise poisonous gases and a big stink, it also made economic sense to unlock the land. As a proposal suggests 10% of the land thus released can be used for revenue generating economic activity and creating jobs, and the remaining 90% can be brought under forest cover for a healthy environment, he added.

Regarding sewage treatment, he said the existing facilities were highly inadequate and need to be strengthened. The huge cost involved can be collected from the public as taxes, or alternatively the burden shifted on the non compliant industries, which can then be supplied the treated water, he suggested.

Indore Experience

Sharing his experiences as a project management consultant with the Municipal Corporation of Indore, which has been getting the overall cleanest city of India award in annual Swachh Survekshan rankings in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Ajay Jain said segregation of waste at source is the key to the success of any solid waste management project as it opens the doors for a revenue generating model.

While awareness and participation of all sections of the citizens is extremely important, it can only be ensured once they are given confidence that the delivery system is in place and the authorities have the will to act decisively. The aim should always be to achieve 100% of the targets, though a beginning can be made in a small area comprising a few wards only, Jain added.

The consultant claimed that as per official records following the cleanliness campaign launched in Indore the incidence of disease in the municipal areas has been brought down to 50% of what it was three years ago.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Environmental Governance

In the second session, while state officials from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and UT Chandigarh, representing the local bodies department, pollution control board, new and renewal energy agency and soil conservation department, briefed the gathering about outcomes of state action plans, the standout speaker was former UP Chief Secretary Dr. Anup Pandey, currently member of the NGT Oversight Committee for the state.

In his engrossing address on the topic “Issues In Environmental Governance”, he said solid waste management is an integral part of urban development and cash-starved municipalities needed to be extended adequate technical and financial support by the state and central governments in discharging their responsibility of managing urban solid waste, the composition of which had changed substantially over the past few years.

He advocated that in extending financial assistance to municipalities a separate head should be dedicated towards solid waste management and a structured system of empanelled contractors and standardised rates for different works be created to facilitate the local bodies to award contracts expeditiously without fear of allegations of wrongdoing. Following this route in UP more than Rs 10,000 crore of smart city funds locked up in tendering processes were released within two months, he claimed.

The system of fixing responsibility for proper functioning of sewage treatment plants has also to be squarely fixed and for that ‘One City One Operator’ rule needs to be followed so that the operator cannot shift responsibility.

For the success of the solid waste management campaigns, especially segregation of waste at source, Dr. Pandey suggested massive advertising and publicity blitz by the municipalities and state and central governments on the lines of the Swachh Bharat campaign.

He sought review of the policies for establishing waste to energy plants to make their operations self sustaining, which right now are not proving to be economically viable. It should be made mandatory for bulk waste generators to set up their own STPs, he added.   

In his concluding remarks, Justice Pritam Pal, Chairman, NGT Monitoring Committee for river Ghaggar and Solid Waste Management in Haryana and Chandigarh, shared some personal experiences to highlight the general lack of sensitivity towards environmental issues among field officers tasked with checking untreated sewage waste and effluents. At the same time he also gave shining examples of local officials showing the will to act, and driving transformation, by taking the cooperation of civil society in Nawanshahr, Parwanoo and Rohtak.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Experiences of Best Practices

The third session on “Best Practices & Experience Sharing for Environmental Protection” saw panellists relate inspirational stories of transformation happening with the involvement of all stakeholders. Manish Tripathi, Executive Vice-President, Tata Projects, presented the case study of an ongoing project to rejuvenate river Dravyavati flowing through Jaipur city using complex environmental engineering.

He said the 47 kms long seasonal rivulet had been reduced to a highly polluted drain due to industrial effluents and municipal waste choking the flow of water. The toxic water was being used for irrigating vegetable crops.

The Jaipur Vikas Pradhikaran commissioned Tata Projects to execute a Rs 1600 crore plan. Drawing heavily from best global practices for river rejuvenation, all encroachments were removed and 40 kms of the course was levelled. Five large STPs were installed to take care of all the sewage and effluents flowing into the stream. More than 17,000 trees were planted and landscaped parks and cycle tracks laid. Today, the river rejuvenation is still work in progress but it had already opened up opportunities for recovering the cost of the project, Tripathi added.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

The Rural Oasis

While the entire focus of the conference was on urban local bodies, Navdeep Kaur, Block Development & Panchayat Officer (BDPO), gave a presentation on how villages in Doraha block were showing the way to other rural belts on how to manage solid waste and keep the environs clean.

She said though rural areas were generally free of air pollution, their main concern was of water pollution and soil degradation. The villages were generating huge amounts of animal waste, wet waste from cooking, paper waste by students’ community and plastic waste.

“It was very difficult initially to convince villagers but we began with door to door garbage collection in village Landha on the lines of the practice in the cities and built covered pits for composting. The compost is being supplied free of cost to marginal farmers. Seeing the benefits, other villages caught on and today 13 of the 62 villages in the block have been covered. The biggest problem is of finances, but we are confident of overcoming these,” she asserted.

Navdeep Kaur claims that Doraha is set to become the first block in the state to be solid waste free.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

The Nawanshahr Model

Lalit Mohan Pathak, the two time President of Municipal Council of Nawanshahr, which won the cleanest city award among cities with less than one lakh population in North India in Swachh Survekshan 2019, had the audiences in splits with his plain rustic style of presenting before the gathering the success story of the city falling in the NRI belt of Punjab.

Describing in detail how the collective spirit of the people, motivated by an idea, helped bring about a positive change in mindsets, he said the public raised Rs 50-60 lakh to begin this journey of transformation. Right from getting 32 low cost cycle driven rehris and 3 motor cycle driven rehris, designed and fabricated locally for door to door garbage collection, to converting a two-acre stinking dumping site into a park, many seemingly impossible tasks were achieved with the people’s will and participation, he informed.

Pathak shared that the support and participation of every section of society, including fruit juice sellers, social and religious organisations, schools and colleges, women, senior citizens, mohalla committees and the police, was enlisted towards creating awareness and persuading others to join the movement.

With funds contributed by the municipal council and collected through donations, three highly polluted ponds in the city were cleaned up, public toilets were built and dustbins with CCTV surveillance were placed across the city. The local railway station was also cleaned up with a single day’s voluntary effort and 10,000 cloth bags distributed among the population to check plastic bag usage, he added.

IIT Ropar Director Causes Stir, Asserts Finding Environmental Solutions Best Be Left To Scientists, Lifeinchd

Baba Seechewal

Padma Shri awardee and spiritual guru Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, also called Eco Baba for his pioneering voluntary work in the field of environment, while giving an account of the mass movement for cleaning up the highly polluted 160 km long holy Kali Bein, requested the NGT chairman to use the power of his “injection” to spur the state government and the municipalities into mission mode to save the environment.     

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