By Debapriya Sen
New Delhi, Jan. 8, 2019: The Delhi sky is covered with smog and will continue to do so till the end of the season. The ever-deteriorating air quality index has been a grave concern every winter.
Scientific data provide sufficiently robust basis for establishing that the general population and the children as potentially vulnerable subgroups. There are severe short and long term consequences especially to children’s health. They breathe more rapidly and inhale more air per minute than an adult and absorb more toxic material.
While air pollution tops the chart of our winter woes, it is just the tip of the iceberg. We continue to be exposed to a range of environmental toxins. For long, Delhi has been grappling with its environmental issues of air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of municipal solid waste segregation, lack of adequate solid waste treatment facilities, etc.
Growing urbanization has been putting pressure on the city’s environmental balance. Urbanization has a homogenizing effect on biodiversity as native habitats are much reduced and relatively few species, often non-native, that thrive in human-dominated landscapes tend to predominate (McKinney, M.L. and Lockwood, J.L. 1999).
While the government and regulatory authorities engage in formulating potential policies and ink guidelines and their proper implementation, we as citizens have a crucial role to play in reviving the ecological balance in the city.
A long term sustainable solution to conserve the nature and limit its depletion, is to connect its inhabitants and involve them in the restoration process. For this, conscious efforts need to be made to bring nature closer to the people – in their physical surroundings – places where people reside, work, where their children play, etc.
This requires a paradigm shift in behavior. Targeted behavior change communication could plays a vital role in this regard.
To begin with, it is important that we critically analyse the present paradigm of environmental awareness messages. What is the narrative? What is the content of the massage that we are sending out? Is it able to reach the unconverted? Does it make the impact it is intended to? If not, then we should identify and fill the information gaps.
The massage should convey conservation principles in a manner that brings people together rather than fostering an attitude of fear, helplessness or confrontation. As ecologist and author Robert Pyle points out, collective ignorance ultimately leads to collective indifference. To be successful in conserving bio- diversity, the value and relevance of nature in the public mind must be made clear to raise awareness of the broader ecological realities that provide the context for human life.
Achieving success will require a combined effort by a cross section of people who understand how environmental factors influence their health and well-being, people who adopt the practices of Recycle, Reuse and Zero net waste with the belief that in the nature’s lifecycle nothing gets wasted, everything feeds back into the cycle to regenerate and renew it.
It requires framework for developing a wider focus in ecological conservation that highlights the necessity of engaging a broader spectrum of stakeholders. A cohesive and inclusive partnership of policy makers, conservationists, planners, architects, health professionals, non-governmental organizations and local citizens including children.
Unfortunately, children often are neglected and at times token participants in the process, despite their share in suffering is going to be temporally longest. Why not involve them in our planning and endeavor to restore nature? By not involving them, are we not leaving the thoughts, ideas, perception and voices of a vital section of the community? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunities to ask questions and be part of the search for solutions?
Children are more compassionate toward non-human species. They have the potential to contribute immensely in making a cleaner and healthier city if we give them the opportunities for meaningful interactions with the natural world through planting, tending, sharing and learning.
Giving them tours beyond text book literature, familiarizing them with their surroundings, what many conservationists call ‘lived experience’, which lasts in their memory and orients them to be ecologically conscious being.
This can be brought about by promoting the concept of garden-based learning among school students. Gardens are in a way living classrooms that can provide a space for students to reconnect to the world around them. They offer students a place to stimulate their natural curiosity and compassion, explore the diverse plants, soil microorganisms, bugs, and insects that live right outside their school doors.
Food and Agriculture organization of UN has been successfully implementing such program in many countries across Asia, Africa and Europe, utilising school yards as naturalized outdoor classrooms. UNESCO-UNEP International Environmental Education Programme has developed an Environmental Education Series focusing on the incorporation of Environmental Education into primary and secondary curricula, teacher education, technical and vocational education and non-formal education.
Children are open to forming positive behaviors and attitudes that lasts a lifetime. Oftentimes the experience they have at a young age becomes key inspiration for their adult values and lifestyle. By connecting children with nature and making them a party in restoring Delhi’s ecological balance, we can assure at least one concrete, sustainable, long term solution to the city’s environmental health.
(The writer is a New Delhi based Social Development Specialist.)