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Pollute oceans and it’ll come back at us like it did in Andhra, Telangana: Manpreet Badal

We don't seem to have learnt the lesson from cyclones Ockhi and Amphan and continue to dump toxic wastes in the Indian Ocean. Our punishment this time could be severe.

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Peninsular India, represented by the almost perfect cartographic symmetry of an inverted triangle, has since time immemorial piqued the interests of explorers and poets alike. The beatific necklace-like 5,500 km of mainland coastline stretching from the Gulf of Kutch in the west to Sundarbans in the east is an endowment that translates into several blessings, including India’s advantageous location for trade and a favourable climate system that ensures soil fertility and agricultural fecundity.

However, our callous disregard to damage done to the Indian ocean system by marine pollution and climate change, is now resulting in severe repercussions as seen in several events in the past few months, particularly the devastating cyclones on the eastern as well as the western coast. While the motif of 2020 sorrow is Covid-19 pandemic, this year has also served us grim reminders of the catastrophes that await us, if we continue our reckless destruction of the Indian oceanic systems.

The floods that are currently devastating Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are the latest in the series of low-pressure cyclones that have snowballed into destructive forces. One gets a tragic sense of déjà vu because the circumstances are very similar to the Amphan super cyclone that had unleashed its fury in West Bengal and Odisha a few months ago.

The fact is that these cyclones had no reason becoming the force they eventually did. In Cyclone Amphan’s case, for example, a series of events that could fit the description of the metaphorical butterfly effect, a low pressure area near Colombo “allured” by unprecedented warm temperatures in the Bay of Bengal waters, kept on moving northwards, eventually turning into strongest and most damaging cyclone in the region in the last decade and a half.

The extreme fury of Amphan and the ongoing mayhem in Telangana should not make us think that 2020 is an isolated case of severe weather events. Starting with Sidr in 2007, the Bay of Bengal has witnessed more than 15 big cyclones, each leaving a trail of devastation behind it.

Also read: Political distancing and media apathy: How India developed Amphan-sized blindspot

Self-inflicted damage

While the Bay of Bengal has had a reputation of being an angry sea, we tend to take the comparative calm of Arabian Sea on India’s western coast for granted. Noted author and raconteur Amitav Ghosh, through his writings, particularly his book The Great Derangement, has highlighted that deleterious impacts of climate change could unleash furious response from the Arabian Sea.

Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 was a precursor to the myriad storms brewing in the western segments of the Indian Ocean. The cyclonic downpours in Mumbai, the invasion of desert locusts in northwest India — particularly in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — were direct consequences of climate change in the Arabian Sea.  The locust attack was attributed to the unseasonal rains in the Horn of Africa region, which led to this pestilential proliferation that attacked vast swathes of standing crops.

The recency of cyclones and locust attacks may awaken societal conscience to the damage inflicted upon the Indian oceanic waters surrounding the sub-continent, but it is important that this should encourage a change in behaviour for better. While government and international organisations such as the World Bank are doing their bit, these will not be enough on their own.

Evidence already suggests that while the Covid-19-induced prolonged lockdowns and reduced human movement may have provided air pollution reprieve, the use of extensive plastic and other non-recyclable material in food packets, hand sanitisers, masks, gloves, etc. has exacerbated the pollution in the oceans.

Two years ago, during the high theatrics of the Mamallapuram Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tamil Nadu, Modi, in his quintessential exhibitionist style, took a stroll on a beach and tried to convey a message about eliminating plastic waste. Unfortunately, trends don’t look very promising. Credible research shows that in the next ten years, 100 million tonnes of plastic waste could be dumped into the seas. The problem could exacerbate because the volatility in international oil prices has adversely impacted the capacity expansion investments so desperately needed in the plastic recycling industry.

Also read: How Hyderabad went from ‘flood-proof’ to frequently submerged in a century

Need imminent action plan

A coherent joint effort of the civil society at all levels is needed to tackle the multiple factors that impair ocean’s health including plastic pollution, industrial waste, degradation of marine ecosystem and global warming. Sadly with several global leaders preferring to indulge in one-upmanship and showman ship, such cooperation looks unlikely. The imminent demise of Paris accord is an example of myopia and insularity that afflicts our leaders today. Amidst all their grandstanding, the temperatures continue to rise, leading to galactical deluges, increasing carbon emissions and disturbances in oceans that are is disrupting the delicate environmental balance resulting in extreme weather events that endanger the well being of the entire planet.

Almost 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 km of a coast. One-fifth of India’s population is known to live along coasts. Rising ocean levels are already imperilling habitations. Environmentalists have conveyed that vast tracts of cities such as Mumbai, Miami, Ho Chi Min city, Bangkok, Shanghai, Manila, Venice, Rotterdam, Alexandria could be submerged under water by 2050. Even as the Maldives government tries to save several islands in this beautiful archipelago from being submerged under water, the government of Indonesia has already started work on building a new capital, as Jakarta sinks at an alarming pace.

While the danger to these cities is imminent, the correlation between catastrophes and degradation of oceans should awaken us to the urgency of a concerted and committed action plan. Oceans sustain earth’s climate, food chains, agriculture, rainfall, water and oxygen in the atmosphere. This message was beautifully conveyed in the Indian allegory of Samudra Manthan, where upon the churning of oceans, the mighty Samudra bestowed the human race with some of the greatest boons. However, there is a cautionary tale too, of the Halahal coming out. Luckily, Shiva Mahadev, in his typical selfless manner, helped avert the catastrophe.

However, humankind doesn’t seem to have learnt the lesson as we continue to defile the ocean by dumping toxic wastes. Our punishment this time could be particularly severe, as has been evidenced by the series of crises that we are facing, most of which could trace themselves to our deliberate degradation of the ocean.

We need to remember that humankind’s past, present and future are inextricably linked to oceans. To neglect and to damage this magnanimous giver, is to imperil our own existence. To quote former US President John F. Kennedy, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea…we are going back from whence we came.”

Manpreet Singh Badal is the finance minister of Punjab. Views are personal.

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  1. True. But this gentleman should talk about the pollution caused by Punjab farmers by burning the stubbles also. Pointing out fingers at others is easy. Being a non-coastsl state, he can blame southern states. What is the record of his own state?

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