Towards constructive targets
Why Kashmir University prefers footfalls over whizzing cars in its campus
The university recently declared a war on black carbon through a decision to ban fuel-burning vehicles in the campus. The decision has gone down well with most university staff and students. But some have started citing ridiculous reasons for removing the ban. Late on Wednesday evening, a friend from Kashmir University (KU) sent me some photos which he had taken near the university's iconic Iqbal Library. He wanted to show me how serene the KU campus looks these days without cars honking and whizzing around — and parked on roadsides in the campus following a recent decision by the KU administration to keep the campus free of diesel and petrol-propelled vehicles.
The photos looked soothing to the eyes and depicted an atmosphere of picture-perfect peace and tranquility, with students and academics walking in little groups of three, four or more in the campus. After all, when it comes to natural beauty and the charms of a university campus, KU can arguably take the crown, at least in South Asia. But oddly enough, some elements in the university , many of whom are academics, have started building pressure on the administration to remove this ban which aimed to make the campus healthier. For example, one staff member has raised questions about health emergencies, inter-departmental visits and offering prayers at the iconic Hazratbal shrine. All of these reasons do not hold water, considering that the university already has some electric cars and plans to buy more electric cars and e-rickshaws as part of its green mission even though the entire campus is just 1.06 square kilometres in area with a pretty good tree cover and comforting and restful gardens like Naseem Bagh. The Hazratbal shrine is just outside the main gate of the university.
The ban was initially implemented for five days and was continued later as demanded by KUTA (Kashmir University Teachers Association). The association, as mentioned in the communication among KUTA members cited above, is in touch with the administration for making some more alternative arrangements in view of the continuation of the ban. Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences Department and is a strong proponent of the ban, wrote in response to the same post: "The movement and number of vehicles had increased a lot within the campus; and in absence of the regulation, it was going to get worse in future. All of us are enjoying the serene ambience of the campus since the ban was implemented. We need to be patient and support the initiative keeping in view the tremendous benefits of a vehicle-free campus." He also cited the parking mess in front of each of the departments in support of his argument.
Why KU needs to set an example
In Kashmir, the government is struggling to cope with the proliferation of vehicles, for which lack of viable public transport is partly responsible. But in recent years, a growing middle-class has resulted in more vehicles on the roads. Thus, the number of vehicles has sharply increased. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on Srinagar's roads are a common sight, especially in summers.
The number of vehicles on the roads has doubled from over 7 lakh in 2010 to over 14 lakh (14, 881,90) in March 2017, as per the J&K Transport Commissioner's office, foregrounding the need for better public transport. Widening of roads for accommodating additional vehicles and addressing traffic jams is the most common solution, which seems obvious to many people and policy-makers. But there is a fundamental problem with this idea as it involves more concretisation of land at the cost of the green area. Plus, many experts have argued that the widening of roads never addresses the problem as it encourages people to drive more miles and thus bring more cars on the roads.
KU's decision to ban vehicles inside the campus can set an example about why people should not become dependent on personal cars. The government can also take a leaf from KU's decision and can improve public transport besides buying more electric buses in addition of the four buses it has got last month. The growing pollution in Srinagar is also a big concern and increasing traffic is one of the contributors to it. Romshoo, who was part of a study on growing pollution in Srinagar city, said that air quality of the Kashmir valley deteriorates significantly during autumn, with the level of PM2.5 touching 350 μg/m3 against the national permissible limit of 60 μg/m3.
Romshoo said that vehicular traffic and biomass burning (burning of leaves and twigs for making charcoal) is also the main source of black carbon, which, he said, causes rapid melting of glaciers. "Average Black Carbon at Srinagar is the highest among all the observed high-altitude Himalayan sites," he said while quoting from the study. Also, two years ago, the state government placed a ban on the burning of leaves iby ssuing circulars to various departments for its strict implementation. "With the onset of autumn, thick plumes of smoke rise up in different parts of the valley because of the open burning of abscised leaves, willow and poplar twigs releasing large amounts of air-borne particles (PM 2.5 and PM 10 which are particulate matter less than 2.5 microns and 10 microns) which include fine bits of dust, soot, harmful particles and toxic gases aggravating air pollution," read the government order issued from the chief minister's office.
But this ban is affecting only the poor people who rely on burning of leaves and twigs for their livelihood. Why shouldn't the middle class share the responsibility? KU has done well to bring the middle class under the polluters' bracket!
(Athar Parvaiz is an award-winning journalist based in Srinagar. He has extensively written on environment and climate change in recent years. Views expressed are strictly personal)