Pause for effect
A resurgence of natural habitats has been noticed across India’s mountainous regions as pollutions levels dropped significantly following a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This small window of non-interference has shed new light on how our relationship with nature can be made more inclusive in future
With the Coronavirus spreading at an alarming rate across the world, many countries adopted systematic lockdowns to slow the rate of infection. Billions of people were confined to the safety of their homes and travel was severely curtailed to check the virus’ transmission. Industries, businesses and even small-scale construction units were halted as the world slowly came to terms with the pandemic. Although these policy decisions were a necessary measure for the well-being of humanity, there was one aspect that had not been focussed on as much – the impact lockdowns would have on the environment. Human involvement has, over many millennia, degraded our environment. During the pandemic, with lockdowns and restricted movement of man and machinery in most parts of the world, resulting in an unprecedented withdrawal of human interference, nature started healing itself.
In India, this impact has been most prominent in the Himalayan region. Very recently, news feeds were flooded with photographs showing the massive Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas visible from Jalandhar, Punjab, situated over 200 km away. In a similar event, residents of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh woke up to a clear view of snow-capped Himalayan mountains, which many had never seen before. Experts say this was only possible due to the reduced vehicular and industrial emissions over two months.
Mother nature’s self healing properties were visible in some of the largest Indian rivers, which showed a dramatic, almost miraculous drop in toxicity. The Yamuna and Ganga rivers, known as lifelines of the fertile plains of northern India had nominal impurities and toxins after the initial month-long lockdown. In a report published by Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board recently, it was noted that the level of Coliform (a type of pathogen) in River Ganga in and around Rishikesh had dropped from 70/100ml (Apr 2019) to 40/100ml (Apr 2020), whereas the dissolved oxygen levels had risen by almost 20% (Apr 2019-Apr 2020). There has also been significant reduction in man-animal conflicts across the state of Uttarakhand as traffic on roads was well below average. Since lockdowns have also significantly reduced noise pollution, wild animals have been seen venturing close to inhabited cities like Shimla and Manali in Himachal Pradesh. “Since the relative absence of humans and related activities, wild animals have started to perceive larger areas as deserted and therefore safe for them,” says Parag Madhukar Dhakate, chief conservator of forests (CCF) western circle Kumaon, Uttarakhand.
In one such instance, a pair of snow leopards were spotted with camera traps at the Nanda Devi National Park in Uttarakhand. The sighting of the pair together points towards the comfort with which these endangered animals are moving about the park. Anil Thakur, the Director of the Great Himalayan National Park (also classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO) explains that even when the almost 1100 sq km area saw around 2000 visitors during the summer months (May-July), the decrease in human footprints enabled wildlife to venture into the open and access more area. “It was definitely beneficial for the park’s flora and fauna. Human activity, be it vehicular or otherwise, threatens wildlife, however inadvertently. Once the park opens again, we will follow guidelines and try to educate our visitors about the relationship we share with nature. The pandemic has reaffirmed that nature is and always has been, supreme,” he said.
Moreover, bird sightings have nearly doubled with many endangered and rare species of birds spotted easily across Himachal Pradesh. “The reduced levels of air and noise pollution have allowed these birds to return to what was originally part of their natural habitats,” say ornithologists. Infact, enthusiasts and bird watchers from Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, have been able to spot upto 40 different species of birds from the safety of their rooftops!
Change for the better
Such has been the change in the environment and the scale of natural reclamation, that experts are now looking to it for policy decisions. The drastic reductions in AQI (Air Quality Index) levels has allowed many metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata in achieving their targets of yearly pollution reduction within just two months. “It’s not just humans who have benefited from the cleaner air, animals and plant life is also booming due to the same. It is now our biggest challenge to continue this healing process for mother nature,” says Dhakate. Even as the adverse aspects of the Coronavirus have been felt by humans, the crisis has come as reminder for us to rethink our relationship with nature. Going forward, there is scope of improvement when it comes to making more inclusive policy decisions that do not threaten natural ecosystems at the cost of widespread development.
An avid naturalist, Upasana Patial, the chief conservator of forests and wildlife (CCF WL) in Himachal Pradesh’s northern regions has noted a significant decline in the number of forest fires this year which she says maybe attributed to limited human activity following the nationwide lockdown. Coupled with good rainfall and lower temperatures, the decrease in fires is quite miraculous. “The forest department in tandem with the administration tries to keep human-wildlife conflict to a minimum. With the lockdown in effect, we were able to significantly reverse the negative biological impact on the environment while simultaneously studying the flora and fauna which would otherwise be impacted due to forest fires, vehicular traffic and heavy tourist influx,” explains Patial.
Many environmentalists believe that the lockdown boosted the sensitive ecosystems naturally and that a 30-day period restricting human interactions, can be allowed each year in order to reset the biological impact in these areas. We should not resort to going back the way we were, but instead, should learn from this experience and allow nature to thrive as we progress.