I have often written in these columns that the greatest threat to humankind is from anthropogenic climate change. It is adversely impacting the environment leading to extreme climate events including floods, droughts and wild fires. These developments have, and, are continuously effecting billions of lives the world over. The evidence of the negative effects of climate change are not hidden but are being experienced by human beings on a daily basis.
These are also being acutely felt in the north Indian plains and this writer would seek the readers indulgence to note them as he has experienced them over his life; he is in his seventy-third year now. This personal experience is not being written due to a sense of nostalgia but to give a perspective to younger readers for whom the changing patterns of climate, over the decades, may be something about which they may have read in books and, naturally, not experienced them in their own lives.
The first point this writer would like to make is that the north Indian plains have always been dusty. However, atmospheric dust was greater during the summer when the hot winds from the Rajasthan desert blew over the plains. It is noteworthy that the creation of these plains was through the silica and other particles brought down by the great rivers that originate in the Himalayas and flow through the plains on their way to the Bay of Bengal. The impact of atmospheric dust was contained in past centuries by the forests which covered large tracts of the northern plains but also by, especially in the eastern part of the plains, in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, by bountiful monsoon rains. Also, this dust should not be confused with air pollution which is present now.
The plains had three distinct seasons. The summer months began, after a very brief spring in March, in April and from mid-April till the monsoons arrived in end June or the beginning of July hot desert winds blew during the day. This was the dreaded-‘loo’. The summer was dry and the affluent cooled themselves with wet mats of fragrant “Khaas” reeds. The monsoons began in late June or early July and continued till the middle or end of September. In these months temperatures came down but humidity went up oppressively. The autumn months brought relief and by November the winter began to set in. The four months from November to February were glorious. Early mornings and late nights could be misty and foggy but the mornings and afternoons were sunny with bright blue skies. There were only a handful of cloudy and foggy days when the winter rains came.
Now, it has changed.
As we are in winter let me begin with this season. Unlike in the past, when the onset of winter was welcomed, now it is dreaded. Large parts of the northern plains suffer from very high levels of pollution in autumn. Pollution levels increase partly due to the burning of the residue left in the fields of Punjab, Haryana and parts of western UP after paddy is harvested. The central and state governments have tried every means to persuade farmers to not burn the residue but their efforts have made no impact till now. This is also the time the wind flow is low so that pollutants do not have a chance of blowing away. One famous thoracic surgeon who has been practicing in the National Capital Region (NCR) for over four decades has said that whereas in the earlier years of his practice only one out of ten patients of lung cancer he attended to were non-smokers, now the ratio is one is to one. He also says that the average age of his patients has become lower. This is a truly alarming situation and needs to be tackled on an emergency basis, if not on a war-footing.
As winter advances, the number of sunny days is becoming limited. This year has been particularly bad. The first eighteen days of January have seen no more than four to five sunny days in the NCR area. Also, the Air Quality Index (AQI) is ranging from very poor to severe. This is far cry from the winters in the northern plains even three decades ago.
It is not only that the winter that has changed in this writer’s experience the ‘loo’ does not flow over the plains with the intensity or the regularity as it did in the past. Also, the patterns of the monsoons seem to have been modified too. Rain spells which lasted for many days are no longer as frequent. Dry days during the monsoons seem to be increasing.
Naturally, India has a robust meteorological and earth sciences systems which study the immediate, medium term and long-term implications of changing weather and climate patterns. Their findings are vital for the welfare of the nation and the people. They require the full attention of the political class and have to be put beyond normal politicking. The implications of climate change have strategic implications for the nation. But the fact is that these strategic manifestations are impacting the lives of all peoples directly. What is most troubling is that health experts are asserting that the health of the people is being negatively impacted. In this process the poorer sections of society suffer the most because those with means try to escape severe weather by going to areas which have better conditions.
There is evident need for the political class led by governments to focus more on climate change. On a personal level, this writer wonders if the winters of the northern plains have changed irreversibly?