June 5th, as we saw on our calendar last week, creates many opportunities to be in the right place at the right time, donning the right t-shirt and showing one’s concern for the environment. It does not matter whether you throw garbage on the streets each of the 365 days of the year; or get the pollution certificate for your vehicle through your contacts; or live off the income of stone crusher industries one has set up selectively interpreting the laws of the land as per one’s convenience; or selling vehicles that wantonly degrade the environment.
On June 5th, World Environment Day, one has to be able to stand at the right podium, making the right speeches and organising programmes that keep you on the right side of the cause. It does not matter whether the paper plates and plastic cups that were used to serve refreshments on this environment day finds collectors or is simply dumped into another garbage pile. The most important fact remains that you were there at the right moment at the right time saying the right things. Like many other things in Nepal—be it the right to education, accountability and transparency or access to quality goods and services.
This situation leaves one wondering how some people are able to plant trees each year without knowing what the fate of the trees are. I wonder what the fate of the hundreds of banners written or printed on flex are? Where do all these banners go? What prompts us to do this?
I get back to thinking of development as a concept that we Nepalis have never been able to internalise. Development for us still means bikas, the imported theory. Therefore, we never tire about taking about that bikase shyau (the development apple) or bikase bangur (the development pig). Development as a theory is something that is imported; therefore, we need a machinery in place that keeps this imported theory going. Similarly, we see that the issue of the environment is also an imported one, not one that we Nepalis have internalised. We go for rallies on June 5th not because we believe in the concept but perhaps because many of us are forced by our ‘log frames’ to tick the box of ‘rally conducted on Environment Day consisting of over 500 people with equal participation by women’.
I ask my neighbour, who keeps throwing his garbage on the street, as to what prompts him to wear a t-shirt that reads ‘Keep Kathmandu Clean’ or that political leader friend of mine who cannot give up his SUV but talks all the time of making Kathmandu a cycle-friendly city or those scores of people who lead tree plantations but have never planted a tree at home. One can keep making pledges of being plastic-free till one gets the chance to dine with the right person at the right time and then, we carry home leftover pieces of chicken in a plastic bag.
We can have hundreds of legislations to assist change but until people come to the realisation ‘something is wrong’ and that change is reflected in behaviour, things will remain the same. Take an example. When people do not wash their hands after using the toilet, you can pay them Rs 10 per hand wash or fine them Rs 10 every time they don’t. But this will not effect a change in behaviour unless the people themselves realise that handwashing is for their own good. Like the people who refrained from using email 15 years ago or refrain from using social media now, until they realise that they will be left behind if they don’t embrace changes, no law, reward or penalty can force them to adapt. One cannot imagine today that there were people who once blocked railway engines from plying 150 years ago, blocked the usage of emails in offices for official purposes and continue to block social media as a medium for communication.
In Bhutan, I reflect on what got them thinking about instituting 60 percent forest cover as a constitutional provision and what got them to internalise the same. What prompted the realisation that having forest cover is good for one’s well-being in the present and for future generations. Similarly, I see little street urchins in the villages of Rwanda wearing tattered clothes, who, when handed a candy, would tear off the wrapper and after putting the candy in their mouth, would instinctively put the wrapper in their pockets to throw them away later in the trash can. Singapore might have brought about cleanliness and a reputation as a ‘fine country’ through stringent laws but some countries are doing the same through self-realisation.
Securing the Future
For Nepal, it is important to understand that saving the environment is not something to spend money allocated by different agencies on and keep dozens of institutions and jobs alight. To save the environment is to define our own future. It is about realising how many litres of fuel was burnt in generators to keep programmes on the ‘environment’ going or how many litres of fuel were wasted by vehicles in the snarling traffic caused by multiple ‘environment’ rallies. Until we realise and internalise the fact that we need to take care of the environment to take care of our future, tokenism will not work.
Going green can be a competitive advantage for an organisation, community or nation or a strategy for rent seeking. We need to ponder whether it is more important to make the right noise on Environment Day or do right things for the environment. The choice, at least to me, is clear.