World Environment Day amidst Covid-19: Time For Nature

Patricia Mukhim

Its June 5 today and if not for Covid-19 having displaced our lives we would be observing this World Environment Day in a variety of ways simply because the observance has become a ritual. This year the theme is appropriately named – “Time for Nature.” We need to give time for nature to heal. But how?

Year after year students attend lectures at the Soso Tham Auditorium on World Environment Day but what lasting lessons do they take back with them? I wonder too if urban students know what growing a plant means. In the rural areas and the suburbs students also grow plants and vegetables. Thank God for that! Education today is so disconnected from the real world that touching the soil and “soiling,” one’s hands might be considred unhygienic. So sanitized have we become and so divorced from the earth, which we often call ‘Mother Nature,’ without fully grasping its meaning! But with Covid-19 having turned our lives topsy turvy and in an inexplicable way, because even the best scientists and physicians, particularly epidemiologists are all groping for answers, we have to also look within to see how and why we have lost our immunity. Immunity is inbuilt and has been known to be the only way to counter the range of coronaviruses. Till date we have no cure for the flu except to control the fever and prevent secondary infections.

Our engagement with the environment too is superficial. We live in a world of hashtags and copy-cat actions. The death of a pregnant elephant fed with a pineapple containing explosives has turned the Twitterati and Facebooking crowd gung-ho. No one raised a squeak when elephants, deer and rhinoceroses are hunted down in the Kaziranga Park. Perhaps, Assam is not a sexy enough place, like God’s own country is! This is the world of artificial-intelligence and I am not referring to AI here. Its more about a non-conservationist, not in the least bit interested in nature and what it is going through, suddenly joining forces with others because the hashtag is sexy and has some reputed people comenting on it. So we join forces and suddenly become bleeding heart environmentalists, who will however, not care a hoot about using single-use plastics and dumping them anywhere to be eaten by cows and dogs that choke to death. Here again, no one will lift a finger to raise  a stink. And today being World Enviornment Day it might be a good time to remind ourselves how we pollute the rivers incessantly with used sanitary napkins, babies’ nappies, complete with the gel and the faecal matter all thrown in. And the same people will also join the hashtag bandwagon because its fashionable!

There is a huge problem when we live in a third world country with basic civic amenities lacking and use all the products dumped on us by the First World. These products are meant to reduce time and drudgery because instead of washing cloth nappies and menstrual cloth we are introduced to the use-and- throw elements of modern civilization. But throw where? Imagine,  baby diapers (Huggies etc.)  today travel to every village of Meghalaya but those villages have no waste collection and processing system. So all the diapers and sanitary napkins land up in rivers. Further downstream people drink and bathe in the same waters.

Covid-19 was and is supposed to teach us lessons on caring for the environment and developing real life environment warriors, not social network soldiers who feel that a post with a hashtag has solved the earth’s problems. Speaking from experience of cleaning the rivers of  Shillong and beyond since August last year and interrupted only by the invisible bug, most schools and colleges don’t encourage their students to volunteer for this “dirty” work. There’s just Kiddies Corner School and Bethany Society along with Women’s College, KL Bajoria College, Martin Luther Christian University and a few individuals and groups like MakeSomeoneSmile and Jiva-City Hut Dhaba that have been faithfully and consistently involved in the river cleaning project, week after week.

So when it comes to real life education most schools and colleges are still very far removed from it. The principals/heads are happy to just send their students with placards on World Environment Day to listen to some boring lectures on what they should and should not do; given a food packet and then return to school. That’s what World Environment Day is distilled to in this country. Then of course there are tree plantation programmes but the trees are never really looked after. Most are eaten up by grazing goats and cattle or are pulled out by destructive humans. Clearly World Environment Day has become a placebo; a symbolic observance because the environment isn’t getting any better.  In fact its getting worse; nature is fighting back and how!

Yesterday I visited SANKER that sanatorium where those needing to be rehabilitated and detoxified from alcohol and drugs or needing mental health therapy find healing. The place is replete with greenery; it has a fish pond and an endless variety of fruit trees and foliage. It’s a perfect place to find solitude as well as regain mental and spiritual health. SANKER is spread over seven acres of land but unlike most people who want to build up everything down to the last square feet of land and even encroach into the main road and highway if possible, Dr Sandi Syiem the SANKER, CEO and his team believe in conserving the greenery and using only minimum space for housing inmates and staff. Alas! Not too many people think its important set aside space for greenery.

What is also remarkable is that SANKER is located around the Mawlai Mawroh forested area belonging to the Syiem clan, of which the Syiem of Mylliem is the custodian.  That whole forest is a catchment area and should be left as it is. A couple of years ago the then Syiem of Mylliem, Latho Manik was about to alienate parts of this forested land to settle some myntris of the Hima Mylliem. But that project was shelved after citizens raised the banner of protest. It is the onus of the Syiem of Mylliem, whoever, he is to conserve our dwindling forest and catchment areas.

Recently, there was a move to turn that forested area in Mawroh into a market. Now why would a forest be turned into a market? Can’t the Dorbar Shnong and political leaders  find some alternative space?  A forest, is a forest and should be allowed to remain so. There is too much human intervention anyway and that’s a dangerous thing to happen. In Meghalaya today there is and has been a growing gluttony for land. Those with money want to buy up every available space and will use their connections to  get access even to forested land.

Talking about the shrinking forest canopy, our attention should be drawn to the forest belt from Lawjynriew, through Lumpynngad, Risa Colony, Cleve Colony, Malki, Lumparing etc., and stretching on to Laitkor. Although this is reserved forest there are human activities happening inside the forests. The forest canopy in most parts is shrinking. It is learnt that some MLAs have been pressurizing the Forest Department to grant them permission for commercial projects. This is a dangerous proposition and people should remain vigilant about such avaricious ambitions.

More than lectures, we should set aside ‘Time For Nature;’ listen to the sounds of nature, visit the rivers and streams and feel what the river feels and what the earth says. Only then can we reconnect to nature and heal ourselves even as we help to heal Mother Earth.

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