On a clear day in December during the student protests, I saw three plumes of black smoke rising in the air. Students from Amrit Science Campus, SankarDev Campus and TriChandra Campus, it appeared, had all started their individual bonfires from scrap tires. As I walked closer to Ghantaghar, a cloud of billowing black smoke rose up to the sky. A line of fire, feeding off old tires and gasoline, cut off traffic from Kamaladi and caused a nightmarish traffic jam. A police car rushed to the scene and put the fire out in seconds, but the smell of burning plastic and chemicals lingered in the air. The next day, the wheels of traffic circulated the fine dust into the air. I watched the crowd of pedestrians, mostly lower income citizens, as they walked around this environmental disaster zone.
Burning tires is the preferred strategy of Nepali students during moments of public protest. Old tires, easily available, produce a satisfying amount of smoke. They are ignited with relative speed and discretion, allowing protesters to beat a quick exit before the police can get on the scene. The black dust coats the tarmac for days, acting as a powerful visual reminder of the protest.
These fires, however, have their own costs, especially to the environment and to the health of the pedestrians, bystanders and residents who inhale the aftermath. Citizens of Kathmandu, already affected by the exhaust of slow-moving vehicles spewing diesel fumes, and from the winter layers of hot and cold air which trap air into the bowl-shaped Valley, suffer a double dose of toxic emissions as the rubber tires are burnt and released into the atmosphere.
We may think tires are entirely made of natural rubber from trees, but they also include significant percentage of synthetic rubber made from petrochemical feedstocks, carbon black, extender oils, steel wire, up to 17 heavy metals, and chlorine. Synthetic rubber often contains styrene and butadiene. Both chemicals are suspected human carcinogens, with studies showing strong linkages between butadiene and leukemia. Extender oils contain benzene-based compounds which cause cancer in laboratory animals. Crude oil contains heavy metals, including, but not limited to, lead, chromium, cadmium, and mercury, all of which can affect crops and human growth. Incomplete combustion of benzene based compounds can produce dioxins, furans, PAH's (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), a smorgasbord of horrific by-products known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. If you are wondering about the high rates of diabetes in Kathmandu, you may also look at the US government's Environmental Protection Agency's 1994 Draft Reassessment of Dioxin which states there is no safe level of exposure for dioxin, released after burning chlorine. According to it, "even at extremely low levels a wide range of serious health effects are possible, including reproductive impairment, developmental injuries, and increased risk of diabetes. "
It is an unfortunate irony that activists seeking political change would unknowingly cause so much harm to their fellow citizens through their means of public protest. Democracies cannot exist without protest, but democracies are also run by citizens with a sense of responsibility to their immediate surroundings and environments. Civil responsibility, an integral component of any democracy, will hopefully be instilled into our rallies and marches with the same zeal and efficiency with which tires are ignited.
In democracies in the West, participants exhibit strong civic and environmental consciousness during public protests. Organizers of anti-war protests in the US request participants to refrain from destruction of property, and even send people afterwards to clean up garbage. Italy remains a nation with one of the largest culture of protest against a right-wing government - and their tool of resistance is nothing more harmful to the environment than millions of rainbow-colored flags. It seems like it is time to ask for the same kind of conscientious behavior from our student protesters.
Of course, protesters in Western democracies have the guarantee that their state will not shoot them for their activism, unlike Nepal where the state still has a weak understanding of democratic principles, especially the need for public demonstrations. If the students had not burnt tires and caused a massive uproar in December, would their leaders have been released? Or would they still be imprisoned, facing jail terms for speaking their mind? Perhaps this is a cyclical problem - tires will not stop burning until we have full freedom of expression, in which case the onus of cleaning the air quality rests with the state, which has to stop its authoritarianism. Freedom of speech, it seems, is a precondition for clean air. The smoke signals towards democracy.
(Kathmandu recently got the distinction of being the most polluted city in Asia in a World Bank report. The report elicited an angry response from Mayor Stapit, who claimed the report was irresponsible - he said the report was based on the statistics derived from one heavily polluted area during a few selected hours of sampling, and that the report would harm Kathmandu's image as a tourist hotspot. Faulty science or not, it is clear that there is a rising number of patients with respiratory diseases in the capital's hospitals in the past five years, especially during the winter months. Environmental experts point to the rising amounts of carcinogens and particulates in the Kathmandu air. PM 10, a unit of particulate, has risen by three folds in the past ten years. Phasing out twos-stroke Bikram tempos with faster moving blue microbuses and Nepal Yatayat minibuses seem to have done little to solve the problem - more than 80% of these new Euro 1 engines also failed the pollution test administered by the traffic police in June 2002. The green sticker, which certifies a vehicle is non-polluting, has become one of those bureaucratic burdens that drivers buy with some ghoos from the police. Children and elderly people, needless to say, are the most affected by the worsening air quality.)