July 13, 2015

Walking precariously

Yesterday, as I walked along Male's cluttered pavement as I usually do every day and as usual having to snake my way around curb-parked motor-cycles and idle youth parked on these chatting with other idle friends and puffing on that ubiquitous cigarette all along my pathway, a good young soul who may have noticed my anxiety searching for a foothold on the curb along my way, looked at me and pointed his finger ahead as if to show me the easy way. "There is an open space over there" he called to me, showing me the entrance to the STO showroom. I thanked him, even though STO was not my destination today; I was just attempting to get to the other curb. 

Actually it dawned on me at that moment that perhaps many young people now don't even know that these pavements are for walking. This new generation, because of the easy access to the motor-cycle and so never having to do any walking except inside buildings and to and from these edifices to their motor-cycles, have forgotten that legs were given for walking; and so why should there be pavements for walking when there are motor bikes and cars to travel in - even from one city block to the other in this "big" city called Male? I knew that this young man was indeed trying to help in all good stead but what I wanted was to find some space to cross from one street-curb to the other to continue walking unimpeded.

But unimpeded cannot be a word used for Male streets! If there is any thing that is certain on Male's streets, it's the string of on-the-way obstacles a pedestrian has to overcome. The pot holes from removed cement pavement blocks that have not been replaced, their un-evenness that makes for not too infrequent results in crushed toes or twisted ankles of the cursory walker, the unending line of parked motor cycles that will put any bike show-room to shame, the leaking gutters and air-conditioner effluent that pitter-patter on pedestrian heads, the encroaching shops that slowly but surely now begin to occupy enough of the pavement with fruits and vegetables and spices and hardware items that compels the wary pedestrian to tiptoe along this narrow swathe of space lest they step on the displayed items and get penalised for walking. 

These two-foot wide walk-paths and the iron-work railings at Male’s main street junctions are also the conversation and recreational space for expatriate labour who I sadly confess have no other place in this congested Male to park their rears when their daily chores are done. There the sit perched on the railings immersed in the joy of sipping an energy drink or smoking the ever present cigarette and chattering on their mobile phone, and of course shielding their carefree gaze behind pitch dark sunglasses, as they sit at their vantage.. Then there are the cigarette smokers - I would wager this to be every other young person in Male; oh what a ball the cigarette companies must be having deceiving a whole nation!  - They wield their lit-up cancer sticks between the fingers of their wildly swaying hands and puff away as they swagger along Male's narrow pathways spilling a dose of their second-hand smoke to everyone else along the way, confidently oblivious of what fire or health hazard they might cause to the humble walker who they unfortunately don't even notice in their youthful pumped up egotistic state.

Then emerge too out of nowhere the longer-haired bikers who never seem to have a speed limit to care about making the humble walker cower for dear life each time one of these race by. Each moment seems one of grateful survival and thus a moment to thank Allah for allowing yet another chance at life. Among this lot are also the show-offs who imagine the narrow labyrinthine web of Male streets to be a formula-one race-track. Their skilled swerving and wriggling between pedestrians and fellow traffic and their expert avoidance of speed bumps and uneven spots on the undulating surface of Male streets that has languished un-repaired now for perhaps the past 40 years or so is a sight that strike terror into the heart of the wary walker.

Then there are the oglers who many a time run into the wary walker. These people stare at everything except the path ahead.  We are often told to look where we are going. Not so on Male streets. Eyes are always on things other than the street ahead. Pedestrians ogle at shop windows and many other attractive things that pass by, including the daily demonstrations and attendant oratory expertise that is a skill that by now Maldivians excel by far in comparison with other nations. Strangely however, the evening news has never reported a case of anyone running into a lamp-post or fatally onto the path of a reckless dark-shaded speedster. Even if there were, my take would be that such events just don't qualify to be news.

Then there are the fearless bikers who also magically check their facebook and shoot text messages while still driving. Then there are the dark-sunglass donned parents who race along with their sunglass-donning toddlers and don't mind these kids being exposed to the risks posed  by the unleaded fumes accumulating in the throng of vehicles that is the new norm of traffic behaviour on Male streets, which has become the concourse for at least 60000 motor-cycles - and counting, given that now it is not just Sheesha that is hogging the bike market any longer.

Then there are the spitters. Locals and expat labour all spit as if to an unending orchestra. Once upon a time, an occasional spitter would carefully deliver the blob into the side drain. Not so now; it is directed all over - front, right and left. These then rub off on to soles of shoes which carry the morbidity these harbour into the homes and onto the hands of babies and toddlers and children who spend much time on their hands and feet in contact with the seemingly clean tiled floors but now  continuously infected with these invisible stuff. As for the walker, those who may be so unfortunate as to be going up-wind behind a spitter, is directed to be especially cautious of the spray that can be the sad result when an episode of spitting occurs. When cautioned to please be careful when spitting upwind, they look at you strangely or just give a blank look; … no there are some who attempt to apologise also.

Yet for all this, I walk, because I know walking is the best way to go through life in good health. Yes, even with all the obstacles on Males streets, perhaps it is still worth it. But I would surely plead for an improvement in our civic state, and wish our degrading social condition be given even a tenth of the attention our economics is being given by the powers that be. 

You see, ultimately, what we carry away with us on the second leg of our cosmic journey is not the economic gains we accumulate in this worldly sojourn; it's the social gain. The goodness we create in this world for our brothers and sisters at large. That is the thing Allah will look at when we are measured for our THAQWA, --- the goodness of character that is the ultimate measure of success in this world and the hereafter.

Now that the Blessed month of Ramzaan is almost over, let me wish you all a very happy Eid-ul-Fitr; Eid Mubaarak to you all!

July 4, 2015

Toxic cloud

Ominously it approaches Male from the west now that the monsoon winds have changed that way. 

Thilafushi in Maldives is an environmental disaster in itself. The fumes from Thilafushi’s open burning of Male’s daily stock of garbage produces a hideous mix of toxic gases that rise in a visible plume 24 hours of the day and spreads it’s poison all around – the Galu-Falhu on its west and Villingili island to the east. A cocktail of mixed refuse is transported and dumped into this little shallow lagoon called Thilafalhu just a crow’s flight to the west of Male. For the past 40 years or so this shallow spot in the lagoon has been the sea-fill for all of Male’s municipal litter. Now with all this filth buried into its bowels, this shallow has been transformed into ‘Thilafushi’ – an island, by now of veritable size, containing warehouses, oil depots, office buildings, and most notably of all, the garbage dump of Male City, our little Capital. Daily, tons of this unsorted municipal waste of 130000 people is transported in huge barges to this spot in the serene turquoise waters of this island paradise. But the scene on Thilafushi is far from that of a paradise; it’s the stark opposite.  

On these days of soothing westerly zephyrs the ominous haze quickly floats the one mile or so distance and envelopes Male in an invisible ambience only noticeable by the unusual stench that pervades Male on and off ever so infrequently. Perhaps it’s nothing to worry about some say. Just imagine the thousands of chemicals inhaled wilfully and directly by perhaps a clear 50 percent of Male’s inhabitants who sport cigarettes dangling from their lips. So why worry of the occasional wafts from Thilafushi? The difference of course is that this is an environmental outcome affecting not just those unconcerned about their health as the smokers are, but those who are concerned and yet can do nothing about it except to curse the approaching plume.  

One can now add to this the ballooning condition of air pollution in Male city where motor vehicle traffic now abounds to throttling proportions and the resulting jams are the norm that forces both riders and pedestrians to continuously inhale mega doses of unleaded petrol fumes.

The Health Ministry’s marking of the world no-tobacco day also happened in a day of frenzy and then its message died with a whimper. The smokers continue to puff away like chimneys relishing the cheap prices the cigarette companies levy and irresponsible government policies allow. Yes, in not knowing or being oblivious to these prevailing facts, Maldives maybe bracing for a non-communicable diseases epidemic of epic proportions not too far down in the future.

When will our policy makers do something about the open dumping and burning on Thilafushi? Surely, the city council or the housing ministry – as the case maybe – can devise a garbage-segregation at the house-hold level policy that can solve this issue of open burning of plastics at Thilafushi? Male will then have a true windfall of a ‘cleaner’ plume from Thilafushi, even if nothing else is done. But of course the culprit of the dioxins must be collected and put to recycling.  I am sure we can take a page from what the tourist resorts are doing about this. And of course, in a country that is so effete in its soil-content, but where many are into vegetable farming and now also foraying into the pleasures of home-gardening, could we not make gold from garbage by commercially composting this one third or so of collected garbage? We will create jobs and reduce our import of biodiversity-damaging compost from outside our shores. For the know-how on composting, there are sprouting local examples also. But given our aversion to listening to home-grown solutions, I guess “a prophet is never heard in his own country” adage applies too well here. Alas, for us it has always been alien solutions that seem to attract us!  

And that goes for our other habits also. As such, in regards to our second case here, when will we as a public wake up to the tricks of the cigarette companies to keep us who are in poorer countries hooked and clearly directed towards the disease and slow death these products augur?