Amid hazy skies, need for reform is clear
I picked up my older brother who flew down from Chiang Mai a few days ago. The first thing he said to me was that when he looked down as the plane flew over Bangkok, all he saw was haze.
In contrast, he said, it was clear blue sky in Chiang Mai.
I congratulated him and said, "Wait till the farm burning starts and you'll appreciate the Bangkok air." He nodded in agreement.
On the air pollution front, Bangkok and its vicinity has had a head start over the North and Northeast provinces as the northern cool air blows in and remains stagnant, trapping air pollutants, made worse by all the tall buildings.
Starting in January and over the following few months, the sky over the North and Northeast is expected to be covered with thick smoke as farmers clear their land by burning dry vegetation.
As fire does not recognise boundaries, it will in some cases claim nearby public land as well. Depending on a number of factors, we could have major forest fires to contend with.
It happens every year.
Also happening every year in Bangkok, officials bring out their anti-air pollution gear and contingency measures right around this time. Police and transport officials in Bangkok can now be seen setting up checkpoints to capture vehicles spewing out dirty exhaust fumes.
Recently, authorities announced a ban on large trucks from entering the city limits. A huge uproar from the trucking industry ensued, and officials hurriedly scrapped the ban.
In the provinces, authorities have issued a ban on field burning in anticipation of the annual event. The measure will likely be as effective as telling people to stop littering or polluting the canals.
Readers may be excused if they shake their heads and groan in exasperation at all this non-action.
It's not like we are dealing with unpredictable events like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. The events or activities that cause air pollution here happen every year or all the time. You don't have to predict; you know they will happen.
And the impacts of air pollution are quite clear. Health issues come first to mind. The economic impacts are also huge.
The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's Centre for Economic and Business Forecasting last year estimated that the financial losses caused by health-related expenditure and reduced tourism might be as high as six billion baht, based on a two-month estimate during December last year to January this year.
Yet, we see officials taking the same actions that have proved to be too little, too late, every year. This is not even a recent phenomenon. It dates back decades.
When I was a junior editor at the Bangkok Post many long years ago, I initiated a reporting project called "The Air We Breathe".
At the time, Thailand was enjoying an economic boom prior to the crash in 1997. Everyday thousands of new cars poured out of automobile showrooms. Builders were busy putting buildings up at every city corner. Factories ran their machines day and night. Farmers were busy turning available private and public land into new farmland, and as you know the quickest way to clear the land was to torch it.
Meanwhile, much of the population choked on filthy air.
Our series of reports looked at multiple aspects of air pollution with the hope that the authorities would treat it as an urgent issue. At the end of the day, however, nothing happened.
We were naïve then. We thought we could push the government to act on an arguably life-or-death issue.
But we were fighting against a mammoth organisation with the inertia factor of a large glacier. The Thai bureaucracy moves at a snail's pace, if it moves at all.
The causes are multi-fold. Economic interests intertwine with political and personal interests. Politicians and bureaucrats don't feel the need to respond to people's problems in a systematic and timely manner.
Most of the time, official action is reactive. For instance, why do we need to rely on vehicular emission checkpoints, which worsen the already bad traffic, when we have vehicle inspection requirements in place?
Don't you ever wonder when you see an old clunker without appropriate tail lights spewing out filthy exhaust on the road? That's because the inspection regime is largely a sham. Any old vehicle can pass the inspection with a little something for somebody.
The inspection regime is where stringent measures and monitoring should take place, all year round, not when the air pollution crisis hits.
Similarly, work to contain field burning should take place long before the burning starts. Any measure to be imposed needs to go through a thorough consultation process with affected people with help from civil society organisations.
Otherwise, the rules may be effective for a few weeks before petering out and things go back the way they were.
Similar scenarios play out in other social sectors where problems have accumulated, waiting for the right solutions.
A pro-active governance system can be realised only if we have a democratically minded government that is willing to listen to the people, rule of law that is fair across the board, and a bureaucracy that dedicates itself to working for the people.
But we don't. Right now, all I can say -- in simple words -- is the entire governance system is screwed up.
A reform of governance is urgently needed, and that can only come with a new, people-centred constitution.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.