If you’re reading this under the chilly skies of the northern European winter, I apologize. There is no way I can avoid sounding smug, but I am sitting on the balcony of a converted ‘haveli’ mansion in Jaipur, India, with bougainvillea soaked in sunshine and parakeets flapping through the trees. Not far away from the elegant Hotel Diggi Palace, however, is a large area of wasteland strewn with rubbish and discarded plastic. The rickshaw drivers make no secret about using it as a makeshift open toilet.
Any visitor to India knows this is nothing unusual. This is my eighth visit so this kind of thing hasn’t put me off. For me at least, India is the closest I can get to space travel without leaving Earth, a constant deluge of culture shocks that leave me bewildered but – so far anyway – wanting to come back for more.
But there is no getting away from the fact that it is a country where, in spite of its economic rise, wealth and resources, millions of people still live in squalid poverty, and often with no regard for hygiene or environmental aesthetics.
Finnair has supported good work in India by UNICEF, backing its hygiene, clean water and sanitation projects in Bihar through the Change for Good campaign, and by Finnish NGO Tikau Share, helping them to deliver donated clothes to a poor “untouchable” village in Odisha. I have been lucky enough to visit those projects, writing about and photographing them for Blue Wings, and see how they are put into effect in truly positive ways by inspiring selfless people.
I also recently visited some reforestation projects in Madagascar involving the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC) with direct Finnair support. The same neglect of local environment is apparent here, as it is in many other places, spoiling natural beauty across the world, from Russia to Guatemala.
Airlines have to do their bit to be involved in the communities they connect and upon which they leave an undeniable footprint. But it’s a fair observation that when Delhi recorded recently its highest ever air pollution levels, it was road dust, road traffic and industry that were the worst culprits, not aircraft landing at and departing from Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Most poor people in countries like India or Madagascar have no immediate choice but to live in a degree of squalor, although that is no excuse for their disregard for local environment. Those of us lucky enough to inhabit relatively affluent European countries are educated about the environment but don’t always make the “correct” choices. Helsinki has a fairly extensive and affordable public transport system – but you would never guess it from the amount of single-driver traffic on its roads of a morning. And because of the extent of their education, the Brits or Finns who carelessly and unforgivably throw food and drink wrappers onto the road side are behaving more badly than their Indian counterparts – because they know better.
Representatives of two hundred countries met in the autumn at UN talks in Doha to discuss climate change, issuing the starkest warnings so far. International agreements and action are certainly needed – but I sometimes wonder if they will ever succeed unless individuals start to show more concern for the environment on their own doorsteps.
PS. You can help this year’s Change for Good campaign supporting Education in Asia on most international Finnair flights over the Christmas period. You can also donate Finnair Plus points to the FANC project in Madagascar.