For the last few day, air pollution in New Delhi has been truly off the charts. The level of PM 2.5, tiny particles suspended in the air that can lodge in lungs and cause disease, hit a new peak of 999 micrograms per cubic meter — 40 times what is considered safe and beyond what the scale was designed to measure.
While air quality tends to worsen around this time of year as millions of Indians light firecrackers to celebrate the festival of Diwali, winter weather also plays a factor — cooler temperatures and slower winds prevent the smoke from being blown away.
However, the problem of air pollution in the country is not limited by season or geography. According to the World Health Organization, India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. The study published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, every year, more than half a million people are estimated to die prematurely because of air pollution.
As New Delhi grapples with the worst smog in 17 years, a growing public outcry has forced the government to adopt tougher measures. Tougher vehicle emissions standards have been made mandatory by 2020, taxis have been ordered to switch from highly polluting diesel to compressed natural gas, bans on burning garbage and agricultural waste have been put in place, and fines are being levied for spreading construction dust.
However, there was a time in India when people didn’t wait for a crisis to work towards a clean environment. Governance with a focus on clean environment and wildlife conservation in India dates back to 3rd century BC during the time of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka.
Ashokan edicts (stone inscriptions), that date back to the 3rd century, clearly provide the first constitutional check against environment degradation and animal cruelty.
The Mauryan period is one of the well-documented and well-researched periods in early Indian history. There are already several studies on the stone inscriptions of the time of Asoka, the third Mauryan king. A talented military leader and an extraordinary statesman, Ashoka ruled the whole of Indian sub-continent from 269 BC to 232 BC .
Ashoka won a brutal and bloodthirsty war against Kalinga in 261 BC, but the devastation and suffering caused by the war made him renounce violence. He gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan empire up till then and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence.
In the post-Kalinga years, not only did Ashoka become a philanthropic administrator, he also became an ardent supporter of forest conservation and wild life preservation.
Ashoka believed that the state had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its forests, wildlife and environment. Hunting certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wild life reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited.
Through his rock edicts, Ashoka had also strictly banned burning chaff after harvest – a practice that has contributed to the thick smog in Delhi and its adjoining region in the last few days. The polluting of water sources was banned.
The Mauryan state also maintained the empire’s forests, along with fruit groves, botanical pharmacies and herbal gardens that had been established for the cultivation of medicinal herbs.
One of his minor edicts, Ashoka states,
“Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. I have planted mango groves, and I have had ponds dug up and shelters erected along the roads at every eight kilometers. I have had banyan trees planted on the roads to give shade to man and beast. Everywhere, I have had wells dug for the benefit of man and beast.”
In ancient India, wild animals were considered the property of the emperor. Ashoka banned royal hunting parties and animal sacrifices at a time when these were the norm. Then he took the process one step further. In an act unmatched by even the most progressive modern states, Ashoka established free veterinary hospitals and dispensaries.
Fa Hien, the Chinese traveller who came to India during his reign had written about veterinary hospitals in Pataliputra, which were probably the first in the world.
Even Ashoka’s ancestor, Chandragupta Maurya is believed to be a patron of conservation. His mentor and minister, Chanakya’s book Arthashastra clearly defined a set of basic rules for protection and conservation of wild animals. It also prescribed severe penalty provisions for those found guilty of cruelty to animals. Chanakya also considered all parts of a tree important and fixed punishments based on the destruction of specific parts of the tree.
Ashoka’s edicts on stone, replete with reverence for all forms of life, survive even today. One of India’s foremost environmentalist, Chipko movement leader and staunch Gandhian, Sunderlal Bahuguna has often reminded the country of Ashoka’s protection of plants and trees during his lifelong battle against deforestation.
Ashoka’s rule is the foremost example of ecologically responsible statehood in India’s ancient history. At a time, when the country needs a stronger political will and better coordination to tackle the menace of environmental degradation, Ashoka’s green legacy can act as an inspiring example.