Why is there no reaction to the World Health Organization’s May first-week announcement about Delhi’s skies being the most polluted in the world? This collective indifference of a great mass of people to the certainty of their doom has few parallels in world history. It is as if Delhiites have become inured to criticism. After all, what label can be worse than ‘rape capital’ or ‘fountainhead of corruption’?
I think that this culture of apathy to global condemnation as a wholesale environment degrader has much to do with typical Delhiite self-delusion. The last two decades have acted as an opiate, reducing Delhiites to a lot of walking, talking and unthinking victims of marketing strategies. The articulate section of Delhiites like their city to be defined by its symbols of macro prosperity: The shopping malls, car population and fashion shows. In their reaction to rape, corruption and environment degradation, Delhiites tend to disown their own responsibility behind the rise of the phenomena. For the first two, they have the comfort of blaming the government. And the environment? That’s for the jholawallahs.
The India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign and the movement against the Delhi gang rape showed to the world that Delhi has a heart that ticks. But we are unlikely to see a similar upsurge against rampant abuse of the environment which is by far more intimate with the popular Delhi culture than rape and corruption. Why? Because unlike with IAC and the Delhi gang rape, Delhiites will not have the political system to publicly whip — they would need to turn the searchlight on themselves.
This is not the first time that Delhi has been declared the world’s most polluted city. We had that dubious distinction up to the mid-1990s. But the regime then in power decided to do something about it. As part of a long-term measure it decided first to focus on the three biggest sources of air pollution — DTC buses, two-stroke engine auto-rickshaws and diesel taxis. Thanks to the advocacy of NGOs, the reluctance of the subsequent regime to implement that policy was smashed by the Supreme Court. Resultantly, by 2005, Delhi’s skies became much cleaner and the new generation could look forward to a future without premature visitations by respiratory and heart diseases, cancers, infertility and other consequences of particulate matter bombarding their lungs.
The rest was up to the people, but the people failed Delhi. There was no protest to the emasculation of Delhi’s once proud public transportation by a government that surrendered to the car lobby. In many progressive nations, common citizens take up the cudgels against the government for policies that fail to address environmental concerns. In the Scandinavian countries, most of Western Europe, Singapore and even next-door Bangladesh, we have instances of vibrant movements demanding an end to mindless consumption. In Denmark, it was civil society that forced the government to ban fossil-fuelled vehicles from city interiors and the people themselves pooled resources to launch thousands of free bicycles. In Dhaka, ordinary people came out on the streets to demand strict fines to enforce a no-plastic bag rule. But will we see Delhiites protest against the unregulated and frankly crazy rise of the car to population graph, which is choking our streets and arteries?
Many would say that lack of awareness is to blame. I don’t think that is entirely true of Delhi. Environment education was factored into the curriculum of schools in the early 1990s and it is unreasonable to expect a population so aware of fashion trends to be abysmally ignorant of some the most basic ecological truisms. I think there is a general consensus not to admit to the presence of the elephant in the room — greed.
Greed is at the root of civilisational decay. There must come a time when Delhiites will realise that they are foolishly condemning their own children to destruction by emulating unsustainable models of development. Governments rarely take pro-active steps to change consumption patterns. Every piece of statistics flying out of government departments foretells a gloomy picture. The Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of India, recorded between 2006 and 2009 an increase from 11.4% to 20.4% in certified deaths in Delhi due to diseases that affect the cardiovascular system, and a hike from 3.8% to 4.6% in certified deaths due to diseases that affect the respiratory system, both of which have direct linkages to air pollution. Numerous other studies have established the linkage between air pollution and cancer, even infertility.
Then why is the government not acting? The rules of party politics demand that the Opposition blame everything on the government. As a medical practitioner who is into politics, I think I understand the delivery deficit. Politicians are aware that Delhi is gasping for breath under the car deluge. The craze for new houses is congesting the air with particulate matter. But they shy away from saying so. So do the people. But this compact of silence is left undisturbed.
It’s not that politicians don’t want to take steps, but legislating against air pollution is not a simple matter. We have learnt from global experience that progressive laws on the environment need to be backed by consensus for sacrifice and self-discipline. The ban on mink coats and ivory was declared only after rich people in the West declared that they will no longer tolerate cruelty to wildlife. In Dhaka, even poor people declared they would rather pay to buy jute bags than accept free plastic packaging. In 2008, the then Lieutenant-Governor and I joined a noble endeavour of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese to popularise jute ‘thailas’ (bags) in Delhi, but we failed to mobilise the rich people of Delhi to act responsibly by refusing the ubiquitous free plastic bags. Even the government-owned Mother Diary balked from upsetting its customers at its Safal outlets.
The fear of a brush with the status quo makes the political class patiently wait for unequivocal pro-change impulses. For instance, the East India Company did not intervene to ban the cruel practice of ‘Sati’ till there was evidence that a section of the people was willing to put on record their demand for it. In our own time we are struggling with our conscience seeing Muslim women suffer under medieval ‘personal’ laws on marriage and divorce. But we prefer to wait till society, which is bearing the burden, recognises the need for a progressive intervention.
We Indians take pride in the quantitative label ‘World’s largest democracy’. Though the IAC and the Delhi gang rape movements lent a qualitative edge, we would be mocked in world society if the social response to progressive politics is muted by a preference for self-destructive lifestyles.
Harsh Vardhan is former minister of health and education, Delhi government and president, Delhi BJP
The views expressed by the author are personal