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Nationalism will improve air quality

India’s neo-nationalism is searching for respectable shames and urban air quality is a worthy disgrace. We must not underestimate what nationalism can achieve when it is inspired by shame instead of pride

columns Updated: Nov 02, 2016 21:31 IST
Office goes rushing to office while a blanket of haze and smog enveloped Delhi, October 31.
Office goes rushing to office while a blanket of haze and smog enveloped Delhi, October 31.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

The implication is that Hinduism has made Delhi’s air, which was already lethal, poisonous. The suggestion has naturally disgusted the patriots who cannot endure the defamation of Diwali and fireworks. Why isn’t anybody talking about the other pollutants — the huge amounts of road dust in the National Capital Region, for instance, that surely comes from the Islamic deserts of West Asia, and the industries of modern capitalism, which is probably a Christian idea in the first place?

Meanwhile, serious medical advice in the region sounds like lowbrow satire. People are advised to stop exercising because intense aerobic activity, especially in the outdoors, would make them inhale too much poison into the lungs. In fact, people are advised to stay at home and not engage with the world outside. If you must go to work at all it would be prudent to avoid public transport and instead be ensconced in an air-conditioned car that would further gas the rest. Children are advised not to be children because they generally breathe twice as fast as adults, a foolish thing to do in the circumstance.

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All major Indian cities have poor air quality, and most Indians breathe such air. Across north India the condition worsens in the winter. Even so, it is not a major political issue. The poor somehow have other priorities than air. In fact, electoral politics is under pressure to preserve some of the air pollutants and to condemn any smart political move, like inconveniencing car owners, as a silly idea. So it may appear, at first glance, that we are doomed to breathe such air just as we are doomed to suffer the many indignities of the nation.

But there is a reason why India might surprise itself and clean its air. And the reason is the rising middle class nationalism, which is inherently an elite asset that has the capacity to tame the sway of electoral politics.

Every generation reinvents nationalism and the emotion is mostly dangerous, but it is highly useful to some specific fields, like sexy civic infrastructure and space research. The reason why air quality would be such a beneficiary of nationalism lies in the under-appreciated origins of the new Indian nationalism: At least two generations from influential sections of the population realising that India, and not the West, is home. The reason why they feel this way is a complex mixture of economics, nature of job markets, the comfort of the classist, feudal Indian culture and the hysteria of parenthood. These are powerful forces that have ensured that Indians have chosen to live in the gas chambers of north India than in, say, paradisiacal Canada.

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In contrast to the previous generations of the elite, whose mission was escaping India, the present upper middle class has high stakes in surviving India. It is inevitable that they would influence the government and the society to clean the air. It is hard to miss the fact that they have already set the process in motion. The high media interest, for example, in air quality is very recent and an unprecedented development. Such awareness is possible because there is a high interest in the issue among the consumers of the media.

Nationalism always manages to find very sacred reasons to realise its material goals. Usually it can convert spurious reasons into sacred, but it has no need for that talent to create alarm over air pollution. Air, everybody agrees, is sacred.

Already, the influential classes have framed air quality as a central part of India’s economic well-being, hence a valid short term political goal. There is no such thing, perhaps, as a long term political goal.

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There is another powerful force at play that points to why we must be hopeful that nationalism would clean the air. Across the world, and across the ages, every avatar of nationalism has begun with pride, which is potentially dangerous, but it has then usually evolved into shame, which is very useful. India’s neo-nationalism is searching for respectable shames and urban air quality is a worthy disgrace. We must not underestimate what nationalism can achieve when it is inspired by shame instead of pride.

In Indian society there are not many causes that can bring all types of economic and cultural elites together. For instance, there can never be a serious movement in India to protect heritage monuments because the ones that have survived are mostly, if not all, the taunts of British and Islamic colonisers. Also, while Indian nationalism would greatly alter civic infrastructure in the future, it would not improve aspects like road discipline because informality is so fundamental to Indian society that even the elite is not very convinced about the value of absolute order. In any case, all over the world order is collapsing. So, improving air quality can become a primary non-ideological cause of nationalism. Considerable intellectual and economic resources would be poured into the cause in the coming years.

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In the past decade, especially in the past five years, the urban Indian middle classes have transformed. The conversations across Indian cities have changed, and are now identical to what was once Delhi’s unique dinner chatter. The English-speaking elites have become so politically aware that it is hard to remember the time, not long ago, when most of them did not know the name of their chief minister. Such changes were the consequences of emerging nationalism that, at the time, did not have a definite name. The sweeping sentiment of elite nationalism was not merely about Narendra Modi and beef and Olympic honours. It was also about making India a better place. It is in that family of thought that air quality figures. When nationalism is driven by shame, the prospects are often good.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Twitter: @manujosephsan

The views expressed are personal