The New York Times’ South Asia correspondent Gardiner Harris’ piece on moving back to the US because of Delhi’s killer air pollution was one of the most widely read pieces on the web over the weekend, though many panned it as “over-the-top” and “extremely patronising”.
Harris did not say anything spectacularly new; the piece worked because it was a moving personal account that focussed on genuine problems that citizens face in Delhi on a regular basis.
Capital punishment: Delhi's poisonous air prompts NYT correspondent to leave India
By now, it has been a long-established fact that the country’s most pampered city’s air is noxious, its water polluted, its waste management system in shambles and the city and the central governments are unwilling – or incompetent – to rise to these challenges.
As citizens, we are as incompetent and callous as the government: We discuss and debate Delhi’s pollution problem but when it comes to throwing plastic bags into the river Yamuna, despite warning signs, we are second to none.
Our deep love for polluting diesel SUVs and wasting precious water too are legendary.
Thanks to such pathetic civic habits, lack of effective pollution control strategies and bad implementation of existing laws, we have given the West an effective handle to beat us with.
Over the years, we lost sight or refused to appreciate that pollution/human rights/climate change/gender rights would become the world’s high politics; these so-called “soft subjects” (soft stories, in journalistic parlance) will increasingly become foreign policy tools that the developed world can use to rile India from time to time.
It was/is used against China, and will be increasingly used against us too. When President Barack Obama came to India in January, the US embassy bought 1,800 air purifiers. The European Union countries followed suit. Without saying a word, a point had been made to India.
The US Embassy routinely monitors pollution levels in Delhi.
It does not matter how much we protest and contest the pollution data, it will never have the desired effect because on these issues we are treading on thin ice. It’s high time we realise that environment – and not just climate change – is world politics now, and the only way we can ever defend ourselves and improve our image abroad is to clean up our act.
Leave alone improving image, it is also about the citizens’ health and their quality of life in this country.
Last week, I met an envoy of a European country which has been showing a lot of interest in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Ganga rejuvenation plan and the Swacch Bharat campaign. The ambassador, an articulate man, spoke about the expertise and technologies that EU countries can supply to India to meet the targets of these campaigns.
Pollution, obviously, is big business. And sustained political pressure always helps.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. She tweets as @kumkumdasgupta)