The past few years have seen social movements, individual citizens and social media platforms come together in Delhi to pressure the government for change.
Yet, as we hurtled past another World Environment Day and as the media continues to carry reports on the frightening levels of air pollution in the city and the impact it has on Delhi’s health — one fourth of the city’s children have weak lungs — it seems strange that there is no collective outrage on the one issue that affects every one of the capital’s citizens.
It’s almost laughable but currently the most visible public anger has been directed against a foreign correspondent who brutally outlined the effect the city’s pollution had on his eight-year-old son. What does it take for the city to galavanise itself to create pressure on the government?
Does it take a single calamitous event to become a tipping point or does it take leadership that can give direction to simmering frustration and anger. In December 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman became that catalyst; in 2011-12 it was social activist Anna Hazare who embodied a challenge and an opportunity to fuel a social movement.
But why does an issue like air pollution not have a leader or a mass constituency to create powerful levels of horror? Maybe the answer lies in the lack of competent, credible NGOs located in the city that work specifically on urban environment management, monitor emissions and its negative impact on health, and communicate those findings to the media.
NGOs, as active agents of civil society, can force public opinion and influence strict government legislation. But part of the solution also lies with every ordinary citizen. A major cause of the city’s pollution is vehicular emission, especially from diesel cars.
Many socially concerned people who came out in droves to protest against a young woman’s rape, sending emails and social media messages, building a critical mass, also drive cars that consume diesel, one of the city’s biggest pollutants.
The fact that diesel was being heavily subsidised makes you wonder if there is a lobby benefiting from polluting Delhi. Because we are not sure of the purity of water, we boil it, or we install water purifiers or buy water in plastic bottles. Because we are unsure about the pesticide levels in vegetables we wash them in potassium permanganate but when the air surrounding us is heavily polluted there is no alternative.
Those who have an option are thinking of moving out of Delhi. Those who don’t have that luxury, the only option left is to fight. So why is there no fight?
(Mannika Chopra is managing editor, Social Change. The views expressed are personal.)