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We, the elite of India, are to blame for the state of our cities

Delhi’s well-off function as independent city-states with their own security, water filtration and supply, power back-ups and, now, air purifiers. Our kids don’t study in government schools, we don’t use public transport, we don’t seek treatment at government hospitals. With no stake in public services, we don’t demand better quality or, for that matter, any quality at all.

columns Updated: Nov 17, 2017 18:43 IST
Delhi smog,air pollution,india pollution
In our hurry to build smart cities, we have forgotten to first build liveable ones. We have forgotten because we as citizens don’t demand a higher standard.(Hindustan Times)

Just as surely as the seasons change, our angst at the state of our cities will pass. The capital’s toxic air will cede to other crises. Again.

In Chennai and Mumbai, the annual rite of monsoon flooding will hold sway, then the rains will cease and we’ll move on. Again.

Every season, we reignite the same debates, ask the same questions and read the same analyses.

Take the zeitgeist, air pollution and its unwavering script: Children and seniors advised to remain indoors; schools shut, construction stopped, traffic rationed. Relax, says our environment minister, this isn’t the Bhopal gas tragedy. How reassuring. When the weather changes, the haze will lift and all will be forgotten.

An article in The Washington Post notes that pollution levels are usually lower in (a) democracies, (b) rich and affluent areas and (c) countries in line with international agreements — as India is with the Paris Agreement.

But India’s affluent class with its wasteful weddings and ostentatious shows of wealth is resolutely anti-green.

Thus, the recent Supreme Court decision to ban fire-crackers at Diwali was seen not so much as a desperately needed step but as interference in the ‘right’ to burn crackers. A Delhi BJP spokesman even swore to distribute firecrackers to kids in slums – though whether he followed this up with masks is uncertain.

India’s elite – of which I am admittedly a member – has insulated itself from noxious fumes and created its own alternative infrastructure. Delhi’s well-off function as independent city-states with their own security, water filtration and supply, power back-ups and, now, air purifiers.

Our kids don’t study in government schools, we don’t use public transport, we don’t seek treatment at government hospitals. With no stake in public services, we don’t demand better quality or, for that matter, any quality at all.

No nationalist feelings are hurt when our cities figure at the bottom of annual quality-of-living ratings charts.

Air pollution is one parameter, albeit a life-and-death one. But our metros fall short on so many markers of any civilised city, leave alone a great one: Safety, green areas, pavements, public transport, cleanliness, inclusiveness, and civility.

Why are we not more demanding of governments? The lack of an uprising and not just seasonal grumbling is inexplicable.

We know who are the usual suspects – state governments who let stubble crop burn, a central government that hasn’t invoked emergency measures, a Delhi government that is high on promise, low on deliverance, and neighbouring chief ministers who squabble on social media.

None of this will matter a few weeks from now.

In our hurry to build smart cities, we have forgotten to first build liveable ones. We have forgotten because we as citizens don’t demand a higher standard.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender. She tweets @namitabhandare

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 17, 2017 17:37 IST