CITY CITY BANG BANG – All words & no action as pollution reaches toxic levels

For several years now, pollution in Indian cities has reached levels that are genuinely hazardous, with the situation this year being particularly dire.

Worse, bar ring the well intentione d–if eventu ally ineffecti ve–odd-even initiative, little by way of serious policy action is being contemplated, let alone acted upon. As a result, the same kind of data does the rounds at roughly the same time of the year, the same arguments about what are the major sources of pollution erupt, the same controversy about whether firecrackers should be banned, or whether such a demand is rooted in a conspiracy against Hindu festivals plays out, but nothing changes in any significant way .

Similarly , for several years now, come the monsoons and the country gets overtaken by dengue, which in the last couple of years has been accompanied by its less fatal but more debilitating cousin, chikungunya. We know what causes the problem, but seem curiously unable to do anything whatsoever about it. Year after year, we surrender to the Russian roulette game of guess-who-is-going-to-getunlucky-this-year, secure in the knowledge that nothing can or will change.

What explains the inability to act upon such problems with even a modicum of intent and effectiveness? Regardless of which government is in power, the pattern does not seem to change. These are difficult problems, no doubt. The smog that sets in during winter is a result of many complex variables acting together. Similarly , the breeding of mosquitoes is a local and widely scattered phenomenon, making it difficult to control. And yet, the idea of a civic administration is precisely to make such kind of problem solving possible. In both cases, there are no `big’ magic solutions that are available–what both need is the hard grind of solving a public health problem that encompasses science, culture, public policy and politics, both national and local. But the problem seems to be rooted in something even deeper. The lack of resolve displayed by the state, no matter what the nature of political dispensation in power, points to a diagnosis of a lack of intention rather than the failure of strategy . It is almost as if there is a sense that problems of this nature have to be lived with, rather than aggressively countered.We can complain about the cards that have been dealt to us, and take some token action to reassure ourselves that we have responded to the crisis, but there is no belief that this is a problem that needs to be solved, or for that matter, is one that can be solved. Otherwise, an operation on war footing carried out by creating structures that could coordinate action across different arms of the government would have been mounted to challenge both these problems. Instead, what we see are weak, largely defensive statements that apart from shifting responsibility are content to mouth platitudes about the need to act.

While the responsibility for tackling a problem like this rests largely with the government, the fact is that the apathy on display is a much larger one. Very little is done, for instance, to control the breeding of mosquitoes, in spite of the very real dangers that they pose. Stagnant water continues to stand unmolested in many parts of the city, including in many homes, and no amount of state exhortation seems to get people to take their own safety more seriously . In the height of dengue season, people shy away from taking the most basic precautions that are recommended. In spite of knowing that setting off firecrackers on Diwali night is a major trigger for sharply increasing levels of pollution, little is done to either stop or regulate the emissions released by these celebratory devices full of toxins and noise.What is telling is that the only constituency that has acted to reduce the use of firecrackers is that of school children, who have in the last few years, tuned in to the need to do so, and showed that change is possible if we act collectively .

Anecdotally , the talk of the problems caused by pollution is all around us. Respiratory infections are on the rise, particularly among children. The rising incidence of chronic diseases that were entirely unknown till a few years ago is visible to most urban dwellers. Autoimmune ailments are a category that modern life seems to have created; certainly one has no childhood memories of anyone afflicted thus. The talk of leaving large metros and going off somewhere the air is clean and life is slower rises as things worsen only to ebb when the going becomes a little less dire.

The gap between the apparent salience of gravity of the problem and the unwillingness to actually do much about it is quite striking.

The resistance to sweeping structural change is a fact of the Indian reality .This is true of many areas, and across the board our track record on this is extremely poor. One need only lo ok as far as what is happening with the attempt to reform BCCI, to understand how difficult it is to bring about fundamental change.The Lodha Committee has for once, produced a blueprint that genuinely pushes for radical change and in spite of the Supreme Court’s support, we can see how much resistance such a move, which has minimal social costs, faces.

What we need is concerted and sweeping change. Unless relentless pressure is created, not just on the government, but on all citizens at large, things will continue as they are. Change is too difficult, and it is against our nature, when it comes to dealing with these issues. We have to fight our own ability to let things be, and challenge distractions and tokenism. It is only when these kinds of issues become electoral variables that politics becomes a real instrument of change.

This anger and outrage must last beyond one news cycle, otherwise come November next year, you could be reading this article all over again.

Source : TOI