Clutch­ing at straws

Delhi High Court's warn­ing over the city's wors­en­ing air shows the grim sit­u­a­tion and lethargy of the au­thor­i­ties

Down to Earth - - COLUMN - DOWN TO EARTH

LDelhi earned the du­bi­ous distinc­tion AST YEAR of be­ing the most pol­luted city in the world. Its un­sus­pect­ing denizens,a who study re­vealed,were breath­ing air 15 times more toxic than is deemed safe by science.The arch-poi­son in this mi­as­mic cock­tail is fine par­ti­cles,known as PM2.5.Mea­sur­ing 2,500th of a mil­lime­tre or less in di­am­e­ter,they can make deep in­roads into the re­s­pi­ra­tory labyrinth,caus­ing asthma,stroke,heart attack and even­tu­ally pre­ma­ture death. A 2013 study in nine Euro­pean coun­tries con­cluded there was no safe level for th­ese deadly in­ter­lop­ers.Last year,who clas­si­fied PM2.5 as a car­cino­gen. Ac­cord­ing to the 2013 Global Bur­den of Dis­ease re­port, air pol­lu­tion abet­ted the death of at least 620,000 In­di­ans in 2010.

Mavens tell us tighter emis­sion norms,cleaner fu­els and phas­ing out diesel cars is the way to go. But the real cul­prit is the num­ber of ve­hi­cles. Delhi, for ex­am­ple, adds 1,400 ve­hi­cles to its al­ready clogged roads ev­ery day. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment, ar­guably the only or­gan­i­sa­tion lob­by­ing for the right to clean air,the gains of cng ve­hi­cles will be wiped out soon un­less the march of new ve­hi­cles is checked.

If the sit­u­a­tion is so grim and con­se­quences so dire, why aren’t peo­ple protest­ing in the streets? Why have suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments in Delhi failed to stem the rot de­spite boasting of the world’s largest cng-run public bus fleet and an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful Metro net­work? It is perplexing why none of the po­lit­i­cal par­ties that con­tested the 2015 Delhi As­sem­bly elec­tions made the city’s dirty air an elec­tion is­sue,while they fell over each other promis­ing fab­u­lous dis­counts on wa­ter and elec­tric­ity.

Four ex­pla­na­tions ap­pear plau­si­ble. First, bar­ring win­ter when it morphs into smog, the dirt in the air is in­vis­i­ble for a good part of the year. Hence, un­less one is suf­fer­ing from a chronic re­s­pi­ra­tory dis­or­ders like asthma, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Se­condly, air is free un­like wa­ter or power. So peo­ple don’t fuss about the fact that they might be breath­ing pol­luted air.Thirdly, peo­ple are not drop­ping dead or fall­ing gravely ill be­cause of foul air. In con­trast, drink­ing con­tam­i­nated wa­ter can cause fa­tal dis­eases. Fourthly, most peo­ple ra­tio­nalise it by think­ing of it as a Faus­tian bar­gain in which one sac­ri­fices one good (pure air) for the sake of an­other, pre­sum­ably more de­sir­able, good, such as leisure (cars and buses) and com­fort (elec­tric­ity). In any case, ne­olib­eral fan­ta­sists would have us be­lieve one day we will have enough money to cleanse our Augean sta­bles as the West has done.

How­ever,in a highly un­equal so­ci­ety such as ours,it is the least priv­i­leged that end up pay­ing for en­vi­ron­men­tal sins of the rich. Since the poor com­mute on foot, bi­cy­cles and in buses, they are the most vul­ner­a­ble to dirty air,while the rich hide be­hind fancy smoke­screens like AC cars, air pu­ri­fiers and gas masks. Fol­low­ing the who study, sale of gas masks has in­creased in Delhi.Em­bassies of the US and EU coun­tries have ad­vised their cit­i­zens in Delhi to in­stall air pu­ri­fies in their of­fices,homes and schools.

Seems Delhi is mir­ror­ing Bei­jing, which has long been re­ferred to as the city of “air­poca­lypse”be­cause of its toxic air. Its hap­less res­i­dents dreamt up such fu­tur­is­tic fixes as her­met­i­cally sealed build­ings and “breath­ing” bi­cy­cles that fil­ter air as you pedal along. This fits well with the Ger­man so­ci­ol­o­gist Ul­rich Beck’s idea of “risk so­ci­ety”, a phrase he coined to ex­plain how mod­ern so­ci­eties re­spond to man­u­fac­tured risks, such as Ch­er­nobyl, Bhopal, or air pol­lu­tion. He be­lieves we are living in a world where “the in­di­vid­ual must cope with the un­cer­tainty of global world by him­­cause of the fail­ure of ex­pert sys­tems to man­age risks.”

Last month the Delhi High Court warned that if the au­thor­i­ties fail to re­spond to the cri­sis, it would take mat­ters into its own hands and start fix­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. I sadly sus­pect Beck is right. The hon­ourable court’s in­dig­na­tion will at best lead to Potemkin so­lu­tions.


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