Clutching at straws
Delhi High Court's warning over the city's worsening air shows the grim situation and lethargy of the authorities
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 himself...because 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.
TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE