SWACHH A LONG JOURNEY
The nation raises the red flag on air and water pollution, but says life is otherwise good under Modi
ADAY AFTER Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted his ‘purification drive’ against black money, apocalyptic grey skies hung over India. Toxic smog thickened, harmful particles in the air became so dense that they could not be measured by standard instruments. About 1,400 schoolchildren sent a letter to the prime minister on November 10, asking for a National Clean Air Day. They didn’t make news. But, in a way, the children chimed with the mood of the times, the collective unconscious.
Clear the toxins, go for ritual purification. That idea has always held a seductive, if not moral, fascination for India: think about the idea of karma, about yoga, about ayurveda. With the PM’s relentless commitment to purge the nation—of garbage or black money—the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) poll on issues affecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this time around, is reflective, yet, pregnant with expectations of things to come.
In the very first MOTN survey after Prime Minister Modi took office, the popular concerns were about communalism, politics over school textbooks and the rise in sexual crimes. In 2015 and 2016, the public attention was on unemployment, price rise, episodes of corruption and communal tension. This year, however, all that seems to have fallen off the mental map. The vox pop has made its preferences known: from dirty air, polluted water, the state of hospitals and schools to law, order and justice.
Seventy-three per cent of those polled believe that air and water pollution is a concern; “a very serious concern”, say 32 per cent. Sixty-five per cent feel that politicians are indifferent to their plight, with about 18 per cent adding that politicians “care only for visible issues that fetch them votes”. They are not off the mark: as per the World Health Organization’s ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report in midNovember, India has overtaken China in the number of deaths due to ambient air pollution for the first time. For the first time, the average particulate matter exposure is higher for Indian citizens than for the Chinese.
But don’t expect a not-going-to-take-it-anymore attitude. More than half the respondents say that their quality of life has become better, with the Centre getting credit even for services that are in the states’ domain: 58 per cent believe that schools have become better under the Modi government, while 59 per cent say the same about hospitals—although much of the resounding approval comes from the BJP-ruled states in the west and east of the country. The judiciary, however, is holding its own, despite two years of corrosive battle with the government: more than judicial corruption, the respondents hold a lack of courts and judges to be the biggest hurdle faced by the justice system. And 64 per cent are upbeat about the recent Supreme Court verdict making the national anthem mandatory in movie halls.
“There’s no global precedent of what India has done. People have redefined the concept of sacrifice.” That’s what the prime minister said on December 31, in his speech to the nation after more than 50 days of demonetisation. Call it sacrifice, ennui or confusion, but the prime minister’s detox route to cleanse the body politic has worked for him. The supporters of this narrative see a new opportunity to ‘purify’ the system. And they look principally to the Modi government to save the day: clean country, clean currency, clean air, to begin with.
NO BREATHING SPACE Protest against rising air pollution in the capital