After the Delhi experiment

January 26, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 23, 2016 03:16 am IST

Whether the memory of the odd-even experiment will inspire us to lead healthier lives depends on the willingness of the so-called aspirational classes to engage in a deeper debate on development

It will take time and expertise to assess the odd-even experiment in Delhi, but there is no doubt that it was educative. It taught the government that the public is now ready to support radical measures on air pollution. The public learnt that cynicism is not the only response to a hopeless situation. The odd-even fortnight is now a pleasant memory, but will it also be an inspiring one? The answer depends on the so-called aspirational classes. More specifically, it depends on their willingness to engage in a deeper debate on the meaning of development.

It is said that the last few elections have been fought on the development agenda. That is hardly true, as there was barely any distinction between the contending political parties on their perspective on development. Since the 1990s, development has meant the same thing to every political party. The images leaders evoke to refer to a developed India are identical and have been internalised by the public: they are of high-rises, shopping malls, expressways and flyovers. These are the familiar images of the West, especially the U.S. The fact that China has adopted them as symbols of its own development inspires many in India to do the same. Pollution is part of the Chinese reality, so we cannot avoid it, says current popular wisdom. It also says that Delhi can draw inspiration from Beijing during the worst days of smog.

Growth of the crisis

The odd-even experiment was the outcome of this inspiration. It established that Delhi can cope with an extreme situation arising out of multiple causes and conditions — some related to its geography, others to the compulsions of life that its citizens lead. Dust caused by rampant construction, smog caused by industries and vehicular traffic, smoke from stubble-burning in the fields of Haryana and Punjab, and garbage in the city are among the well-recognised factors of its misery. This year, the misery hit a hurtful point. People stopped taking their morning walks and the lack of oxygen caused a feeling of chronic exhaustion. The judiciary built up the pressure that finally led the government to take some drastic steps.

Successive governments have ignored the growing crisis of Delhi’s environment. Despite expert advice, diesel-driven cars were promoted to fuel the demand for automobiles. The mistaken perception that diesel is a cheaper alternative to petrol was condoned and promoted. Delhi’s green cover suffered a heavy loss during the Commonwealth Games when the government permitted thousands of trees to be chopped by contractors who never fulfilled the promise they were asked to make that these trees would be replaced.

Delhi’s crisis may look rather specific, but it points to the price that any region might have to pay for mistaken policies that affect the environment. Air pollution is not an isolated phenomenon, nor can it be fully grasped by specialised analysis. Such an analysis will remain one-sided and it will lead to false hope that temporary cures, such as the odd-even formula, arouse. Problems of environment demand holistic inquiry and objective acknowledgement of mistakes made in the past.

Any environmental crisis has wider reasons, some of which may appear irrelevant to the issue at hand. Public supply of clean drinking water is a good example. It has never been a national concern, and since the early 1990s, when bottled mineral water became an option, it ceased to be a priority. Now these bottles are a major source of air pollution, and the state is among their prominent consumers. They are distributed in all luxury trains, and passengers are asked to destroy them at the end of their journey. That loud, collective crumpling of plastic we hear ought to remind us how much toxic smoke will be released into the city’s air later when this crumpled mass of plastic is torched.

Like the water bottle, high-rise apartments and shopping malls symbolise the lifestyle of the so-called aspirational classes. An aspirational lifestyle symbolises the primacy of consumption as a source of happiness. In this case, the freedom to produce unlimited amounts of garbage becomes a natural right. No matter how this garbage is disposed off, it will contribute to pollution. When most of the garbage is burnt, it will make a major contribution to poor air quality. This is what has been happening in Delhi.

Literature helps us cope with things beyond our control. During the worst days of smog in December, I turned to a story titled ‘Smog’ written by Italo Calvino many decades ago. It portrays the ecological crisis that urban Italy faced when the land mafia and unscrupulous owners of industries gripped its post-war economy. The story is about a visionary tycoon hiring a young journalist to edit a newsletter called Purification . The magazine is supposed to propagate environmental awareness and hope in the middle of a chronic crisis of air pollution. Within a short while of accepting his assignment, the young editor learns that his employer runs this magazine to cover up the massive amounts of dust and pollution his own industries cause. While discussing the text of an editorial that his young editor has drafted, the tycoon mulls over the right phrase to convey his faith in solving the problem of smog without slowing down growth. The first draft says: ‘Will we solve it?’ He finds the expression much too uncertain, so he asks the young editor to try alternative phraseology. Ultimately, they settle for this: ‘Will we solve it? We are solving it.’ The tycoon owner likes the active tone of continuous tense. It postpones the solution while promising determination.

Beyond the formula

Calvino’s elaborate narration of the quibbling between the owner and the editor over verbal correctness conveys the irony of Delhi’s engagement with its dire destiny. The odd-even fortnight had a feel-good effect on Delhi’s citizenry. Children stayed at home as all schools stayed closed in order to let their buses be used as additional public transport. In its second week, the experiment was assisted by favourable weather conditions. This was also a period without weddings, so there were no crackers. The wedding season is now back, and thousands of crackers have started to fill the night sky with beautiful lights, loud explosions and toxic chemicals of Chinese origin. A sickly smog has started to cover the sky and the placid air at dawn is ready to choke the morning walker. Within a few weeks from now, thousands of deciduous trees will start dropping their leaves. On the spacious streets of Lutyen’s New Delhi where ministers and senior bureaucrats live, sweepers have been used to keeping the lawns clear of dry leaves. Their masters are never curious to know how these leaves are disposed off. No one likes to see them lying around and rotting, even if they add to the soil’s fertility. Since colonial times, they have been burnt and so shall they be this spring.

(Krishna Kumar isprofessor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT.)

An aspirational lifestyle provides the freedom to produce unlimited amounts of garbage, which contributes to pollution

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