Delhi Belly: The Tragedy Continues & The Silver Lining In Pollution

Pollution is big business because the medical and health care industry is booming. Every private hospital and nursing home is packed to capacity, and beyond, with victims of pollution related diseases.

The country appears to have forgotten the tragedy still playing out in Kashmir, the valley. Its been more than a hundred days now, and almost a hundred deaths, but we have moved on to Karan Johar, the Tatas and Amar Singh. The “surgical strikes” have served their purpose of moving the spotlight away from the internal dimensions of the problem; TV anchors and retired generals have ensured that we look at the valley only through the prism of war with Pakistan. It doesn’t matter that these strikes have served little purpose: infiltration and cease-fire violations have only increased amongst the ceaseless and futile war mongering. The govt’s strategy is clear: exhaust and starve the Kasmiris into acquiescence. It would be so much more humane to talk to them.
The modern state is an awesome adversary, with its millions of troops and unlimited resources; a country of 1.2 billion can easily take a few hundred deaths in its stride (the number of farmers committing suicide every year is many times this number, but do we bat an eyelid at that ?) The Kashmiris can’t win and Mr. Modi knows this. But what he should also factor in is that they can cause a lot of damage to the fabric of the nation and the values it stands (stood ?) for. Kashmir is headed for indefinite turmoil and prolonged destabilisation. Recent developments are a portent of this: the burning of 19 schools so far and attacks on siting MLAs indicate a plan to destroy the political and development processes; I have no doubt that the ambit of these attacks shall be enlarged in the coming days. All reports seem to indicate that the State has ceased to exist outside the urban areas, and even in the latter it is visible (and felt) only through khaki uniforms and tear gas shells. According to press reports hundreds of young Kashmiris have disappeared, reportedly to join the militants. They will surface soon, I have no doubt, trained and armed with the dozens of looted weapons, and then Pakistan won’t have to infiltrate foreign militants through the LOC – we will have plenty of our own by then. There is every possibility thereafter of the valley becoming a base for Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Surely Mr. Modi and his advisors can see this unfolding scenario ? I totally discount Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister: she is totally discredited in Kashmir, knows she cannot return to power, and is therefore hanging on to Mr. Modi’s coat-tails in a desperate existentialist attempt. Coming back to Mr. Modi, who will talk to Pakistan but not to his own citizens in the embattled state: I had said in an earlier article that the BJP’s anti minority DNA will never allow it to make peace with this Muslim state – events over the last three months are bearing this out. This unforthcoming (obstructive, actually) attitude further establishes the BJP’s majoritarian credentials and is needed to win elections that are looming. There is no contradiction between showing a steel fist to Pakistan and a velvet glove to Kashmiris, but it appears that elections are more important than the country’s integrity.

This is a zero sum game. The Kasmiris cannot win. Neither can Mr. Modi. But there WILL be a loser – yes, India.

* * * * *

Human liver
Human liver

We all have our EUREKA ! moments. This week I stumbled upon the reason why no authority in this country – state or central – is serious about doing anything to protect the environment and curb the rising pollution levels—pollution is GOOD for the economy! Every industrial sector manufacturing anti-pollution gadgets is booming, and new products are being added every day. It began with simple candle type water filters in the 90’s and moved on to electronic water purifiers and then RO’s. Who had heard of air-filters fifteen years ago ? Now you can’t live without them, what with the Air Quality Index having breached the 500 mark yesterday in Delhi. This industry is growing at 30% per annum, especially after the US embassy ordered 400 of them during Mr. Obama’s visit. We are now being advised to put on face masks every time we go out, and my chemist can’t stock enough of them. Vegetables being laced with dangerous chemicals, we now have a new fangled apparatus which washes them chemically (water won’t do since it is also tainted) before cooking. Since oils are adulterated the alternative being offered now are Air-Fryers. Have difficulty breathing due to the smog ? – buy a nebulizer. Nobody uses mosquito nets any more because the mosquito enters one long before you do – and so the repellent industry is thriving. One company has just brought out a solution which, when applied to clothes, warns off the dengue and chikengunya critters. Sales are booming. The health insurance sector is galloping along nicely too, thank you, the worse things get. The bottled water industry is overflowing – forgive the bad pun – with profits because tap water everywhere has more E-coli than water molecules. Rising temperatures have ensured that air conditioners are now an essential appurtenance even in lower middle class homes, power demand has shot up as a consequence requiring more power stations, boosting this and related sectors, more pollution is released into the atmosphere. The pollution cycle is complete, and industry thrives.

Economists will have you believe that pollution related deaths and ailments are costing the country billions of dollars in lost productivity and medical expenses. Don’t believe a word of it. In fact the contrary is true: the medical and health care industry is booming BECAUSE of these ailments – every private hospital and nursing home is packed to capacity, and beyond, with victims of pollution related diseases. One just had to visit any hospital during Delhi’s recent dengue epidemic to understand what I mean. All this has no additional impact on govt. finances, because our health care budget, at less than 2% of GDP, has remained at that level for many years whereas pollution related cases have gone up exponentially. Nobody goes to a govt. hospital if he can help it; my maid took a loan from me last month and spent a few thousands of her own money to treat her daughter at a private institution. It is the private health sector which is rolling in the moolah.

Loss of productivity ? This has to be a joke. Productivity is an illusion in the govt. sector, because if half the number of govt. employees were to disappear tomorrow by some lucky stroke, nobody would even notice their absence! Private sector labour productivity in India is in any case abysmally low – about one fifth of China’s – so health related absences don’t make any difference, and in any case since only 2% of the labour force is in the organised sector and entitled to medical leave, the other 98% don’t get paid if they fall ill. No cost to the economy, see.

So, dear reader, see through the fine print: Pollution is the hidden trigger in Make In India. And as your lungs fill up with PM 2.5 and your liver starts to glow in the dark with all the metals inside, rest assured that the economy is growing at a healthy 8.5 %.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

5 Comments

  • Two extracts to quote back to the author –
    “I had said …the BJP’s anti minority DNA will never allow it to make peace with this Muslim state – events over the last three months are bearing this out. This unforthcoming (obstructive, actually) attitude further establishes the BJP’s majoritarian credentials and is needed to win elections that are looming….more important than the country’s integrity….This is a zero sum game. The Kasmiris cannot win. Neither can Mr. Modi. But there WILL be a loser – yes, India.” – quoted not in argument but because I could not
    put it better. All along and as long as this “team” pretends to care for the nation, it will do all it can do discredit the Muslim faith, Islam, so that it may justify its persecution and find the electoral support it needs in order to strangle all diversity and cut the country down to the size it thinks it can deal successfully with. Blind – eyed and unlearnt of human history.

    “Pollution is the hidden trigger in Make In India. And as your lungs fill up with PM 2.5 and your liver starts to glow in the dark with all the metals inside, rest assured that the economy is growing at a healthy 8.5 %.” Outstanding imagery of the liver!!!!

  • I try not to comment each time I read an article written that, for the fear of being labeled a fan, however each writing forces me to think and look at things in a very different way.

    Thank you again sir. Brilliantly done.

    I did request this of you a while back I think, and would like to ask you again, about your thoughts on our population. I see that as the one problem that will ease all our other problems. How do we provide, nutrition, education, shelter etc. for such a massive population, which continues to grow. Our infrastructure is crumbling, not just in hill stations like Mussoorie or towns in Himachal but even in the cities, I don’t have a better example than our capital, Delhi. I have never heard anyone talk about it, and I find it surprising that no one ever talks about it.
    It seems obvious to me, am I the one who is mistaken here about its seriousness?

    Regards,
    Aditya.

  • Good questions, Aditya, but no easy answers, I’m afraid.
    Population per se should not be a problem, but bad planning makes it so. Our pop. IS declining: the Net Fertility Rate has come down to 2.3 in 2013 from 3.8 in 1990, and the average family size has also shrunk from 4.67 in 2001 to 4.45 in 2011. The WHO has estimated that our population will peak in 2040 at about 1.70 billion and start declining thereafter.
    The problem is in the planning and the equitable distribution of wealth. Rural areas and agriculture have been consistently neglected in favour of industry and cities- the Smart Cities programme is one such example. We are forcing migration from villages to cities which cannot cope with existing numbers. What will happen by 2030 when it is estimated that 800 million people will be crammed into our cities ? We are growing all right, but the benefits are not reaching the poor, of which we have more than 300 million. The wealth is being cornered by a few- Credit Suisse has estimated that 74% of our country’s wealth is owned by just 10% of its rich, and ( hold your breath) the top 1% own 49% ! The bottom 50%, quite naturally, own just 4.5% of the country’s wealth. There is massive unemployment and it is growing; we need to create 10 million jobs every year- in 2014-15 only 350000 were created, and in 2015-15 available figures show that the growth will be NEGATIVE ! Meanwhile agriculture is growing at less than 4% and thousands of farmers are committing suicide.
    The problem does not lie in our numbers, it lies in our bad economics and worse politics,

    • ……….And we continue to insist that our Legislatures and Parliament represent ‘We the People’? One would be inclined to believe that representative democracy has not ‘worked’ in India. Just like it is not working in America!

  • A hard hitting and thought provoking assessment sir. Our environment ministry works like a rubber-stamp authority thereby diluting critical environmental laws to facilitate quick industrial development (merely to benefit a select few). Its so surprising that the well educated folk live in Delhi, but no one acts….is it because society has reached that negative hole where he is limited within his four walls. What is needed is a joint effort from people of all walks of life as we cannot leave it to the politicians and policy makers.
    Coming back to my state, Himachal; the mushrooming of hydro projects in the remote Ravi, Chenab, Satluj and Beas catchments will spell doom to the fragile ecology of this hill state.

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