Delhi has been choking on its arrogance and indifference for the better part of this month and on the 6th of November pollution levels jumped off the 1000 point AQI scale, after it reached 999 at Anand Vihar (where I live !). I am delighted. What Delhi-ites are now getting are the wages of their own sins, and if the govt. is pressing the panic button its because of its own mutton headed policies. I am, in a perverse way, happy that matters have reached a crisis point because in our country nothing ever gets done until the problem assumes crisis proportions. The Lokpal Bill was conceived only when Anna Hazare et al fasted in Delhi for days on end, the laws on violence against women were passed only when a massive people’s movement brought Delhi to a stand still, and OROP was granted only when the ex-servicemen’s agitation started assuming dangerous proportions.
Delhi has been the most polluted capital city in the world for quite some time but no one was bothered in their focused worship of Mammon. Garbage is dumped outside Rs. 50 crore houses, a car is a must for even going to the bathroom, every fifth house is being demolished to build more flats (raising prodigious volumes of dust), green areas are concretised to provide parking for more cars. Traders will not allow pedestrianisation of markets, residents will insist on their right to burst millions of fire crackers, devotees will proclaim THEIR right to choke the Yamuna with all kinds of muck (with ample support from the likes of Sri Sri Ravishankar), and everyone will gang up against the Odd-Even scheme. Assorted environmental experts make a good living criticising every positive move at doing something. Politicians do little except blame each other, generating even more hot air and adding to the ambient temperature. Living in their air conditioned cocoons Delhi-ites have taken the natural environment for granted for far too long and their self-created nemesis is now catching up with them
As for the NDA govt. at the centre this metropolitan gas chamber is a symbol of its experiment of Make in India at all costs. I have not seen a dispensation which is so indifferent and destructive of the environment as the present one. For all its faults (and there were many) the UPA and earlier Congress governments did respect the environment and created a regulatory framework to protect it, under the umbrella of three cardinal laws- The Forest Conservation Act, The Wildlife Protection Act and the Forests Rights Act. It gave teeth to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and established the National Green Tribunal.
Regrettably, the NDA govt. has spared no effort to dismantle this protective framework, in the mistaken belief that this will hasten Make in India and ratchet up the GDP figures . In the process 30% of the proposed ESZ (Environmentally Sensitive Zone) of the Western Ghats has been thrown open for mining and builders, railway lines and national highways are being bulldozed through national parks and tiger reserves, rivers are being diverted without adequate EIAs, large swathes of forest lands are being diverted for industry, rights of tribals and forest dwellers are being trampled underfoot, industrial projects are being permitted even in the buffer zones of protected areas, hydel projects in the fragile Himalayas are being sanctioned with gay abandon, and efforts are even being made to de-fang the NGT. And all this while 75% of our rivers are polluted, the genuine green cover is declining at an alarming rate, more and more species are being pushed towards extinction and 300,000 children die each year from air pollution.
There have been enough warnings – the landslides in Kedarnath, the floods in Srinagar and Chennai, the frothing lakes in Bengaluru, the rising temperatures all over the country, the two year drought in 2014 and 2015. The Delhi smog is the latest, and is just one manifestation of the environmental neglect taking place at a nation-wide level. But neither the citizens nor the governments will read the writing on the wall. The former refuse to change their life styles geared exclusively towards convenience, consumption, pleasure and money making. The latter cannot look beyond GDP, FDI and WPI. The Union Environment Minister has passed the buck to the states, the CM and LG of Delhi are holding parallel meetings spouting competitive clichés and platitudes, all of which we have heard before. A Delhi Minister has created an Avaz petition seeking suggestions from the public ! The solutions have been there all the time, if only the govt. would muster the will to implement them:
- Ban ALL firecrackers permanently ( not just for marriages, as the LG has done). The right to life supersedes the right to practice distorted religious rituals.
- Add 5000 more buses to the DTC fleet within a year.
- Implement the ODD-EVEN scheme immediately, and keep it going till January 2017.
- Shut down the Badarpur Power Station permanently ( not just for ten days). We cannot have a coal guzzler of ancient vintage in the middle of a city where 30000 people are expected to die of respiratory disease this winter alone.
- Ban demolition of ALL residential buildings for three years (except on safety considerations). Their rampant, F.A.R. driven reconstruction is a prime cause of dust pollution, generation of vast quantities of rubble and underground water depletion.
- Ban ALL construction (including public projects) for two days in a week through the winter months.
- Encourage Uber and Ola to introduce ride-share schemes instead of erecting administrative hurdles belonging to another age.
There is much more to be done (including a review of the anti environmental policies of the central government) but let us at least begin with these six. This can be a template for other metros too.
The Delhi smog is indicative of a blind spot in the govt’s priorities. It is high time all development projects are sifted through the filter of their impact on the natural environment and proper cost-benefit analyses conducted. We cannot blindly pursue unmitigated economic agendas with no thought given to their impact on the natural order. After all, we still have to live on this planet and cannot outlive its destruction for long, not even with all the technology and monetary resources at our disposal. Milton Friedman put it very well when he said this about the kind of world we are building:
“ What if it meets all the criteria of economic success except one: you cannot live there ?!”