Roads to hell

  • 29/11/1996

while reviewing the final manuscript of Slow Murder: The Deadly Story of Vehicular Pollution in India prepared by my colleagues Anju Sharma and Anumita Roychowdhury, a thought about the toxicity of the Western economic dream came to my mind . Western societies have been able to survive and acquire some breathing space only because of high discipline and the massive investments they have made in pollution prevention and control.

Yet every Indian wants to live like an American. It is high time we Indians realised that our efforts towards emulating the Western economic dream will only end up killing us in the process. Vehicular air pollution is a perfect example of what will happen if Indians were to blindly follow Americans. Industries can be relocated; vehicles cannot. They stay with the settlement. Therefore, urban Indians have only two choices. Either they control vehicular air pollution if they want to propel them selves using internal combustion engines, or they die in the resulting pollution.

The question is: does anybody want to die? Presumably not. Yet public anger on this issue is muted. Why is this so? A World Bank study reported recently in Down To Earth (Vol 5, No 10) presents the staggering figure of 7,500 deaths a year from existing air pollution levels in Delhi - about 21 deaths a day. And in all probability, this is an underestimate. When compared to the fuss created in the media about the recent dengue epidemic which has claimed slightly over 300 lives, the lack of concern over air pollution is indeed surprising.

Part of the problem is the scientific mystery that surrounds health effects of persistent toxins in environment. No doctor, for instance, can tell a patient that the cancer, heart problem, respiratory disorder or ear, nose and throat irritation that he or she is suffering from is the result of air pollution. These linkages between the problem and its effects can be identified only through epidemiological studies. And there is thundering silence on this count from both the ministries - of health and of environment and forests. One survey of 10,000 schoolchildren in Delhi does show that about one-sixth of their total number suffers from asthma. The public would only begin to listen if the government and the medical community were to provide it with regular updates on the threats to their health. And only then would there be greater pressure on the government to deliver. But that is precisely why nobody does anything about it!

Equally, there could be greater pressure on a recalcitrant industry. Well-known and highly respected industrialist Rahul Bajaj, who manages Bajaj Auto Ltd, one of the companies producing two- and three-wheelers based on highly polluting two-stroke engines, admits that he produces polluting vehicles, but also argues that he is doing India a service by providing mobility. It is extremely difficult to agree with Bajaj. No producer or consumer has any right to manufacture or use a product that is a threat to public health. At such high levels of pollution as those existing today, the Right to Clean Air must take precedence over the Right to Mobility. While Bajaj smothers us to death, he is making profits running into crores of rupees at the same time. The argument that he and his community of auto manufacturers love to put forth - that they are all following the standards set by the government - is a load of irresponsible nonsense.

Indian industrialists, from Bajaj to the Tatas and Birlas, have walked away with an environmental rape of unbelievable proportions through underhand techniques without ever thinking that this is one day going to rebound back on them. That incompetent and dishonest bureaucrats and politicians have aided and abetted this process is definitely one factor. But another significant factor is the absence of conscience that marks Indian industrialists. Just imagine Bajaj playing holy despite his family's Gandhian background and reputation on an issue which is so morally indefensible. Why did the 1996 standards steadily go down? Can Bajaj truly argue that the automobile industry did not put any pressure on the mef to dilute the standards which were going to be notified? Surely Mr Bajaj, you do not want to make money in a way that occasions mass murder? Even if the government was prepared to dilute the standards, you could have said that this does not make sense. The reason is simple: industrialists get away with this nonsense only because our bureaucrats are dishonest and there is no transparency in the system. It was during the time of the previous environment secretary, B J Krishnan, that the standards for vehicle emissions received the final kick downwards. What is the point, Mr Bajaj, of honouring Gandhian social activists with Jamnalal Bajaj awards while you yourself cannot follow the principle of trusteeship so ardently advocated by the Mahatma?

The government is yet to present a study to the public which would show that the new standards, despite the growing numbers of vehicles including those based on two-stroke engines, will make any difference to the air quality of a city like Delhi. And if there is going to be no difference, then why even make the effort of announcing these standards? What are we trying to do? Give everybody the false impression that we are doing something or just make the road to hell a few furlongs longer?

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