Delhi’s pollution is no more an environmental issue. If that is how we keep trying to grasp and resolve it, we will get nowhere. People get impatient when they face a crisis. Depending on their roles and levels of despair, they join the various available games in order to feel alive though breathless. In Delhi, the powerful have joined the blame game, and the powerless are seeking individual solutions, such as room purifiers and masks. Many are in despair, and I suspect they are in a majority. They have given up hoping that a solution can be found. A number of solutions have been recommended, and nearly all of them are fantastic, in the sense they place extraordinary conditions before trial.
Indeed, some of these solutions have been tried. In quite a few cases, they were abandoned prematurely simply due to lack of will to persist for a length of time. Sustaining public interest over time has not been easy in any sphere. One might have thought that air pollution will prove an exception to this general rule because Delhi’s air had begun to make people sick a while ago. Doctors’ warnings make no public difference now, nor do harsh commentaries in the media. People say that only the judiciary can get something done, and it is true that the judiciary has made several laudable initiatives possible. However, there are limits to what judges can do in the absence of collective will.
Does someone feel sorry for Delhi? I know a few people whose ancestors lived in Delhi and some others who have spent their whole life in the city. More than sad, they feel angry. One can’t blame them for feeling permanently upset and helpless. Among them, there used to be elderly citizens who wielded some moral authority among citizens and, at the same time, they mattered to governments. They helped Delhi survive through some of its bad moments in its recent history. That option is no longer available, not so much because no senior people carry moral authority in the public mind, but rather because listening is no more a part of governance. In any case, those in important offices are no longer accessible, nor do they acknowledge, let alone answer, letters or e-mails. A new culture of deafness has set in among office-bearers even as accountability and transparency acquire status as official values.
That is why the crisis expressed by choking air quality cannot be considered an environmental one. It is a political crisis — in a fundamental, not in an electoral, sense. If democratic politics is about empowering the citizen, it has failed in Delhi. Citizens of the city have reached a state of disempowered existence and numbness through a series of silently suffered traumas. These traumas cannot be treated now, but acknowledging them might have some healing effect. Let me recall three of them.
One, the massive tree-loss and speedy construction work done for the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) had acquired a sinister feel before the event. Elected student representatives of Miranda House college gave a scroll, carrying their protest, against the reckless destruction of their neighbourhood, to Delhi’s chief minister who had come for a ceremony. Newspaper reports said the CM put aside the scroll and showed no eagerness to find out why the student leaders were unhappy. This little episode signifies a dangerous surge in civic cynicism that occurred when Delhi’s soul was sold to swindlers for the sake of national honour lodged in the CWG. A chasm developed between common citizens and popular leaders. It caused the birth of a new political party and Delhi’s voters gave it a rare, glorious majority.
That is when Delhi’s second trauma moment came. The new government started by failing to contain internal rivalry. The poor remained committed, but the middle class had to swallow a shock. It seemed as if Delhi had little reason to hope for sensible decisions taken by consensus. In any case, the new, highly popular government hated ideology — any ideology; so it could only favour and pursue technical solutions for all kinds of problems. Whatever chance Delhi had of coming together as a city got squandered away.
Then came yet another trauma moment, the third in my memory list. A widely respected spiritual leader and his followers organised a mega event that caused serious damage to the city’s great river. The country’s highest environmental authority failed to tame the event, or manage its aftermath to any degree of civic satisfaction. One felt that there is no city called Delhi anymore, nor a river that citizens hold dear.
We are now at a point where the city has to be reinvented. There is no point protesting, and there is no place, literally, to stage a protest. (Jantar Mantar, where space to protest was allotted some years ago has been restored to its original sanctity.) Making a city out of Delhi once again would mean identifying people who care for its future and who don’t mind carrying on with certain duties of despair. One of them is to initiate the infusion of sustainable public anxiety.
This will require mobilisation of institutions of various kinds, including those involved in education, law and health. We can rest assured that e-mobilisation will not work. Second, the people who agree to work for Delhi’s rebirth and recovery as a city will need to avoid arousing the hope of any impending solution to the problem of air pollution. Rather, they will have to encourage people to show adequate stamina for bearing the consequences of past neglect and misfortunes. Rebirth of a city is no simple matter. It will take time, and the harvest of its rebirth cannot be collected with a rented combiner.
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