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The pollutionitis virus

There is a strange disease in town these days. It afflicts mostly upper income Delhiites -- the educated and articulate elite, including ...

Written by Shreekant Gupta |
June 5, 1999

There is a strange disease in town these days. It afflicts mostly upper income Delhiites — the educated and articulate elite, including those in the print and electronic media. It is called pollutionitis. At the mention of the word pollution, especially air pollution, the sufferer becomes extremely agitated and completely irrational.

While at other times patients of this disease are quite apathetic, during an attack of pollutionitis they start frothing at the mouth and cursing the government, the MNCs or whatever/whoever else catches their fancy for causing pollution and for not doing enough to stop it. Once the episode is over, they go back to their usual apathy and to their Marutis, Santros, Matizes, Bajajs, etc.

Yet another hallmark of this disease is that it is accompanied by a condition known as finger-pointitis. Thus, pollution is always someone else’s problem and someone else should take care of it. It is a classic case ofdon’t-ask-what-you-can-do-for-Delhi-ask-what-the-sarkar-can-do-for-you.

Take the case of Mr Khanna. "Arre bhai, if only this nikammi sarkar could get its act together and get rid of all those jhuggiwalas, build the MRTS overnight, all this pollution-vollution would be okay." Of course, he doesn’t pause to think that it is the same jhuggis that provide the bartan wali, jhadoo wala and everyone else who keep him and Mrs Khanna is clover.

Also, the same Mr Khanna doesn’t think twice about evading sales tax, property tax, income tax. But when it comes to air quality, he is full of righteous indignation. Why shouldn’t be be? After all, it doesn’t matter if his cheating contributes to the bankruptcy of the Delhi sarkar. Money to save Delhi from air pollution is in any case a subsidy from the rest of the country and the world.

This selfishitis is another important characteristic of a Delhiite with pollutionitis — no amount of money is too much to save Delhi as long asit is not his. Of course, he does not bother to ask why is it only Delhi that must be saved from air pollution? After all, there are many other cities in the country where the air is equally bad if not worse (forget the myth about Delhi being the fourth most polluted city in the world — CPCB’s own data shows several cities in India alone are worse).

My neighbour Mr Goel, a senior manager at a nationalised bank, also suffers from pollutionitis. It is he who made me understand why people suffering from this disease are rationally irrational. One day, after I had heard his usual tirades against the sarkar, the system, the migrants and all that, I asked him: "Why don’t you take a transfer to a smaller town where the air is cleaner." He looked at me disapprovingly and said: "Don’t be stupid. While all what you say is true, in Delhi there are other benefits such as access to good hospitals, theatres, clubs, restaurants, etc. Besides, the fact that we educated types have raised such a stink about pollutionhas forced the courts to force the government to do something about it."

It is then that realisation dawned on me. It is rational to be irrational and demand clean air at any cost as long as someone else is paying for it. Moreover, if I can get it without changing my lifestyle one bit by organising and lobbying for it, why shouldn’t I do so? After all, isn’t this what we do all the time in other walks of life? For instance, as a university economics teacher, I know that it is in our collective interest to curb the budget deficit since it hurts us all. But at the same time, it is rational for me through the teachers union to demand as high a salary as I can squeeze from the government. Because if I don’t do so, all other organised groups — doctors, nurses, pilots, bank clerks, government servants — will in any case force the (soft) government to agree to their wage demands.

Thanks to the lesson taught by Mr Goel, I too now count myself proudly as someone suffering from pollutionitis.

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