A disease called pollutionitis

Most of Delhi's urban elite suffer from this disease which makes them "rationally irrational". The disease is accompanied by finger-pointitis and selfishitis too

Published: Thursday 30 September 1999

-- there is a strange disease in town these days. It afflicts mostly upper income Delhites -- 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 (rather rationally irrational as will be explained below). While patients of this disease are quite apathetic in general, during an attack of pollutionitis they start frothing at the mouth and cursing the government, the multinationals, 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 Maruti/Santro/Matiz/Bajaj...

There are several features of this disease that need to be examined in detail. First, it does not generally afflict the poor -- they are far too worried about surviving, about bijli (electricity), pani (water), about saving their jhuggi (shack) from demolition or earning their dehadi (daily wages) to hold forth on pollution. Inquiries reveal that they are only too glad to be in Delhi away from the clutches of the zamindar (landlord), earning do waqt ki roti (daily bread) as well as char paise (four paisa) to send home. " Bhaiya, ee phullu-sun ba amiran ki bimari hai. Hum ka to sahar mein ricksa chalane se matlab hai ," (Pollution is a disease which afflicts the rich. We are only interested in plying the rickshaw in the city) says a rickshaw puller from Sasaram district in Bihar, when I ask him about it.

The second thing about pollutionitis is that it makes the sufferer behave in a very contradictory manner. For example, while he/she always blames "the system" and nikammi sarkar (useless government) for everything that goes wrong, under an attack of pollutionitis, it is the same government that is supposed to provide succour. Doesn't this sound contradictory? But then contradiction is a hallmark of pollutionitis.

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 of 'don't-ask-what-you-can-do-for-Delhi,-ask-what-the- sarkar (and now the courts)-can-do-for-you'. Take the case of Khanna, a typical sufferer of pollutionitis, " Arre bhai , if only this ( nikammi ) sarkar could get its act together and get rid of all those jhuggiwalas (slumdwellers), build the Mass Rail Transport System ( mrts ) overnight... all this pollution problem would be solved." Of course, he doesn't pause to think that it is the same jhuggis that provide the bartan wali , jhadoo wala and the various other walas and walis (servants) that keeps him and his wife in clover. Also, the same Khanna doesn't think twice about evading sales tax through buying goods "without cash memo", or about fudging his property tax and income tax returns. But when it comes to air quality, he is full of righteous indignation. Why shouldn't he be? After all, it doesn't matter if his cheating contributes to the bankruptcy of Delhi sarkar . Money to save Delhi from air pollution (by building the mrts , compressed natural gas stations for trucks and buses and what not) is in any case a subsidy from the rest of the country and the world -- from the bottomless coffers of Bharat sarkar , Japani sarkar , the World Bank and various other donors.

This selfishitis is another important characteristic of a Delhite with pollutionitis -- no amount of money is too much to save Delhi as long as it is not his/hers. Of course, he/she does not bother to ask why is it only Delhi that must be saved from 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 -- the Central Pollution Control Board's own data shows several cities in India alone are worse).

My neighbour 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, "if the problem is so bad, why don't you take a transfer to a smaller town like Guwahati or Bhubaneswar, where the air is cleaner and the schools, while perhaps not as good, are quite alright? Moreover, in a smaller city you could have a bigger house, more prestige and to cap it all you would save those two hours you spend on commuting every day. You could spend that extra time with your children making up for shortcomings in their schooling if any." He looked at me disapprovingly and said, "Don't be stupid. While all that you are saying is true, in Delhi there are other benefits such as access to good hospitals, theatres, clubs, restaurants... Aren't these important to you? Besides, the fact that we educated types have raised such a stink about pollution that it has forced the courts to force the government to do something about it. If I can have my cake and eat it too, why shouldn't I?

What Goel was saying was (to paraphrase Shakespeare), it is not that he did not love clean air but that he loved Delhi's amenities more. However, he was hoping that the government would do something about it and provide him a free lunch.

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 possible. Because if I don't do, all other 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 Goel, I too now count myself as someone suffering from pollutionitis.

The author teaches environmental economics at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi

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