Hazardous votes

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 15 March 1998

There is something seriously wrong with the mindset of India's bureaucrats. The Centre for Science and Environment had made a complaint to the Election Commis-sion that the manner in which the Bhartiya Janata Party (bjp) government in Delhi had given in to the Congress (i) antics on the phasing out of 15-year-old commercial vehicles from March 31, 1998 to earn votes in the ongoing elections was against the commission's code of conduct (Down To Earth , Vol 6, No 19). The manner in which the Chief Election Commis-sioner, M S Gill, res-ponded to our complaint was amazing.

When my colleague, Anumita Roychowdhury rang up Gill to find out what had happened to our complaint, he bawled at her saying, "Don't bother me with such a trivial issue." Trivial issue, indeed! Some 20,000 votes at the cost of the health of ten million people!

Having spent a long time in India's bureaucracy, this functionary obviously has no clue about what is important. For him stopping a Uttar Pradesh minister, reputed to have a criminal background, from visiting his constituency because he was likely to sabotage the election process there was of utmost importance whereas the games that are played by politicians to seek votes at the expense of public health is a trivial issue.

It would be wrong to pit the importance of one issue against the other. Indeed, both are important. But with the kind of mind-set displayed by Gill ruling the country, it is hard to imagine the future of this country in any rosy terms. In fact, not just environmental degradation and pollution, none of the important social issues like poverty, illiteracy and sickness are on the agenda of either politicians or bureaucrats.

In 1996, when we had given the Centre's book on vehicular air pollution in Indian cities the title of Slow Murder, accusing the government of slowly killing the country's population, through its non-action, we had done that half in jest. But the non-action that has unfolded in the months subsequent to the release of the book has confirmed that what we are saying is indeed true. It is indeed slow murder, perpetrated by a self-centred political system.

Behind all the wonderful words about being the world's largest demo-cracy, there is nothing but indolence, corruption, incompetence, and death from dirty water and hunger and now dirty air. In the 50 years of India's independence at least 50 million people have died prematurely because of diarrhoea and malnutrition.

At least one million children have died every year since Indepen-dence because of lack of clean drinking water. And now we will die because of dirty air and toxic water, in addition. Just because our politicians do not find themselves capable of giving people clean water, clean air and adequate food. Because every hard decision they would have to take to achieve those goals would obstruct in some way or the other some cheap and petty way of getting votes. The true Bharat Ratnas will be those individuals who will get India's millions clean water, clean air and adequate food - not those who have played politics or made films or missiles.

The manner in which the Delhi government handled the entire issue of phasing out commercial vehicles also shows how ludicrous the entire system of governance has become. In fact, how little it has moved away from an autocratic and colonial-style of governance. The phasing out of old vehicles was clea-rly an issue that any politician or bureaucrat worth his salt would have recognised could become contentious and any poli-tical opportunist would quickly turn it into an emotional, jobs versus environment issue. Therefore, a sensible poli-tician would have ensured two things.

One, he or she would have worked out a way to support the people affected in a way that the decision was as painless as possible. And as I showed in my last Editor's Page, it was clearly possible to do so. And, two, the person would have ensured that the public affected by the high levels of pollution was behind the decision.

This too could have been easily done, first, by conducting studies to estimate the amount of pollution that would get reduced by phasing these old vehicles out and informing the public about the value of this decision through a public awareness programme. But, no, that is not how our post-colonial masters work.

They will neither do their homework, nor will they approach the public. Even though the incompetent government run by the bjp in Delhi took the decision to phase out commercial vehicles, it produced no data to show how much of a difference this would make to the city's air quality. We can only guess on the basis of studies done abroad. And, if the government was forced to take its decision back, why was no action taken against the politicians or bureaucrats involved? Is withdrawing a decision such a simple job for our governments?

The fact is that social issues like environment and literacy are not electoral issues and this is precisely why politicians of India don't care. For them casteism, communalism and regiona-lism are far more important political issues because they know that it is on these emotional issues the public votes. Unless this basic fact changes, it is hard to imagine what material difference any political party will make. This is why I am curious about the results of the election results but not truly interested.

Anil Agarwal .

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