The stink of onions

 
By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 15 November 1998

FILM star Salman Khan's arrest in Jodhpur for killing a chinkara, an endangered animal, and Sahib Singh Verma's resignation as chief minister of Delhi are both developments that hold a message for environmentalists and all those engaged in environmental management.

First let us look into the unprecedented action that has been taken against a rich and well-known film actor. Poaching is a commonplace exercise in India which is posing a serious threat to the country's wildlife. And the government despite its draconian wildlife laws has proved to be totally incompetent in stemming the rot. Worse still, the country's conservation community which supports these atrocious laws appears to be totally clueless about how to deal with this situation.

Even a powerful person like Khan could not escape despite a highly corrupt and incompetent system because in Jodhpur, Khan found that he was not up against a malleable bureaucracy but against the will of a determined community. The Bishnois have for long been strong protectors of the black buck even at the expense of their crops. For them, it is a conservationist ethic born out of their traditions and religion. Once the community came to know about Khan's audacity, they kicked up such a huge fuss that even the politicians, especially ones who are contesting elections which are to be held in November, began to fall over themselves to ensure that the matinee idol did not escape from the clutches of the law. The reason is simple. An angry Bishnoi community would have cost them several seats in the Rajasthan assembly.

People in Delhi, on the other hand, present a totally different picture. Economists tell everyone that the poor tend to discount the future much more than the rich because they are struggling to meet their needs here and now. They have no 'economic space' to worry about the future. If indeed these economists are correct, then Delhi's middle class, possibly the richest middle class as compared to almost any other state of India, still has a very niggardly mindset. I would have been delighted to see Verma go but not because of the current price of onions (which indeed have skyrocketed to seven times what they were in October 1997 and touched as much as Rs 60 a kg) but because of the atrocious manner in which lie handled Delhi's air pollution problem.

After the Centre for Science and Environment had published its study Slow Murder on vehicular pollution in Indian cities. Justice Kuldip Singh, reacting to the newspaper reports presenting the data contained in the report, had issued a suo moto notice to the Delhi government to present an action plan for controlling air pollution. The Delhi government had proposed that three-wheelers and taxis older than 15 years be phased out. But by the time the deadline came, that is, March 31, 1998, the country was facing an election and with the Congress championing the cause of the affected taxi and auto-rickshaw owners, Verma immediately backtracked on his government's commitment.

Even then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was brazen enough to say in its election manifesto that it will make Delhi pollution-free and take steps to check vehicular pollution. But nothing happened even after the BJP came to power at the Centre. This is because Delhi was to go to the polls in November to elect a new state assembly. Therefore, every action for pollution control had to be put on hold. BJP'S transport minister, Rajendra Gupta, who tried to take some steps, was stymied by Singh on every count. A disgusted Gupta candidly told me, "I have learnt a lesson that pollution and elections don't go together."

The BJP government was forced to take action only when the Supreme Court ordered it to start phasing out all commercial vehicles more than 15 years old. Now that Verma has gone, the new chief minister, Sushma Swaraj, is also following in his footsteps. Rajendra Gupta has been sacked and instead of finding answers to the problem, Swaraj is publicly grumbling that the availability of onions has gone down because old trucks have been phased out under the apex Court's orders.

I would have thought that with the BJP coming to power at the Centre, the Delhi BJP would have developed greater coordination between Central and state agencies to deal with the problem of pollution. It is a fact that several Central agencies are a bigger cause of the problem than state agencies. The filthy fuel provided by the petroleum ministry is just one example. But Verma made no effort to do anything of the kind.

Just why is the Delhi case so different from the Jodhpur case? Simply because the community in one case was determined to act and politicians fell over themselves to respond, whereas in the other case, the community could not care less even though the city is choking in its dirty air. Delhi's middle class has yet to learn that poverty of material goods is totally immaterial when compared to poverty of the mind. And Delhi indeed suffers from poverty of the mind. The big lesson that the Khan episode teaches every environmentalist is that unless we work with the community, the environmental situation is not going to change. And this lesson holds true for every bureaucrat and official who thinks that only orders and paper regulations can deliver the goods.

- Anil Agarwal

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