Stink and muck

India has been plagued with environmental problems, especially air and water. But there is no voice of protest or joint civic effort to change anything

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Stink and muck

Every single chapter of the Fifth Citizens' Report that deals with the urban sector paints a distressing picture. The chapter on "Atmosphere" shows that it is not just metros like Delhi which are reeling under severe air pollution but also towns like Rajkot in Gujarat and Gajroula and Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh. Even towns such as Agartala, which the cash-strapped Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) does not monitor, is no better. So is Srinagar, the jewel of Kashmir.

The government has no clue how to handle this problem. If anything is happening, it is only because of the green judges of the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that India's traffic system is dominated by highly polluting two-stroke engines, the cpcb does not even monitor benzene -- a potent carcinogen -- levels in the air. In Delhi, benzene levels are more than 10 times the European Union standards. And nobody is prepared to check the dieselisation of the private automobile fleet even though diesel fumes contain deadly carcinogens. A pricing policy which keeps diesel prices low encourages everyone to use it. The petroleum minister even has the gall -- rather ignorance -- to say that he is going to give the nation a gift by reducing diesel prices even further. Adding to our woes, the petroleum secretary recently said he has no money to improve diesel quality. India produces one of the dirtiest kinds of this fuel in the world. He even asked a visiting pollution control team whether Delhi really had a serious air pollution problem. Let us be very clear. No nation can even address "ecological poverty" unless it gets rid of its "mental poverty".

The chapter on "Water" focuses on river pollution. And again the picture is absolutely appalling. Every single water channel that passes through a town or a Green Revolution area immediately becomes a toxic drain. But neither does the Central government have enough money to build sufficient sewage treament plants, nor do the cash-strapped state governments and municipalities have adequate funds to operate them. But as long as there is investment in hardware -- pumps, pipes and drains, in this case -- everybody is happy looting the public treasury.

The chapter on "Habitat" takes a look at towns outside the mayhem of the metros. But these towns are worse. Industrial towns like Ludhiana, Jetpur, Tiruppur and Rourkela are rich but they suffer from acute toxification of their environment. Non-industrial towns like Aligarh and Bhagalpur have little money but they are cesspools too. Jaisalmer, a tourist town, now has so much water that groundwater seepage is leading to cracks in the very bastion of the fort. The fear of 'buckling political systems', that was voiced in the Citizens' Second Report, 1995, has been confirmed. Worse still, there is no strong protest and organised civic effort to change anything. Delhi residents were more worried about the price of onions in the last elections than the quality of the city's air. Almost as if the filth they are living in does not matter. But they do mind the dirt of others affecting their lives. The people of Dhoraji, living downstream of Jetpur, and the farmers living below the town of Tiruppur have filed court cases against polluters upstream. Though the judges have threatened closure of the polluting units, little has changed. Yet, this seems to be the only ray of hope.

Given the fact that India has just begun to urbanise and industrialise and the additional fact that one unit increase in the Gross Domestic Product can bring about an increase of 2-5 units of pollution, we can be sure that the next two decades will see India's towns living in a toxic hell. It will all ultimately change because the urban crisis will one day force the people to make the political leadership look for solutions. But not before millions have died because of air and water pollution and contaminated food.

Unfortunately, the cracking of urban India will mask even the positive changes that could take place in rural areas. Already the Indian media is almost exlusively focussed on Indian urban middle-class concerns. The outstanding story of Jhabua was missed not merely by the English media but also by Madhya Pradesh's own Hindi press. And, of course, no television reporter ever discovered Jhabua despite the mushrooming of satellite channels.

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