Environmental concerns are always someone else’s problem, as manifest in the great urban traditions of littering, leaving taps running and making an Olympic sport of shooting paan-tinted spittle at pristine walls. It also explains why green issues are invisible in national elections.
Which candidate in Lok Sabha 2019 had the lowest carbon footprint? No one knows or cares. The discourse centred on issues of unemployment, dole, chowkidari and chori. The histrionics, expletives and all, were admittedly far more entertaining than a discussion on the impact of environmental degradation on quality of life, health, and economic well-being.
As a sop to the eco-sensitivities of millennial voters, who faithfully switch off all their lights and appliances for an hour on Earth Day, the Congress promised an action plan on climate change (not much effort involved; it just needs to dust off the plan drawn up by the Manmohan Singh government over a decade ago).
For its part, the BJP established its green credentials by claiming the target of 175 GW of renewable energy would be achieved by 2022. All these promises were confined to election manifestos; no candidate saw fit to include them in campaign speeches.
Citizens may struggle on a daily basis with foul air and shortage of clean water, fuel, and fodder, but these inconveniences are somehow disconnected from the political process. Sandwiched between those who are too focused on survival to care and the privileged who can decamp to greener parts of the world, is a fat layer of voters who should be holding politicians accountable for environmental lapses, but don’t.
The voter feels that he has no power to change the ground realities, but can aspire to rise above them through sheer consumerism. An RO machine will spew potable water, an air-purifier will spit out breathable air and mucky beaches can be avoided by going to the Taj Holiday Village instead of Juhu. The expectation from the newly-elected government is therefore disposable income, not clean air.
The voter doesn’t join the dots between environment policy – which is drawn up by babus and netas – and its consequences for the aam aadmi. This disconnect allows politicians to get away with, for instance, the murder of forests in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
The ‘wow’ factor of a ‘mahamarg’ connecting the ‘char dham’ eclipses the long-term havoc resulting from deforestation, like Kedarnath-sized floods and landslides. Last heard the hills en route to Gangotri and Yamnotri were alive with the sound of tumbling rocks.
In the national capital, citizens have been promised SPM-free air. Meanwhile, quarries throw up clouds of stone dust, busily producing material for road construction, even as neighbouring states put their fields to the torch and the vehicle population routinely outstrips road capacity.
What does any of this have to do with the health of Delhi’s denizens? We may not have cast-iron lungs, but as Union Minister, Harsh Vardhan reassuringly observed, “No death certificate has a cause of death as pollution”.
And therein lies the rub. The impact of environmental degradation is slow to manifest and cause-and-effect takes years, if not decades, to establish. Mothers stuffed children with dalda in the 1970s, only to discover, decades later, that good old desi ghee is a far better bet health-wise. Punjab farmers happily dusted their fields with pesticides, not realising that cancer would follow.
All parties embrace the same growth-oriented, energy-intensive, consumption-driven development model, leaving environmental impact assessment to ‘tree-huggers’ (who in any case are foreign-funded subversives standing in the way of India’s progress).
Some politicians may perceive climate change as a giant scam, like the Moon Landing or Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was denounced not too long ago by a BJP minister. Others may find the sheer scale of the issue intimidating; it is just too big to wrap one’s head around. After all, global warming (to which we are enthusiastically contributing) is a worldwide phenomenon and must be addressed by the comity of nations. So that makes it a foreign affairs problem.
Or maybe, we are thinking national and local, but not regional. No Delhite is particularly upset when rivers in Himachal Pradesh or lakes in Nainital district go dry unless it sabotages their holiday plans. If the increasingly thirsty national capital does not get water from the Renuka Dam across the Giri River in Himachal, the central government can always find another river to suck dry.
We are realistic enough to scale down our expectations: there may little hope of a clean Ganga in the immediate future, but a public toilet may suffice.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.