Always a blind spot

I look at the rhetoric surrounding Elections 2009 and wonder – has any political party promised to improve the state of the environment for you and me? Or thought about our right to fresh air or clean water – commodities that have become a rarity in an urbanising India?

Over the past few weeks I’ve studied the manifestos of all political parties and silently witnessed the city around me change. Ancient trees are being decapitated for wider roads, a park’s been taken over for a multiplex and a storm drain, a barrier against monsoon floods, has been filled with sand to make way for a parking lot. Grab and construct is the new mantra for the ‘development’ of our cities.

We spend three hours on an average on roads, stuck in traffic jams, while one in every five Indians suffers from respiratory disorders. Indian cities are headed towards an urban disaster. Take the depleting quality of the air we breathe or the water we drink (that’s if we get it in our taps); while rivers turn into noxious black threads with methane bubbling on their surfaces and landfill sites expand.

Analysts predict that in the next thirty years, more than half of India will be living in urban areas. But does any leader or political party have a vision to address the impending environmental problems? Caste and religion continue to dominate the rhetoric of Election 2009, but is global India, with a growth rate of 9 per cent, doing anything about the toxic gas chambers that are our cities or the brown sludge flowing from our taps?

You could dismiss my angst for clean air and water as an elitist preoccupation that doesn’t affect a majority of the population. But take a look at the alarming figures collected by the Central Pollution Control Board and the Centre for Science and Environment. Out of the 100 Indian cities monitored, almost half have critical levels of particulate matter. Fifty-two cities hit critical levels, 36 have high levels and a mere 19 are at moderate levels. Only three cities – Dewas, Tirupati and Kozhikode – recorded low pollution levels.

Adding to the gas chambers are toxic gases like nitrogen oxide – a major contributor to acid rain and global warming – that are on the rise even in smaller cities like Jamshedpur, Dhanbad, Nashik and Chandrapur. Indian cities can be cured of the curse of pollution, but various policy measures will have to be initiated. One way out could be the introduction of compressed natural gas in the public transport system, and financial incentives for people to buy more fuel-efficient cars or to switch to public transport.

If we look at the availability of water in Indian cities, the situation is no different. According to a 2007 World Bank study on 27 cities, the average duration of water supply was not more than four hours and in some, like Rajkot, it’s less than 0.3 hours. Not even one Indian city gets continuous water supply, and a majority are in the red in terms of plummeting ground water tables. Besides, in the poorer parts of our nation, people have to buy water and have to spend, on an average, one to two hours per day foraging for it.

And what about the impending threat from climate change? There is now enough scientific evidence to show that climate change will first affect the poor, with disastrous consequences for India’s farmers and fishermen. But has any political party woken up to this threat? The BJP, interestingly, has a separate section on the environment in its manifesto, referring to the need to move towards a low-carbon economy. Does that mean it will scrap the 54-odd thermal power projects that were cleared under the UPA government? Climate change may already be upon us in many ways. But one look at the National Climate Change Action Plan launched by the Prime Minister will tell us that most of the targets under the eight missions are non-measurable, so there’s no way to measure the outgoing government’s performance.

And how ‘green’ are our politicians themselves? While one has drained the wetlands of an endangered bird only to build an airstrip in his native village, another, with strong prime ministerial aspirations, spent more than Rs 80 crore ravaging a green belt on the edge of the Okhla bird sanctuary, while yet another in Madhya Pradesh got the course of a river diverted, to make it flow close to his private resort. Media campaigns ask voters to stop complaining and go out and vote. Yes, I too will go and vote. But I am still waiting for that one political party or candidate who promises me, a citizen of India, my right to clean air and water.

By: Bahar Dutt
(This article appeared in ‘Hindustan Times’ on May 5, 2009)

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