The air in Delhi is the most toxic in the world. Yamuna in Delhi is in a terrible state. Activists are going blue in the face. Intense rage and sarcasm is being expressed in the media. Vehement criticism, assertions and opinions galore are daily fare.
Governments of all political persuasions have been promising a clean-up. The laws are in place, courts have passed hundreds of favourable judgments, and Funds to the tune of thousands of crores have been allocated.
On social media there is largely very little thinking, as people share links to opinions of those who echo their own instincts. There is no need felt to think slowly and carefully. A position is taken based on an existing mind-set, ego vested in it and defending it for the next week becomes critical.
Since air pollution in Delhi is severely damaging our own children and disabling all of us in one way or the other, and we are all drinking filtered poisoned water, it stands to reason that we should enquire why the result is Zero. Why is nothing done?
To answer this first consider the following words. They are jumbled and you have to arrange them in the order of priority in your life.
New Car, new bike, basic housing, additional property, international vacation, clean air, tuitions for children, board exams, settling score with neighbours, caste based reservations for Government jobs, Donald trump, Kanhaiyya, JNU, football fields, best university for children, mutual fund, Sewage treatment for Delhi, investment, Success in chosen field of work, religious festivals, mata ki chowki, Malls, international vacations, living clean rivers, SUV, salary increase, career plan, personal fame and glory, health.
Now organise all these as honestly as possible into your list of preoccupations. And it will make clear where clean air and a living river fits into the City’s priorities.
River and air pollution are problems we just can’t seem to fix.
A severe imposition of the rule of law has been suggested: this is impossible given the political, human rights and humanitarian crisis that will erupt. It is never going to happen either for Delhi’s air or for Yamuna. Therefore, citizens and activists will gripe over tokens and symbols on social media and television. But it will not change. The Government will simply not invest in sewage treatment beyond a point as it has more pressing desires of its voters to fulfill. Equally it will not recover footpaths for the fear of annoying Hawkers and Voters who park their cars illegally.
If you examine the Chipko movement and the Niyamgiri hills movement, the missing element in campaigns that struggle for a pollution free Yamuna and Delhi can be noticed. Though not an all encompassing theory it may shed some light on what we are facing.
In the first, the people closest to the problem had a direct and vested interest in saving their trees for their own immediate and imminent emotional socio economic needs. There was a sense of actual ownership not academic, or in principle ownership. They felt a connection, an attachment to their earth and nature as something deeply and profoundly connected to their life and livelihood. It was not only an academic proposition.
Similarly in the Niyamgiri agitation, even as NGO and activists spearheaded the movement it was the local tribals who were deeply connected to the soil and hills in economic, social and spiritual ways. Even though the courts buttressed the locals’ point of view it were the locals themselves who stood up against the might of giant corporations
The Movement against the limestone mafia which was destroying the Doon Valley and Mussorie hills, way back in the eighties was a slightly different phenomenon as it was more urban. Nevertheless there were activists, court judgements and a significant number of people who wanted their hills back to their pristine beauty and wanted all the degradation to stop. To counter the vested interest of limestone quarrying there were a large number of people against it. The courts ordered, the state accepted and this led to the creation of 127 Infantry Battalion of the Territorial Army (TA) as an Ecological Task Force affiliated to the Garhwal Rifles. It has soldiers selected from the ex-servicemen of the Garhwal and Kumaon hills based who are deeply vested in the local ecology.
Contrast that with the Yamuna; the people of the city and the dwellers on the banks have an exactly opposite vested interest. It serves their life and livelihood to pollute the river. There is an entire politics and economics of waste, of illegal housing, illegal sewers, and construction waste. If the much loved NGTs orders on construction dust were implemented and fines afforded the Delhi’s environment lovers angry on FB, would be up in arms as renovation for their pretty interiors or the builder flat they just decided to own will become really difficult. Illegal dyeing and plating industry abounds and provides livelihood to thousands. It also contaminates vegetables grown there with cadmium, arsenic, mercury etc.
Consider air pollution. Delhi’s roads are covered with cars parked on either side. The NGT has deemed that this contributor to traffic jams creates air pollution and is illegal with heavy fines to be paid. Nobody dare charge, nobody pays that fine or removes their car. But that does not stop anybody from pontificating on the demerits of air pollution and demanding NGT orders to be implemented upon someone else. There is utter hypocrisy.
When river activists and crusaders for clean air try and gather local people, or city folk, they can hardly get enough people to substantiate a large scale movement against water and air pollution. Several villagers living on flood plains want to sell their land to builders. Lakhs of migrants and urban poor live in shanties in the area. Their income comes from small occupations that contribute to the river’s pollution. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage is dumped into the Yamuna every day. How many Delhi city voters have ever even bothered to question their elected representatives of this?
Thousands of city dwellers who are suddenly expressing their love for the environment throw plastic and bags full of puja remnants into the river daily. Hundreds of Visarjans take place and chhat puja brings lakhs on to the banks every year.
The ‘O’ Zone of the DDA is made up of settlements in Mithapur& Jaitpur etc in the Badarpur constituency. These are Areas which house lakhs of people. As per DDA’s claims, the settlement partly covers the flood plains (this is disputed by residents). While the DDA has accepted some demands of the area residents the matter is now stuck in courts. Several demolitions of jhuggis have taken place on the Yamuna Pushta, an action which is cruel as the poor living there have no place to go since a distinct financial advantage is acquired by functionaries in all governments by keeping the possibility of illegal construction alive.
The point being made is this: When a large number of citizens are involved in environmental degradation it will require a substantially large if not equal number of citizens to oppose it to make a difference.
There is something non- serious about the bourgeois outrage on the social media. Politicians instinctively know this and can discern real concerns from the unreal ones. It is evident from the attitude of all political players that they are not at all shamefaced by any of this failure on river and air. That it does not bring ignominy to the government at any level, is evident to say the least.
The atmosphere of Delhi and the life of its river depend on the people of Delhi and what they really feel about it deeply and intimately, not intellectually alone. More than just activism is required.
There is more material should the reader care to go into the depth of this matter. Those interested can begin with: