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DEATH IN THE AIR

That a society and polity obsessed with spiritual and moral pollution should be so criminally indifferent to the mortal dangers of air pollution is a paradox that the Indian State and citizenry seem to have immured themselves to. Think of what might have happened if half the zeal with which the State purifies films and television programmes had been channelled into purifying urban air and rural water. Significantly fewer Indians would have died of cancer and other illnesses. Could it be that the luridly visual emphasis on the perils of cigarette-smoking in the public media, so ardently invested in by the government, is partly to deflect attention — and responsibility — from the fact that more than a fourth of the patients being treated for lung disorders are non-smokers? The World Health Organization has recently classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic, and India emerges as the country with the worst air quality among the 132 countries assessed earlier this year. Within such a scenario, Delhi’s slight upper-hand over Calcutta in lowering vehicular pollution levels becomes somewhat insignificant. Indifference to air pollution turns out to be a national, rather than local, problem. It is a form of corruption, the culpability of which has not yet been fathomed, and addressed, by civil society in India.

Yet, this culpability cannot be embodied solely by the State. Indian citizens are far from being merely the ‘victims’ of administrative negligence, for rising levels of air pollution are not just a political, but also a civic, and civil, issue. Every time a car-owner colludes with the system to bribe his way out of a pollution test, or every time a family buys polluting fire-crackers for Diwali, culpability is shared actively by citizens and their administrators. How many homes, schools, colleges and universities encourage young people to use bicycles to move about within the city? So, when the civic authorities in Calcutta were about to ban bicycles from its roads instead of promoting and making special room for them, the outrageousness of that move was protested against by only a few. This kind of wrong-headedness and apathy is as culpable as, say, India’s stance of third-world defensiveness in the international fora for environmental legislation and policy-making, absolving itself from responsibility for global warming simply because it happens to be one of the ‘poorer’ nations.