Living In The Apocalypse, Especially In Delhi

Published: November 13, 2017 12:50 IST
An apocalypse is typically bookended by a series of events. In ancient Egypt, Jewish tales speak of fish in the Nile dying, with the water stinking, and Egyptians unable to drink its water. Lice, frogs and flies spread throughout the land, leading to diseased livestock and festering boils on all men. Meanwhile, a thunderstorm of hail, with locusts springing across, shortly destroy crops. Finally, darkness spreads across the country's cities for over three days with people unable to see or leave their residence. The final plague is the one where the firstborns of each chosen adult pass away, in the night. It seems, increasingly, that India's cities, particularly in Northern India, are in the grip of an impending apocalypse, accompanied with its plagues and misery. One would hope that this does not end in a similar manner.

Life in India's cities is increasingly grim, a play of probability, counting down ways in which one's health continually declines. Governance in India's heaving cities used to follow the cycle of the four seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter. Increasingly, particularly in North India, the cycle has changed to a hot landscape with stinking rivers, followed by flooded streets, Dengue and Chikungunya cases, and finally, an annual smog. Urban policymakers increasingly lurch from crisis to crisis, doling out short-term measures (an odd-even here, a water ATM there) without any long-term planning. While official government policy still seeks to promote increasing urbanization, one must wonder - are our cities (like Delhi) potentially liveable anymore?

When one considers institutional apathy to solving such issues, we should also consider how other countries, in the past and at similar stages of development, sought to overcome such liveability issues. In December 1952, a cold weather front, combined with windless conditions and airborne pollutants arising primarily from the use of coal led to the formation of a thick layer of smog over a prominent capital city. This smog, comprising existing fog, mixed with smoke from homes, motor vehicle particulate exhausts and pollutants like sulphur dioxide, led to major disruption, with visibility reduced even in indoor areas - in the inner suburbs, visibility was down to a metre, with witnesses claiming that they were effectively blind, even during daytime, while "smog masks" were worn by those able to purchase them from pharmacies. In the near term, there was no panic - such smog was common in the city, but soon the combination of events had a deleterious impact - public transport soon stopped, ambulances were rarely seen, while concerts and film screenings were cancelled as visibility diminished in large, enclosed spaces. By the end of it, over 4,000 people had died, and over 100,000 were left ill by its effects. This Great Smog, as it was termed in London, offers a familiar note to those living in Indian cities like Delhi.

What is different is the response to such an event. As a response to the Great Smog, The British Government soon rolled out important legislation - the Clean Air Acts (1956, 1968) and the City of London (Various Powers) Act (1954) which led to a significant reduction in air pollution. The government sought to provide financial incentives to householders to replace coal with alternative heating fuels, while central heating was rolled out across the city. In comparison, our response to the recent bout of smog, across North India, has been marked by apathy and government indecision at the state and local levels.

Such systemic apathy can also lead to continuing pandemics. Sri Lanka, until the late 1980s, was a hotspot for malarial outbreaks (outbreaks occurred frequently in the 1970s and 1980s). Since then, the public administration has focused on deploying malaria clinics in high infection areas combined with community surveillance, public education and public support mobilization. These incremental changes have had an impact - since 2012, Sri Lanka has mostly reported negligible cases of malaria. Similarly, South American countries like Brazil have managed to break the annual cycle of yellow fever outbreaks, through programs of vector control and vaccinations. Until the 1940s, Rio De Janeiro, given regular floods during the rainy season, and its poor drainage systems, often had pools of stagnant water forming after the rainy season. Municipal councils undertook an aggressive program of spraying, exterminating rats and destroying unsanitary housing. Meanwhile, cities like Delhi (malaria, chikungunya) and Gorakhpur (Japanese encephalitis) continue to have pandemic outbreaks. Public outcry has not, as yet, led to policy action that permanently eradicates the causes of such disease. 

Consider another tragedy of the commons - the case of rivers flowing through our teeming metropolises. In summer 1858, the river Thames was struck by a noxious smell, a consequence of untreated human waste and industrial effluent flowing into its waters. The smell was so bad that the government sought to dump lime chloride and carbolic acid into the river to dampen its stench. The Illustrated London News commented "We can colonise the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames" (Illustrated London News, 26 June, 1858). By June 1858, the stench in the river was so bad that a proposal sought to shift the parliament from Westminster to Oxford or St Albans. Disraeli termed the Thames "a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors" (First Reading, Hansard, 15 June, 1858) and soon tabled the Metropolis Local Management Amendment Bill, which sought to push sewerage outlets far out of the boundaries of the City. Joseph Bazalgette's plans for building 1,800 km long additional street sewers were soon approved - the creation of an integrated and functioning sewer system for the capital led to a steep drop in cholera cases and beautified London. In comparison, the case for Yamuna, a holy river, remains morose, as official apathy is combined by individual comeuppance.

Another crisis continues to build up apace. Cities like Delhi and its outlying suburbs are continually built upon, without paying significant attention to our falling water tables. About 49% of Delhi's wells have suffered from water-level drops between 2006 and 2015 (GW Monitoring Report, January 2016), with 12% wells having negative deviations of over four metres. Over 50% of South Delhi's wells in particular have water 40 metres below ground level, similar to what arid regions of Rajasthan report. In comparison, water in the Yamuna floodplains is typically found at 2-5 metres below the ground level. NCT Delhi overdrew its water to the tune of 138% (in 2009), with six of Delhi's 9 districts drawing over 100% of the groundwater. Meanwhile, over 60% of groundwater wells in Delhi are contaminated with fluoride, and wetlands constitute less than 3% of the city's geographical area.

Solving each of the problems requires institutional effort. North India's air pollution crisis will require a combination of incentives and penalties. Farmers can't be expected to stop burning their crop waste unless an economically viable alternative is provided (eg: subsidized mulchers for hire, or modified community biogas plants). There are other causes of pollution too - the Badarpur plant remains one of India's most polluting and yet least energy efficient thermal plants; shutting it down permanently is inevitable. This, if anything, is a test-case for the Delhi government's desire for clean air. Meanwhile, greater enforcement of existing pollution laws in industrial clusters is much needed. 

India's rivers have long been without protection despite a plethora of laws, commissions and judicial announcements. Judicial pronouncements have usually left river channels and their flows to eminent domain decisions, with a few exceptions (The Span Motels case, where the Supreme Court admonished the Central Government for "validating" the actions of a private entrepreneur who had diverted a river to protect his hotel property) (M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath 1997 (1) SCC 388). Restoring rivers to health is hard work, requiring integrated planning and long timelines - even Western Europe took over two decades to clean the Rhine and the Danube. We should consider how Singapore has managed to clean its namesake river by synchronizing urban development with riverfronts while learning lessons from failed programs (eg: Argentina's Matanza-Riachuelo River; Russia's Lake Karachay). We need a holistic view of the river basin; the Rhine was only rejuvenated when the focused target setting for pollutant levels was combined with strict penalties and rigorous monitoring, along with awareness campaigns. 

Sanitation was never a key concern for pre-Independence India, and this has remained so ever since. About 90% of our solid waste is still dumped directly into landfills (Hazra, Goel, 2009), which often catch fire (Eg: Bhalswa landfill in North Delhi recently). Even a well-planned city like Chandigarh generates over 370 tons of solid waste daily, but with a limited budget allocated for solid waste collection (typically 7-8% of the sanitation budget), collection efficiency can vary significantly (70% from registered households; 20% from slums and surrounding areas; Rana, Ganguly, Gupta, Vol 20, EJGE). While each sector is allocated 10-15 sweepers, such sanitation staff themselves suffer from parasitic diseases like diarrhea, jaundice and trachoma (Ahsan, 2014; Bogale, 2014). There is limited separation at source of any household waste, with limited, if any, incentives for composting. We need a mindset change, along with increased investments in bio-methanation plants, across all Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, with an integrated municipal solid waste management rolled out (as Chandigarh is seeking to do).

Surat offers a promising example - from a bell weather for pneumonic plague, it is now hailed as a public health leader. Trash collection and street cleaning processes have been overhauled (each following a strict timetable), while disease surveillance is conducted regularly by about 450-500 surveillance workers. This is accompanied by testing for communicable diseases - between 2-3 million malaria breeding spots are regularly tested, while a large network of 41 urban health centers, mobile health clinics and over 500 private hospitals supplements this process. The diligence has worked - Surat increasingly reports declining cases of malaria. Newer technologies can also help - the city of Guangdong has released more than half a million mosquitoes infected with wolbachia bacteria which make the males sterile and limit the vector's ability to carry dengue.

We need to consider the sustainability of groundwater as well. Groundwater has been under-regulated for decades, with individual ownership to groundwater still governed by the Easement Act (1882). Groundwater rights are still vested at an individual level, leading to the Government, at a Central, State and Local level, adopting a passive approach to its overexploitation. The sheer multiplicity of regulatory bodies adds to this passiveness; over 13 central bodies (eg: Central Ground Water Authority), along with various state bodies, and panchayat/local bodies, hold responsibilities for regulating water services and groundwater management. We need to rationalize this regulatory rigmarole, while pushing for artificial recharging. The Master Plan for Artificial Recharge to Ground Water in 2002 envisaged construction of 39 lakh structures for artificial recharge; this can be tied up with MNREGA to provide for livelihood while ensuring long term sustainability. 

Finally, we as a people need to change, we need to desire better air, water and a healthier environment. Demanding this will entail making sacrifices - bursting fewer crackers, taking the bus or the metro to work and composting our household waste. For cleaner cities in India, the mindset of this nation's government and its people, requires a reboot.

(Feroze Varun Gandhi is a member of the BJP and a two-time member of parliament.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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