Dirty politics

  • 14/10/1998

THE Supreme Court has given short shrift to the Sahib Singh government of Delhi. After the court had ordered the phasing out of 15-year-old commercial vehicles, the Delhi government had requested the court to give it more time. But the real reason was not that the government could not implement the court's order in time. It is the forthcoming elections for Delhi to be held in November.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not want to earn the ire of those who would be affected by the court order. It simply wants to dump all the problems on the next government.

If one looks at the vehicle population data for Delhi, the commercial vehicle population has a much higher proportion of older vehicles than the private vehicles. And, as a large proportion of them run on dirty diesel, which is responsible for a lot of the carcinogens and tiny particles in the air which go straight into the lungs, these vehicles are responsible for a significant part of the city's pollution problem.

But, unfortunately, as a BIP politician recently told me, 'elections and pollution don't go together'. Even in March, when the Delhi government was facing its own deadline for phasing out 15-year-old three-wheelers, it had backtracked because it would have got some one hundred thousand people voting against it in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. And its political opponents were quick to mobilise the auto-rickshaw owners against the ruling party.

The key reason for all this dirty politics is that there are very few votes for the fight against pollution. Delhi's middle class is quite happy to talk about pollution over an evening meal or drink but it has no stomach to turn this into an electoral issue. As a result, democratic politics fails to solve the pollution problem and only court orders are able to address it. For Indians, this is today a critical issue. How do we ensure that our politicians begin to take issues like the environment (or for that matter, literacy and poverty) seriously?

There is a tremendous weakness with court orders. They are, after all, orders, not policies. Many of these decisions have both pros and cons. It is true that closing down polluting activities will lead to unemployment.

These issues can only be addressed through carefully thought out policies which take both the pros and cons into account. Firstly, the governments should ensure that they will not allow the promotion of dirty technologies and industries. This means preventive policies must come into place.

Secondly, where polluting industries already exist, because of a past lack of preventive policies, governments must come up with careful phasing out programmes which provide as much relief as possible to those adversely affected, especially the poor.

Even in the case of phasing out old vehicles in Delhi, it is possible to raise money to support those affected to go in for new vehicles, including those which run on cleaner fuels like propane or CNG. Even a small tax on diesel or petrol - say, one rupee per litre - would earn the Delhi government several hundred crore rupees. This money could easily be used to help affected families to acquire new and less polluting vehicles with the help of soft loans. But it is unlikely that the court can give such orders. Its job is to stop what is wrong. Its job is not to outline policies. Moreover, courts are more likely to enter the picture only after the damage has already begun to occur. They can hardly impose preventive policies on a government. Indian politicians somehow have to be forced to do their job better.

In all this, the media has to play a critical role. The media must, on one hand, educate the public about the true issues facing the nation and, on the other hand, it must put pressure on the politicians to perform. But the leaders of the print and electronic media are on a trip of their own. The amount of valuable space and time they allocate to the nonsense of political infighting is absolutely amazing. Just what does it matter to an average Indian what Jayalalitha is saying or not saying about the BIP government at the Centre? For that matter, how does it matter, even if the Central government comes toppling down because of Jayalalitha? It matters only if this development were to affect our economic, social and environmental conditions. Therefore, it is far more important to focus on these conditions and the focus on politicians should only be to tell the public what they are doing to change these conditions. Otherwise, how does any political infighting matter to anyone.

India's media will truly become a serious media when politicians are relegated to half a page on the fourth page. That is all they deserve. But I am doubtful our media leaders have such a vision. The Indian media today has become as despicable as Indian politics.

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