Environmental pollution has been the biggest fallout of industrial revolution. 20th century was when it peaked and hit the roof. In the mad rush after new industries, globalization and wealth, what we have managed to truly achieve is to poison two of the fundamental elements required for our survival and for the existence of all life on the planet. Air and water.
I am a native of Kerala, the southernmost state of India where air pollution is still minuscule when compared to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. I have experienced the effects of pollution and the gradual degradation of the environment of Bangalore from 1997 when I first visited the city to 2018. In 1997 it was still a pristine green city with plenty of lakes. As its stature grew as the Silicon Valley of the East, people from all over the country started flocking into the city. Along with the migrating IT professionals came business ecosystems from every state. This is how Bangalore has grown to become the massive cosmopolitan city it is today. So how was the exponentially increasing population accommodated? At the cost of trees and lakes. Many of Bangalore’s lakes have been filled up and buildings constructed on top of them. Bangalore used to be a hill station and honeymoon destination till the early 1990s. Compare this to the sheer number of trees that have been axed to make roads and the city’s metro rail system now and then— what has been done to the city is nothing less than horrifying.
Polluted air contains more carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and other gases harmful to our health. But this in itself does not create health issues. Where do we get oxygen to breath from? Primarily through the photosynthesis process in plants and trees. They ingest carbon dioxide and release oxygen. In cities like Delhi and Bangalore, air pollution is increasing because of two reasons. As more people move into these cities, oxygen consumption is increasing but oxygen creation is decreasing because of dwindling vegetation while the carbon dioxide we exhale is increasing along with other harmful gases. So people in these cities are essentially breathing increasingly contaminated air. There is one more reason why pollution is adversely affecting our health. Increase in air pollution has been exponential and explosive rather than linear and gradual. Our body hasn’t got enough time to adjust and evolve into breathing air with less oxygen and more harmful gases. I truly understood the effects of air pollution only after I went on a work assignment to Netherlands and returned to Bangalore after 6 months. My entire body including my face was itching for no apparent reason and it took a few days for me to adapt to our polluted environment again.
Air pollution is being caused mainly by the combination of:
Each one of these need to be attacked with different strategies to curb the effects of pollution. Let me exemplify this with the cases of Delhi and Bangalore. Both cities have been subjected to wanton destruction of its vegetation and water bodies. While human migration to Bangalore is mostly for white-collar jobs which has in turn created opportunities for other jobs, Delhi is being subject to massive influx of unskilled people from neighboring states such as UP. The NCR region has experienced a massive boom in real estate business in recent years because people have sold off their lands and moved to Delhi in search of formal education and corporate jobs. Nature has been adversely affected in both Delhi and NCR region because of this mass human migration.
There is no one strategy to manage the problem. Though it is appreciable that the Delhi government is undertaking sapling plantation drives as part of the initiative to reduce air pollution, tree plantation is nature’s job and not ours. Nature knows which trees and plants will thrive in which soil and what climatic conditions. Cutting down the trees nature has provided us and trying to compensate for our wanton destruction by planting trees is senseless. The logic of prevention is better than cure is what applies here.
If it is about the influx of people into Delhi, they need opportunities for education and employment from where they are coming. Agricultural sector has been seeing unprecedented neglect from governments in many Indian states resulting in increasing farmer suicides. Farmers have lost interest in farming and are looking for other means to make their living by moving to cities like Delhi. The result has been the steady loss of agricultural land to real estate development and loss of vegetation and water bodies. Central and state governments have to work together to tackle agrarian distress, get agriculture back on track and do better civil administration of rural areas by providing basic amenities such as electricity, transport and schools. I have heard of a government policy in China wherein a certain amount of agricultural land is allotted for urban development every year. But at the same time, a certain amount of unused urban land is also allotted to be converted back to agricultural land. In the US, cases of corporate employees quitting high profile jobs and moving to community based life away from cities are on the rise.
The solution to the crisis in Bangalore is very different compared to that of Delhi even though the problem it faces is also because of mass human migration. The youth of the country have all been enamored by the comparatively high salaries in the IT industry and the cosmopolitan life in Bangalore away from the watchful eyes of their families. I have heard of some IT MNCs enticing these young professionals in cities like Delhi with the promise of assigning them to work in Bangalore. On the flip side is the strict rule in the US that employees should be hired preferably from the same city as that of the company or from the same state itself, and the same MNCs adhere to the rule there. It is high time the major IT companies spread themselves out all over India and discourage mass migration of IT professionals outside their states and especially to Bangalore. I have heard of how Siemens operates even out of small towns in Germany and at least one member of each family in the town would be working in the company’s office. There was a time in India when Infosys used to enjoy such a cult status that a job with the company was a benchmark for marriage alliances. Then why didn’t Infosys try to become the Siemens of India?
But in India, everything is and can be taken for granted primarily because of corruption at the grass root level of our society. Policies for pollution control on industries are never enforced; real estate business has evolved into land mafia. One reason that has contributed to rising air pollution in Delhi is the stubble burning in the neighboring states of Haryana and Rajasthan, which the respective state governments have ignored in spite of repeated pleas from the Delhi government. Many of the buildings in Bangalore are built over lakes and even drainage. The same corporate that controls the industries and the real estate are also the biggest donors to political party funds which has been legitimized by the introduction of electoral bonds.
I do not believe that air pollution can be solved as an isolated problem. The roots of pollution goes right into the heart of the country’s governance and civil administration. Corruption is so rampant in the government and bureaucracy from the Panchayat level to the central government level that any number of violations will be ignored depending on what the politicians and bureaucrats get in return. Governments are elected to provide good governance by framing and implementing effective policies for meeting the needs of people along with conservation of nature. Till such a paradigm shift happens, we cannot expect any significant improvement in the handling of the pollution menace.
Pollution has grown to such a massive scale that the intent to make the environment better has to come from the government. Shanghai was an extremely polluted city with air pollution at extremely dangerous levels just 10-12 years back. Now the city is full of parks of all sizes and some of them are so big that sounds of vehicles on the streets outside are not audible inside those parks. The intent has to come from the government which is why we have an electoral process. But as long as the allegiance of our representatives are with the election funding corporate and not with their voters, environmental deterioration will continue unabated.