Can pollution turn us inward?

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog. It is not that I am short of views, thoughts that cross my mind that are interesting enough (I would say that, won’t I?) to be shared but it has been a case of inertia. The news-item I saw in THE HINDU this morning helped me to shake off that inertia. The news-story is about levels of pollution in Bangalore. I spent ten days in Bangalore teaching at the Indian Institute of Management in January. I enjoyed the idyllic campus. But, it is not available to every one else in the city. These lines, in particular, make me feel sad:

Vaman Acharya, KSPCB Chairman, said that the most immediate concern is the huge vehicular population. Air pollution continues unabated despite technological advancements that facilitate reduction of emissions, he said. Apart from emission, dust and garbage are also polluting the city. “The worst affected are children who suffer from asthma,” he said.

“We were earlier a pensioner’s paradise. Today, we are known for wheezing and asthma, and the city is a hell for pensioners,” he said.

He said that children between the ages of 2 and 17 suffer the most. In this age group, he added, eight per cent of children are found snoring and around 1.05 per cent suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. “People are paying with their heart, lungs and body,” he said.

There are many ways to respond to this ‘crisis’. Some are external to us and some are internal to our behaviour. Each of us might think differently about which matter the most. Nor should it be construed that the measures are exclusive. That is, if you do one, you cannot do the other. No, that is not the case.

We need to pursue on all fronts – petitioning the Municipal Counsellor, raising the price of diesel, removing subsidies on kerosene, etc., clamouring for more investment in public transport to vehicle-free days, hours, zones and imposing road-usage charges, etc. to changing one’s personal behaviour.

For this post, consistent with the ethos of this blog, I shall focus on personal behavioural changes.

We need to ask ourselves if we really need a oversized vehicle. We need to ask ourselves if we need to take the car out for one person to travel. We need to set time aside for reflection, reading, spending time with family members rather than be out somewhere. We need to ask ourselves if we should buy diesel-powered vehicles. We need to ask ourselves if a conversation could not be concluded over phone.

Policy experts and economic experts have jargon for expressing our reluctance to change attitudes when the benefits are diffused but when costs are direct. For example, if the price of diesel is raised, we feel the pinch immediately. But, we will not connect the reduction in the number of visits to the doctor or the reduction in medical bill, etc.

That is the reason governments subsidise each and every item separately by keeping their prices artificially low. It is easy for a logical person to say that the government could estimate the usage of each item for a poor family per month, determine the price that they can afford to pay and transfer the difference between the economic price and the ‘subsidised’ price as cash payments into their accounts. Then, they can go to the market and buy the same goods at the same price that is charged to all. The problem with this is that those who are used to buying at a subsidised price would somehow feel cheated. They would not connect the cash in the bank and the subsidy. Both are the same. But, the first one is direct and the cash is indirect. Our minds perceive them differently. This is what makes policymaking challenging and interesting.

There is another rational explanation for not changing one’s behaviour. That is, we are not sure if every one else would do it. Only then, will benefits become visible. Otherwise, the sincere person who changes his behaviour for the better, still pays the price for others behaving badly or undesirably.

But, one thing is clear. Our behaviour – whether we change them or not – has direct costs. The costs are borne by our own family members and children.  That is what the selected sentences from the news-story convey. We pay a price for our behaviour. Some of the health costs may not even be evident  immediately but would visit us later in life.

India simply cannot grow the same way as the West did. Circumstances, size of the land, the number of people and climatic conditions are all different. Second, we even need to question strongly if these are really the signs of development – having five cars in the garage, having a SUV, etc.

Educated and healthy population, safety on the streets for men and women and essential public amenities – a platform to walk on, for example  with no potholes and electric wires dangling on your face – are all signs of development. Not shopping malls, not SUVs, not glass and steel structures.

All of us have to change – whether we are policymakers or the public. Starting with oneself is immediate and results can be quicker.

One thought on “Can pollution turn us inward?

  1. Can’t agree with you more. Especially in the last couple of years I have made it a point to travel by bus, whenever possible, to reduce carbon footprints.An iota of difference indeed but there is the satisfaction of personal effort as an individual.

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