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The mosquito's reign of terror: The high price of 'aspirational' India

Who's afraid of the mighty mosquito? Everyone. From maid to memsahib, Kolkata to Bangalore, we live in a state of constant siege, armed to the teeth with creams, coils and plug-ins, mortally afraid of that first chill. “Economic class or social strata hardly plays a role in malaria,” jokes malaria expert Pramesh Bhatnagar in Outlook magazine, “In Calcutta, you are bound to be bitten by a mosquito, no matter your relative position.”

A democratic truth that applies just as well to every other urban hub in India today. The machhar reigns supreme all across our great land.

And it's bringing us the gift of not just dengue, which hogs all the headlines, but also ever more alarming strains of malaria. As Outlook reports, "Health experts point out that drug resistance, spread of a more virulent form of malaria (named falciparum after the protozoa that causes it) and lack of medical diagnoses of fevers are turning the disease—though still predominantly rural—into a major urban health risk." The high-risk zones are no longer remote jungles or villages but large cities such as Delhi, Faridabad, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai, and Bangalore. While the Indian government reports only 1000 malaria-related deaths per year, a new Lancet study shows that 2,00,000 Indians die each year of malaria -- without being diagnosed with the disease. What is not diagnosed is therefore not included in the official death toll.

Be it dengue or malaria, the tiny machhar is rapidly emerging as a singular weapon of mass destruction.

Be it dengue or malaria, the tiny machhar is rapidly emerging as a singular weapon of mass destruction. AFP

Like most such media stories, the Outlook piece hits all the usual notes in assigning blame: bad policy, harmful medical practices, political neglect. These are undoubtedly true but the current mosquito crisis is rooted in a much deeper, endemic cause: the way we live now, like fattened pigs in a filthy sty. It reveals the lopsided bargain we've made with our Leviathan. Give us our fatter salaries, our malls and multiplexes, new cars and high-rise flats, trendy clothes and restaurants, and we will forgive all else: A corrupt and inefficient state that is unable and unwilling to deliver even the most basic amenities to its citizens.

For twenty years, we've lived in a fool's paradise, assuming that we could insulate ourselves from the consequences of our acquiescence. We retreated into gated complexes with bore wells and generators and private gardens, abandoning public spaces for enclosed little havens. Who cared if the maid had water in her taps as long as it was flowing 24X7 through ours. No reason to bother about the state of the buses when you were busy paying of the EMI on your auto loan; or to make a fuss about raw sewage and open drains elsewhere until the roads in your colony turn into cesspools.

The standing joke about the average Indian is that we keep our homes scrupulously clean… and sweep all the dirt right outside our door. All the finger-pointing aside, the reality is that we have no civic sense that extends beyond ensuring our personal comfort. We take no responsibility for or interest in the environment outside our chaar diwari. Now a winged intruder is bringing home the bitter harvest.

Take, for instance, the gargantuan garbage crisis in Bangalore which is generating widespread dengue panic. Trash is piling up on street corners, uncollected and unprocessed, because the landfills are overflowing, creating a health crisis in nearby villages outside the city.  Their refusal to pay the price for our excesses is the immediate cause for the current state of affairs. Who is to blame? The BBMP, governments past and present, the garbage mafia et al. But also we Bangaloreans who blithely ignore the consequences of our urban lifestyle as long as our waste is being shipped elsewhere, it's always someone else's problem -- like the residents of Mandur where indiscriminate dumping has poisoned the ground water, destroyed farming land, created an unlivable stench and out-of-control mosquito infestation. The villagers now suffer from chronic skin conditions, respiratory problems, and constant diarrhea.

So they finally said: no more! And who can blame them? Certainly not us, we who have barely survived two weeks of living with our own waste.

The other rarely addressed truth is that the paucity of landfills is part of the bigger land grab story. As Times of India reports:

While garbage landfills require acres of space, netas, industrialists, land developers and housing societies have ensured there's not a spare inch on the outskirts of the city… Regardless of the party they represent, politicians have bought huge tracts of land on the outskirts of the city in benami transactions. The price of these properties is bound to increase manifold if an apartment or industrial project is proposed nearby, but a garbage dump yard will have the opposite effect on the land rates.

So let's keep that in mind when we root for big development projects and industrial zones -- which in turn will generate ever greater amounts of waste. Where will all that filth go?

All the endemic reasons for the mosquito's reign of terror -- unplanned urban development, water scarcity, unprocessed waste, poor sewage, and yes, even corrupt leadership -- can be traced in great part to our rush to embrace individual "aspiration" without a thought for its collective price. We therefore view those who advocate recycling and conscious consumption as party-pooping enviro types. We treat any criticism of rapid, non-inclusive development as jholawala posturing. We rush to buy into giant sprawling properties with swimming pools -- without once asking about their plans for water conservation. We prefer to engage in the luxury of partisan name-calling without engaging in the activism required to enforce political accountability.

This is growth without the duty of governance, yes, but also bereft of the burden of citizenship.

All this because we foolishly assume that we can get all the goodies of "growth" without paying the piper. Well, the piper is here, buzzing in our ear, ready to extract her toll.