Some of India’s cities rank among the most polluted in the world and if one guessed that the most populated cities would be those with the most unclean air one would be wrong. The lists rarely remain unchanged but if a recent one is to be believed, Raipur, Patna and Gwalior are among the top ten in the world; Delhi is at number 11.
The pollution of a certain region is gauged through the pollution index which is an estimation of the pollution in the overall region, with maximum weightage given to air pollution, followed by water and other types of pollution. To put matters in perspective, while the annual mean of PM 2.5 in (ug/m3) of New York and London is 9 and 15 respectively, that for Delhi is 122.
The most hazardous kind of pollutant is particulate matter which causes severe health hazards. The public tends to see vehicular traffic as a major pollutant but a study of Delhi revealed that vehicles contributed a mere 6.67 percent to particulate matter in the city’s air as against 52.5 percent from road dust. Road dust, the argument often goes, is stirred up by traffic but there need to be poor quality roads before vehicular traffic can stir up dust. The condition of the roads is poorest where there has been construction activity close by because that is when debris is left unattended and roads constantly dug up and not repaired quickly as they are required to be. As regards pollution by particulate matter in the cities, it would appear, civil construction is a major cause.
This may sound opinionated but rarely in any part of the world is civil construction activity in the city areas as visibly in evidence as in India. Cities in the West, Russia, China or South-East Asia — which are also growing — show no such evidence of perpetual transformation. Spaces in India are constantly dug up and structures being erected and this is not a symptom of the immediate present but something that has been going on for decades. To compound matters, new buildings are demolished within a few years and new edifices constructed. While some cities like Mumbai and Kolkata still retain their shape of two decades ago, newer metropolises like Bengaluru and parts of Delhi are virtually unrecognisable.
Bengaluru is particularly conspicuous here because of the enormous amount of unnecessary construction activity undertaken as part of the effort at ‘city improvement’ by the government. Pavements of granite that have lasted for decades are brutally dug up and replaced by tiles, which are dislodged in a matter of months. The old slabs are meanwhile broken up and carted away to god-knows-where and one may conclude they are being put to private use somewhere else. Sometimes the old slabs are dressed up by chipping away at the top layer to make it resemble fresh stone, put back in the same spot from where it was removed without making a change in its general appearance. At the moment some up-market parts of Bengaluru have been dazzlingly spruced up — perhaps as a prelude to the elections — but one wonders whether such an appearance can be maintained for more than several months, when it will be due for another makeover, enabling some more public expenditure. The name of the game is impermanence and it is no wonder that cities like Bengaluru lack a stable character.
Statistical data that is reliable is notoriously difficult to come by in India but going by common experience one could say that civil construction takes a much larger part of capital expenditure incurred by the state than would be the norm elsewhere. Government schools have no libraries but there are always new buildings going up as expenditure on ‘education’ and public sector corporates have enormous offices which, as time has gone by, are looking more and more ill-kempt because of their financial troubles. The value of civil construction to crooked servants of the state is that expenditure is not bound by invoicing and a large part of what is spent is incurred as cash outflow because of the impossibility of accounting to the last rupee on wages etc. This means that expenditure is inflated and since the money passing into private hands on civil contracts awarded by the government depends on the total amount spent there is an inclination to spend more.
Public playgrounds used by children are dug up and galleries come up at the edges for spectators despite drastic reduction of the playing area and the galleries being unused. One could expect that since there is an effort by servants of the state to divert funds into private hands, undertaking redundant civil construction is perpetually under consideration.
This article seeks to make a connection between air pollution in the cities and corruption and I have begun by trying to show that pollution owes in large measure to civil construction activity and that much of the civil construction undertaken by the state is superfluous, wasteful or unnecessary. Its major purpose is to incur expenditure as a way of diverting funds to private entities rather than to attend to actual needs. Cutting expenditure is unwelcome, it seems, and the appreciated measures are those where most money is spent. Widening and the improving of roads is another ploy although the roads are unfit to drive upon in a matter of months and a further widening is necessary within a few years. The axing of trees in these instances is deemed a compulsion but no one asks what happens to the timber. One sees cars parked permanently on roads — many antiquated ones with deflated tyres — reducing the space available for driving but no thought is given to whether the owners should not be charged. That might adversely affect the sale of cars – something that will be resisted.
But another important question is whether civil construction undertaken by private entities is always justified: public expenditure only accounts for a portion of the total civil construction, after all. This is a much more difficult issue to explore, the reason being that it is unlikely that private entities will incur wasteful expenditure on civil construction work. The only reason for them not to be careful could be that land is so much more expensive in India’s cities than the cost of construction that the value of a newly constructed structure taken to be virtually zero by the purchasers of properties. This means that pulling down relatively new constructions is favoured without much thought given to whether the older edifice might have sufficed. Still, there is a case for bringing down land costs in the cities especially because money used for the purchasing of land is partly unaccounted for. One suspects that the currency demonetisation undertaken in 2016 went some distance in this direction since land prices in the cities have still not regained their earlier heights and land transactions are also fewer now.
Although private expenditure on civil construction is unlikely to be wasteful, by and large, there is the issue of the excavated earth and debris being piled up in public spaces because building norms have been flouted and no space is available within the designated area. This leads to the ruining of public facilities and may contribute in no small measure to generating road dust. It is officialdom which is largely to blame because it has been persuaded through inducements to look the other way. This aspect of civil construction, although undertaken by private institutions and entities, evidently involves corrupt practices.
By and large most highly successful businesses with abnormally high profit margins depend on the appropriation of public resources for private ends. The state usually takes the cost to the public into account and fixes fees – like royalties – to be paid as in the case of stone quarrying. There are industries which have been highly profitable simply because the cost they should rightly bear is not charged to them. For instance, an industry may legitimately pollute the air or water when it bears the cost fixed by the state but when the industrial activity is illegal the people involved do not bear the cost at all. Simply making an industrial unit bear the cost of polluting the environment might be sufficient disincentive but when official corruption plays a part, pollution goes unchecked. Most of India’s cities have stone quarries in their peripheries and they contribute in no small way to air pollution because of the stone dust they generate. In Bengaluru, for instance, illegal granite quarrying is going on within shouting distance of the Bannerghatta National Park and since it has the tacit connivance of several departments, it has been continuing despite citizens mounting a fierce campaign against it.
Many of India’s cities are in a sorry shape as far as their air condition and potable water resources are concerned. This is not an act of god but owes in a large part to official corruption — the state machinery being put to the service of private interests. Whether this can be remedied is a moot point but the very recognition of this factor could empower the citizen to mount a successful campaign against it.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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Updated Date: May 02, 2018 14:22 PM