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Op-Ed: Gandagi

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, November 23, 2006

State Formation Day, the CII “Uttaranchal” Fair, and the Uttarakhand Mahotsav have come and gone from the desert scrub of the once lush Parade and Rangers’ Grounds. The glossy pamphlets and display tables of the various state agencies were impressive. Even more stunning was the incredible talent displayed during the week of the “Kauthig.” As for state formation, the national media interestingly gave the state’s record two thumbs up for achieving a “blistering” economic growth rate double the national average.

On this positive note, the perspectives I have encountered in my visit to Uttarakhand have come full circle. From the most ardent fans of “Nauchami Narayan”, to the anger of various unions and student groups across the region, to the posturing of politicians, to long-time observers, businessmen, and newcomers impressed with the progress of the state, it has been difficult to come to any strong objective conclusions six years after statehood. The day-to-day rumblings of discontent from various quarters has also been difficult to track, given the general anti-incumbency factor that afflicts voters nine times out of ten in India and the focus on symbolic rather than substantive issues. In contrast, the conspicuous accumulation of personal wealth is readily apparent as represented by the housing construction boom and greater presence of bigger and more expensive cars on the roads. Given all this, any evaluation without hard data is prone to subjectivity (Although the hills-plains divide is definitely growing — much more on that in later columns).

Some of these same subjectivities are bewildering in surprising ways. Given that mayors from 32 Asian countries will soon assemble for the first time in Dehradun, it is only apt to focus on one often overlooked urban example of this dilemma – public apathy to the extreme air, land, water, and noise pollution I found not only in Dehradun, but in townships and villages throughout the state.

Thus for me, the tourism literature that so often touts Uttarakhand as the “tourist’s paradise” presents a paradox. Why invite people to your land, when you keep it in such a state of disrepair and dilapidation? Is it not embarrassing to crow about the glories of Himal and its beautiful landscapes when the paths to the mountains are littered with rubbish. Moreover, this degraded state of civilization spreads out like a cancer from the townships along every roadway. Ramshackle tea stalls, concrete monstrosities, and omnipresent garbage heaps have turned many segments of mountain roads into ugly eyesores. In the urban centers themselves, the stench of urine and defecation mix with vehicular exhaust and burning plastics to assault the senses. Moreover, the sad sight of animals scavenging for food amidst discarded plastic bags is only surpassed in pathos by the hordes of beggars that have migrated to the state to ply their panhandling trade.

The crux of the issue however does not only lie with government apathy, that usual punching bag of populist rhetoric, but also with the nonchalant reaction of average citizens, which I must say I find shockingly underwhelming. Most just shrug when confronted with this problem. Only a few would rate it high on their agenda, even while they are suffering from all sorts of ailments related to the pollution crisis. From gastrointestinal illnesses, to respiratory problems, to skin blemishes and acne, to silent killers like cancers, all fail to shake the complacency of a public existing in the here and now. Thus the decades it takes to kill from accumulated toxins in the bloodstream barely raises an eyebrow, never mind the very real squalor of today or the suffering of both human and non-human street dwellers.

Despite its low priority, some objective arguments can be proposed that validate the seriousness of the pollution problem or at least verify its social causes. The oft-trotted out excuse of poverty fails miserably to explain the atrocious littering habits of many middle and upper class citizens who barely flinch from externalizing their waste onto the public. Indeed, as cogently noted by Bangalore-based KPN Vijayalakshmi, “cleanliness, like charity, begins at home. However, in India, cleanliness appears to get restricted to the four walls of a home. Everything else is public or government property, so why bother about keeping them clean is an attitude one comes across often.” (Deccan Herald, April 11, 2006). Likewise, the expansion of communication and broadcast technologies may be playing a Matrix-type role in distancing the glitzy virtual world from the grim desert of the “real.” The breakdown of neighbourly social relations in some areas due to various dislocations and migrations may also be rendering collective action increasingly difficult. Add to this the poisonous castist assumption that cleaning is someone else’s job and you have all the elements of a very real “Tragedy of the Commons” that is uniquely Indian in its Kaliyug proportions.

As noted in my last column, while the government has a definite role to play in raising awareness and providing toilet and garbage collection facilities, the problem seems far deeper and embedded in a society that is fast forgetting notions of the common good and Gandhian injunctions such as personal responsibility and moral integrity. This is most evident when confronting the hyperpatriotism of those who nevertheless treat their country like a huge open-air garbage dump. The hypocrisy is even more odious when coupled with pseudo religious sentiments that for all their veneration of the “Devbhoomi,” turn a blind eye to the despoliation of holy places like Gangotri and Gaumukh or the ill-treatment of cows that are jostled by dangerous traffic or forced to eat out of trash bins.

In this regard, I find my subjectivity substantial but also substantiated, especially when I see the “Devbhoomi” turning into “Nargbhoomi,” or the Dehradun of even two decades ago ravaged by unplanned growth and neglect. However, there are no easy answers to be found in either the sloganeering of political parties, none of which take pollution seriously, or the short-term projects of so many NGOs whose efforts dissipate with the end of funding. Only a combination of social and technological change can do this, or perhaps a spiritual movement that treats the material world seriously. Yet the big question remains, where will the energy for such a movement come from? Who will save the land? Who cares?

Fortunately, there is at least one singular woman who does. This weekend, Dr. Harshvanti Bisht will be awarded Uttarakhand Gaurav 2006 from the Uttarakhand Club of Delhi, for her efforts to recover the ecology of the Gangotri-Gaumukh region. Decimated by religious pilgrimage, the Bhojpatra forests have become a lifelong dedication for Dr. Bisht, even as she spent this past Diwali doing real religious service by cleaning up the area. An overview of her work is now on the web at Congratulations Harshvanti!