Of tolerating harm
Diwali again brings us face-to-face with the deeper agenda of creating awareness to nudge change from harmful behaviour to more environmentally responsible behaviour
I can hear firecrackers bursting. Evening smog is getting smoggier. But this happens every Diwali. Fumes and sound from fireworks hurt, harm and mock the enforcement of rules. A lot will be said today about the inability of law enforcers to administer diktats in the face of majoritarian and cultural preoccupation with a few hours of fun.
This time, Diwali pollution, winter smog and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have combined to unleash health worries while provoking questions about the role of public awareness regarding personal harm in promoting collective action. This tension between citizens' responsibility, a general will and legal diktat has stormed television channels. Do we ask how much harm would society accept on account of its behaviour that is against the common good?
But this question is not specific to only firecrackers. That is why I do not want this conversation to end with the Diwali smoke vanishing into the morning smog tomorrow. This annual pollution ritual has to force us to introspect how awareness, attitude and behaviour can push difficult and inconvenient solutions that are specifically linked to culture and lifestyle.
Several future solutions linked to our growing dependence on cars, wasteful consumption and energy-guzzling will confront this passive aggression and resistance to weaken the regulation and will to tax. Even though this sounds abstract, all of us believe in the power of public awareness. But we do not know how to make this work effectively. Awareness seems such a cute, non-combative idea and yet such a lethal barrier.
So, let this brouhaha over crackers open the door to more enduring conversations on this most used and abused idea of public awareness.
This time, several state governments have not hesitated to fully ban fireworks or allow a window of only two hours of 'green' fireworks. The Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal have put their weight behind these restrictions. This is consistent with the Constitutional provisions that cast a duty on the state to secure the health of the people and protect and improve the environment. This is the basis of all rulings and action on clean air.
The intent is to significantly minimise bursting of firecrackers when lungs are already weak and inflamed from toxic air and are hugely more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus.
It is expected that individual choice and freedom will not violate the overarching principle of health protection. But like all other previous Diwalis, there is a mixed message from those who comply and those who resort to willful disobedience.
The popular response is often not aligned with law and science. Science has very clearly established the potential harm and damage from fireworks. Medical evidence exists to show serious health damages among children, elderly and those suffering from lung and heart disease. But this does not alter practice and behaviour to the desired level. Such practice continues with pre-knowledge of harm. This continues even when Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) are in the grip of severe smog episodes.
They have also enforced emergency measures to temporarily shut down stone crushers, generator sets, construction, some industry and restrict truck entry and more. Yet, crackers seem ok. Populist sentiments cannot be swayed.
This tension between populism and more progressive and aware views on damage to larger welfare is growing over time. Stronger public opinion has helped to get a stronger mandate from the state governments and the courts this time. But customary positions continue to slow down the process. The brighter side is that some sections of citizens have subscribed voluntarily to the idea of 'no crackers' to be champions of public good and let all know what is not acceptable. But this shared value has to assert more to protect public health.
In this tug of war, while the top-down rule of law sets the boundaries around behaviour, the public discourse pushes for common and shared morality. This sounds abstract and esoteric. But this fuzzy idea needs attention now to build engagement and evidence-based conversation on all pollution control strategies. This must never stop. How will shared morality and attitudinal change work for more difficult solutions for longer-term air quality gains is the question that we must continue to ask.
Making awareness work
Diwali again brings us face-to-face with the deeper agenda of making awareness and behaviour work to nudge change from harmful behaviour to more environmentally responsible behaviour. As solutions are getting more complex, we cannot ignore this anymore even as we push for regulatory and technological solutions. Can public awareness and collective guilt work? This is not easy as immediate personal gain and longer-term collective environmental rewards in terms of clean air and fewer deaths and illness is often not clear to many.
Complex factors influence a multitude of attitudes. We can sign petitions or organise signature campaigns and do rallies on specific issues and yet remain insular and ostrich-like on the interconnectedness of many other solutions. Collective and cohesive framing of problems and solutions at the community level is still a work in progress.
This argument by no means is pushing the onus and burden of action to individual decisions and choices and detracting attention from stronger governmental action for good governance.
Governments will have to act. But this is about strengthening societal acceptance of difficult actions that otherwise get slow because of lack of public support.
All pollution battles in Delhi and the NCR over dirty vehicles and fuels, mobility management to restrain personal vehicles and waste management and more have dragged on for years in the absence of visible public debate and pressure. Strong regulatory action requires a behavioural nudge. With more information and evidence in the public domain, a section of citizens takes informed action while others reject and deny. Uncontrolled behaviour can lead to rebound effects, undoing the air quality gains already made. There is a need for all to cooperate on 'morally hailed', 'environmentally friendly' behaviour and eliminate 'unsustainable behaviour'.
Experts sometimes believe that mere access to environmental and health knowledge may not necessarily lead to environmental awareness and action. The toughest challenge for people is to feel that they are in control of the problem when they act. But that change is not immediate, tangible and visible; therefore, it is not convincing. People need to believe their actions can lead to change.
Therefore, demystifying evidence and science to help people connect with the problem emotionally is important. It also works when environmental measures are aligned with conscious choices people make like walking and cycling. But it is harder when comfort and convenience are linked to lifestyle influence and create barriers to pro-environmental behaviour. This makes regulatory action, deterrence and economic policies with a slew of well-designed taxes so important to nudge behaviour and choices.
Cleary, evidence-based awareness is a serious business. We need to work harder to make people aware of their attitude towards a problem. We need to show how individual actions on using cars, burning garbage, guzzling fuels or even burning crackers are measurable and prove individual decisions matter.
This can change the politics of action. We cannot take public awareness for granted and believe that only by making evidence available will established values and attitudes change. That is only the first step.
Views expressed are personal