Many years ago — decades ago, in fact, when India was a very different place — I was once invited to address a women’s group in Mumbai on “contemporary problems”. This group comprised mostly wives of businessmen and industrial leaders from very rich and powerful business families. The times were different then and many of these women, particularly from some of the more conservative families, took little active part in business, despite nominally owning or having substantial shareholdings in many enterprises.

Nevertheless, they were keen to develop a better understanding of what the men in their families were doing and hence had hit upon the practice of inviting various “experts” to address them over lunch (usually in the home of one of the members) on current affairs.

But when I started talking about economic reforms — India had just set off down that path around then — I was quickly asked to talk about something more interesting. When I asked them to define “interesting”, the consensus was that an interesting issue was something which they could either understand or experience themselves. Since I had absolutely no idea about the lives and troubles of the very rich, I asked my audience to pick the one issue which they thought was the biggest problem they — or the country — faced.

Guess what their pick was? Traffic. Mumbai’s insanely bad traffic, to be precise. To these people, whose wealth and privilege insulated them from virtually every problem faced by the average Mumbaikar of the early 1990s, traffic was the one thing that all their special privileges couldn’t insulate them from. They may be sitting in a Mercedes, but the commute from Breach Candy to Bandra took the same time for them as it did for the average Joe in a Route 83 bus.

We ended up having a pretty enjoyable discussion on issues ranging from urban development to population to even why the city of Mumbai didn’t get to see much of the huge taxes it paid; but the point I wish to make is that this inability to see issues beyond what is immediately or personally felt often extends to policymaking as well, often with unintended or disastrous consequences.

Unseen issues

Take the current hullabaloo over the smog in Delhi. India’s rulers live there. The Supreme Court is there. The television and ‘national’ media is largely headquartered there. So we get nothing but Delhi smog day in and day out. In between the usual politics, everyone is actually trying to do something, whether it helps or not — from hosing down trees to odd-even rationing and what have you. Plus, of course, the SC-ordered ‘incentive’ to Punjab farmers to not burn their stubble.

But what about elsewhere? Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India, but we don’t hear any noise about Lucknow or Jind or Gaya. In Chennai, there was dense smog all of last week, because weather conditions changed and a super cyclone in the Bay killed the sea breeze which was actually dispersing the city’s vehicular-, construction- and garbage-generated smog. For a couple of days, the air quality was worse than Delhi!

But do we hear of anyone calling for a pollution control plan for Chennai? No. Last week was just a warning shot of what warming waters of the Bay could lead to, but nobody’s worried. It’s not a problem which is in your face, you see. What you don’t see, doesn’t exist.

Or take the relentless and largely silent increase in the price of education in government-run institutions like universities — particularly engineering, medical and management education. Yes, there are enough people in India who can fork out ₹1,5 crore for an MBBS from a private college, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t vast numbers of others whose one shot at a reasonable quality education is denied by a hike in fees. The JNU fee hike protest is really about access, but our policymakers don’t see this and handily dismiss it as yet another Lib-Left storm in a teacup.

Quality of living

As a nation, we are obsessed about our perceived position and rank among the global comity of nations, but only in areas like the Ease of Doing Business Index. We are not bothered about our appalling rankings — relative to the size of our economy — in human development indicators, or education.

Why can’t we focus more on an Ease of Living Index instead? Yes, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (the poverty alleviation bit was quietly dropped a while ago) came up with an “Ease of Living” Index for our cities last year. The Index sounds grand — 79 parameters across four “pillars” of institutional, social, economic, and physical infrastructure and services. But the devil lies in the details — many of the parameters have no or poor or subjective data, while the weightage is heavily tilted towards physical infrastructure (45 per cent) which civic bodies are good at measuring.

But a mere 5 per cent weightage to economic opportunities fails to recognise the basic driver of urbanisation in India — the quest for better economic opportunities and the ceaseless attempt to break the cycle of poverty back home.

Every foreign diplomat or overseas investor or corporate I have spoken to considers India a “hardship” posting, because the quality of life in our cities is so poor. Pollution is the biggest factor. High cost of liveable housing, nightmarish traffic, issues with education and cultural integration (try talking to an African student or diplomat about that) are the key reasons cited.

Our policymakers don’t address these issues, because it is not an issue they see or experience. Bureaucrats and politicians live in privileged enclaves in our cities, they beat the traffic by using their flashers and sirens, their children more often than not educated abroad, and as for the smog, air purifiers are always there. Where is the problem?