Delhi’s air — a tragedy of the commons

Hardayal Singh | Updated on January 09, 2018

Individuals are unable to modify present behaviour for future, collective gains. Wrong policies exacerbate this tendency

The thick pall of smoke and noxious gases engulfing Delhi is an ecological catastrophe. Reflective of a very serious failure of governance, it is also reminiscent of another serious malaise afflicting our society.

This relates to the gross misuse of common resources.

One of the first persons to reflect upon this kind of environmental disaster was William Forster Lloyd, professor at Oxford, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. In 1832, he noted that while the common land in English villages was often barren and infertile, privately owned, fenced pastures were just the opposite: they were often lush and fertile. They were kept fallow for four years. This rest period allowed them to recover from the earlier grazing.

The village commons enjoyed no such rest; so, over a period of time many of them were rendered waste.

Forester concluded that the farmer, like the rest of us, does not take the losses of the community as seriously as his personal losses. The prudent man, he wrote, determines his conduct by comparing his present pleasure to future suffering, and his present sacrifice to his future benefits.

Future insignificant

Future suffering or gains, however, are always uncertain, difficult to measure, and vague; so most human beings are guided only by their estimates of present gains and losses. And this leads to the “tragedy of the commons”, a phrase later coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968 to explain why much of the public-owned land and other natural resources are often laid waste because of this calculus.

In keeping with this principle, farmers of Punjab are least bothered about the impact of burning crop stubble on people in other States. All they know is that burning stubble is cheaper than disposing it of by other means.

Limited view

In India this tragedy of the commons plays out daily in our lives in a thousand different ways: at the macro- level our “commons” are our national resources. These include the air we breathe, the land we live on, and our water bodies, rivers and seas.

Lax regulation has led every individual to feel that she has a fundamental right to use them in any way she likes. The quality of air has deteriorated because we continue to use the atmosphere as a dump where we mercilessly discharge waste gases and diesel fumes.

So the first policy implication of the tragedy we face is to make people aware of the ecological consequences of the choices they make in their daily lives.

People need to understand that it is short-sighted in terms of their own personal gains and losses to think that “in the long run we are all dead”, so it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, governments too have fostered this kind of limited thinking. As a consequence of poorly directed subsidies in the supply of water and electricity, farmers in certain parts of Punjab have used these resources indiscriminately and waterlogged large tracts of arable land in certain areas, and reduced the level of the water table in others. Excessive use of pesticides has not only poisoned the fruit and vegetables we consume but has also had the effect of contaminating the soil itself.

As any environmentalist will vouch, the list is endless; and we are leaving behind a poor legacy for our future generations.

Big price

The consequences of such a disastrous approach are sometimes evident immediately. Currently, the Punjab government looks to the Centre to provide it ₹3,000 crore required for subsidising alternative methods of removing stubble. It may not have been so helpless had it not provided unaffordable subsidies for electricity and water or waived farm loans to the tune of ₹10,000 crore.

Governments often forget that prices play an important role in a market-driven economy. They signal changes in the forces of demand and supply.

When the Government attempts to influence prices through subsidies, producers and consumers often get confused about what and how much to produce or consume. This results in undesirable outcomes: subsidies on fertilisers, for example, have resulted in their excessive use which in turn has led to soil contamination.

Poorly directed subsidy in the price of kerosene has led to the adulteration of diesel. Subsidy on diesel led rich people to buy SUVs, simply because running them was more economical than petrol vehicles.

Accountability is key

Lax enforcement of environmental regulations is a serious problem in our country: the polluter must be held accountable and made to pay for his conduct.

However, since most governments would possibly shy away from taking unpopular but necessary steps to do this, setting up independent environmental regulators and implementing a rules-based rather than a discretion-based regime at the Centre and in the States, could be considered. Operating outside political control, these might do a better job of keeping the excesses of individuals and governments in check.

At the end of the day, however, we all have to realise that life does not permit free lunches to anyone — individuals or nations.

What has hit Delhi and large parts of north India is nothing short of an emergency, largely man-made.

It could have been avoided had governments applied their mind in time and estimated the true costs of their recent inaction as well as earlier flawed policies. These costs — in terms of decrease in life expectancy, and increase in genetic disorders and heart, lung, and auto immune-related illnesses — are indeed humongous!

With the long cold season still ahead of us, we may perhaps only be at the beginning of our troubles. Will this be the winter of our discontent?

The writer was chief commissioner of income-tax and ombudsman to the income-tax department, Mumbai

Published on November 22, 2017

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