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Third Sack of Delhi

Third Sack of Delhi
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NADIR Shah’s raiders sacked Delhi in 1739. Brutish British soldiery ravaged Delhi in 1857. The city’s (and the country’s) smug and self-indulgent ‘elite’ is now mindlessly engaged in the third sack of Delhi. Urban prettification, pollution control and consumerist greed are regarded as sufficient grounds to ruin the economic production base of a city of 14 million enterprising citizens. The economic life-blood of millions of workers and small businessmen is sought to be drained out by a self-seeking class of bureaucrats, professionals and politicians who have embraced the combined thrust of the World Trade Organisation’s (wto) dictatorial commercial regime, the Supreme Court’s insensitive fatwas and the ministry of urban development’s bulldozer tactics.

Thousands of factories, especially small enterprises, countrywide have already closed down due to cheap, subsidised, foreign goods being dumped on India ever since the government surrendered on April 1, 2000, to the new wto-supervised trade regime. The recent sealing of yet more factories in Delhi on grounds of pollution control was the final straw for workers and owners. Starvation is apparently being sponsored by the authorities as a substitute for pollution. So, it is no surprise that the threatened worker-owners, many of whom operate their tiny industrial enterprises from within their homes, took to the streets recently in a mass display of anger and despair. They earned a temporary reprieve with the central government’s relaxation of ‘The Master Plan’ to banish factories from so-called residential areas. Of  Delhi’s 1,40,000 industrial units, only 22,000 are in the officially designated industrial zones. The remaining 1,18,000 units are in tightly compounded colonies where one can’t distinguish between workplaces and homes. Insufficient land, lack of basic infrastructure and no provision for financial loans have already made a farce of attempts to relocate polluting factories to the outlying areas of Bawana, Narela, Jhilmil and Patparganj.

In any case, most of Delhi’s air pollution is emitted by motor vehicles and not from factories. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, 64 per cent of the city’s atmospheric pollution is from vehicles, 17 per cent from its three thermal power plants, 12 per cent from industries and 7 per cent from households. Why have the social busybodies not sought judicial restrictions on Delhi’s multiplying sales, and recklessly extravagant use, of private cars and government staff cars instead of picking on public transport? Why are urban development authorities quick to demolish petty hutments and banish cottage industries while being slow at providing low-cost housing?

Judicial pronouncements on public issues do not always help in solving complex social and environmental problems. To take just one example: the Supreme Court order of July 8, 1996, directing the relocation or closure of 168 hazardous and noxious factories in Delhi, actually resulted in 50,000 workers being thrown out of their jobs. Years later, many of them remain unemployed and without compensation, despite judicial directions to factory owners to recompense their former employees. Thousands have become paupers. Desperate teenage male children of some of these workers have taken to burglary and robbery. Some of the sacked workers have found employment at minimal wages in hazardous, slum-yard metal foundries and units for recycling plastic waste, adding to Delhi’s pollution woes. Civic problems should remain in the ambit of politicians and administrators who should clear their own garbage. Judges must not allow themselves to be used as municipal sweepers for other people’s rubbish heaps.

The current trend of entertaining too many dramatic pils also requires self-correction by the judiciary. pils are often foisted on the courts by relatively wealthy publicity seekers who divert precious time and mental resources of senior judges from their basic task of providing justice to harried and humble individuals.

Public pressure on politicians and bureaucrats is eventually the ultimate weapon in resolving social and economic issues. The ordinary Indian has over the past 53 years become democratically conscious. He’s no longer willing to accept mutely the self-serving cant by elitist charlatans who care more for the lives of trees and dogs than for the lives of their humble fellow-citizens. The street protests of the people last week are a small warning. If this signal is not heeded and their just demands not met, no revolution is around the corner. No political group, Communist or other, has had the dedication to organise any significant people’s movement. What may be in store for all of us could be much more terrifying: total anarchy which will be beyond the control of all forces of the Indian state.

(The writer was with the research department of Amnesty International.)

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