Let me start with an apology. If you are among the millions personally suffering from the acute air pollution in Delhi and many other parts of north India, now is not an appropriate time for a deeper reflection on the underlying causes of this human disaster. As a victim, you would be more interested in identifying the cause, directing criticism against the perpetrator and demanding that the government do whatever is necessary to ensure that you can breathe easily. I sympathise with this sentiment and stand in solidarity with you.
Yet, given how the speed of incessant outrage cycles renders the postponement of a deeper discussion futile, I felt it necessary to point out that Delhi’s smog disaster – much like urban water crises or the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria – is a result of grand societal failure. Not just a failure of government and markets, but also of the “samaj” that comprises people like us. This is not to absolve the state and union governments involved. Of course, they are responsible. Nor is it to absolve businesses, industries and markets. They too have acted irresponsibly, even when they’ve complied with the law. But in the heat and passion of the public discourse, we forget to also point fingers at ourselves.
Is hyper diversity to blame?
In India, people sweeping the space right outside their homes and shops and pushing the dirt onto the street is a common sight. Every home and every shop does the same thing. It’s a Sisyphean activity, because the dirt is back at our doorstep a few hours after we swept it off. We repeat the activity the next morning. Yes, I know, we do it because the municipal authorities do not clean up the street. Yes, perhaps our modern capitalist society and consumerist culture produces a lot of the dirt that we push onto the street. Yet, there are few streets in the country where people get together and work out a way to keep them clean.
We are rational people, so the conclusion to draw from our empirical behaviour is that we calculate that the cost of the futile act of pushing the dirt away from the front of our gates day after day is lower than any method that involves cooperating with others. We suffer a societal failure when we cannot muster up the minimum cooperation necessary to solve a common problem. Air pollution happens exactly in the same manner — everyone dumps stuff into the atmosphere and there are too many conflicts of interest within society for us to come together to fix it. Perhaps, it is the hyper diversity of Indian society that makes us fall short of addressing collective action problems effectively.
How to get over tragedy of commons
If we have to avoid collapse, we must grapple with this reality and figure out ways to come together to solve our biggest challenges.
In trying to explain why complex societies collapse due to their failure to manage environmental resources despite having the capacity to do so, social scientist Jared Diamond proposes a sequence of reasons: “failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it”.
Thanks to the open public discourse, few problems are unanticipated or unperceived. Even the most ignorant politician in India knows that the air is polluted, water scarcity is rising, traffic is getting worse, and so on. These problems are painfully palpable too. It is in the third and fourth stages that we get stuck.
Much of this, Diamond argues, is because “some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people… The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behavior, especially if there is no law against it or if the law isn’t effectively enforced. They feel safe because the perpetrators are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain, and immediate profits, while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals”.
Diamond lists three ways to get over this tragedy of commons: government intervention, privatisation or societal norms. In our case, the political economy is such that government intervention is at best marginally effective (not least because the people in government are cut of the same cloth as the rest of us), and we can’t possibly privatise the atmosphere. So, the remaining option is to evolve societal norms against selfish behaviour. For people “to recognize their common interests and to design, obey, and enforce prudent… quotas themselves”.
In fact, this is the kind of societal approach that Tagore and Gandhi advocated as the model for governance in India. It is tricky — because local communities in India can be very iniquitous and beholden to local power centres — but nevertheless offers a relatively untapped direction to look for answers. Just as we must hold the government accountable and regulate market forces, we must start correcting societal failures.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.
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