The present crisis has shown us how even sending citizens to their hometowns can become a grave challenge
Even if we decide to go back several decades, the temperatures in India from February to May have not been as temperate as they have been this year. There is an unusual peace in the atmosphere, a clarity so that we can see the blue sky and stars without squinting. The air was always free but was it so pure in our urban spaces? Let us try to understand how the miracle has come to pass. An educated guess would lead us to deduce that this happened since the shutdown caused all vehicles, construction and industrial work to be halted. When trains, airplanes and all automobiles stop, fossil fuel neither sells nor burns, leading to reduction in air pollution. The shutdown actually did this for us. To verify the truth, let us observe nature carefully when we resume our normal pace of life after we come out of the lockdown. Also, there are those that are keeping track of the purity of river waters and changes in the ozone layer. A close monitoring of all indicators before and after the shutdown would be an interesting study. Perhaps many weathermen could take up a doctoral thesis on this and advocates of climate change could rejoice for a bit. The confirmation of this narrative can be studied in slow stages as the lockdown lifts and life comes back to normal with the return of pollution and reduced air quality in cities.
The answer to the above is not to criticise but to be able to manage industrial/construction/transportation and other activities while implementing all pollution control measures which are already in the statute book but are not being implemented. There are appropriate watchdogs like the National Green Tribunal, Pollution Control Boards and emission control authorities who must do their jobs earnestly and sincerely. Random cutting down of forests is a luxury we cannot afford, nor is illegal mining or burning of wood and coal as fuel for cooking.
We will weaken as a species if we do not safeguard our habitat ourselves. We need clean air to breathe, pure food to eat and clean water to drink, if we are to grow up healthy with an innate immunity acquired by fighting infections from time to time. We will weaken our immune system if we depend wholly on medical aid. Today, our children are born unable to survive the polluted air and unable to fight lung and other infections, especially in urban slums. We must learn a lesson from this pandemic and write an account for posterity. Our grandchildren or their children must never make our mistakes. This year has cost us precious lives and the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down yet. We will work hard to control it. We will surely find a vaccine and we resolve to mend and rebuild our environment tree by tree and brick by brick.
Practically speaking, for our country an honest beginning would be to allocate a larger percentage of our Budgets for health infrastructure and education; for rural health services both at the district and village panchayat levels. In all our years of planning expenditure, there was scarcely even a mention of medical/health allocation in the National Five-Year Plans.
In the first few decades after Independence, the Five-Year Plans spoke mainly of industrial growth, capital growth, capital goods expansion, agriculture growth, food self-sufficiency, rural electrification, growth rates and poverty alleviation but not a word on health, health education, research and development in medicine. It was only in the Ninth Five-Year Plan at the turn of the millennium that we see visible mention of allocation for healthcare, nutrition and education. Thereafter allocations were continued but not in any meaningful way. They remained at just one to three per cent of the total Plan. To be truly meaningful they need to be anywhere between seven to 10 per cent of the Budget, like in some Western economies. Fifty years of neglect have led to occasional spends on healthcare without the strong foundation of core health services.
As a result, India could not expand health services especially for the poor, women and children, in short, the most vulnerable. This impacted hugely the mother and child mortality rate which did not reduce satisfactorily. We know how an illness can lead to impoverishment. Every rupee saved in healthcare is an additional household income for food and other essentials. We realise today that neglecting the health of people is as much a problem as hurting the environment. The largest segment of a nation is humanity. If healthy and empowered, they are a valuable asset. If weak and unproductive, they are a liability, as the present times have shown. Not only do our people lack healthcare, they also need food and shelter. We must never forget that poverty is the greatest polluter, so until we make poverty history, we have miles to go to provide healthcare for all. Nations have millions of choices on how to spend. There are priorities in budgets which cannot be postponed. The utility of money for India is very high if spent on strengthening human resources and capital. Many exciting projects for redesigning our Capital city or sending space ships to Mars and the Moon could cede space to urgent needs of the nation. If we choose wisely, we will not only make India stronger but build an edifice were the foundation stones will not disintegrate. The present crisis has shown us how even sending citizens to their hometowns can become a grave challenge. This summer holds a promise as it imparts a lifelong lesson.
(Writer: Reva Nayyar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)