India achieved infamy recently for bad air quality. When news broke of Kanpur and Delhi being listed among the 15 worst cities, and Mumbai being the fourth most polluted megacity, people shrugged. Tell us something new, they seemed to say. According to a Times of India report which carried details of a who study that calculated air pollution levels for megacities, the world’s most polluted cities are in India – a staggering 14 out of 15 – with Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Muzaffarpur and Srinagar jostling for place in the top 10.
But a strange thing happened when talk turned to details revealed in the report. In an informal and admittedly completely unscientific poll conducted during conversations with friends and acquaintances both in Canada and in India, I found that many took umbrage at the implication that the cities were as polluted as reported. They admitted that air quality was an issue, but almost all also pointed fingers in another direction. What about Kuwait and cities in China? they asked. They are polluted, too, and were also on the list. “I travel a lot,” said a gentleman. “I’ve seen places that are far worse.”
That line of argument is disturbing for it indicates that people admit there is a problem but will not do much to change the status quo so long as someone, in some other part of the world, was worse off.
This was much like the time we discussed scamsters at the Taj Mahal with family and friends. “Yeah, right,” said one. “Aren’t there pickpockets in Madrid?”
As though a problem in Madrid exonerated others of all blame.
Wikipedia describes Whataboutism as an attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda, it is much in evidence in Indian news media today as “whataboutery”.
It reminds me of the behaviour exhibited by kids when they are asked to perform some chores around the house. Why isn’t a sibling being asked to do so, they enquire. While one can reason with one’s kids and if all else fails, threaten to take away privileges, what does one do with adults with blinkers on?
It’s like there’s a #TheyToo movement for all the people who are content to point elsewhere. But I am not willing to give up on our collective responsibility to attempt to change things.
In the December 2017 issue of Desi News, Dr Gita Sinha had highlighted the health hazards of poor air quality in India. She had pointed readers to the citizen action group MyRightToBreathe (#myrightobreathe). I am doing so again here, echoing her hope that we can raise awareness. As she says, future generations depend on us for this.
Happy Canada Day!