The headlines about Delhi’s polluted air are deceptive. For the Indian Medical Association and the Delhi government to call this an emergency is akin to the captain of a ship waiting until after it has hit an iceberg to send out an SOS. In truth, hundreds of millions of Indians live the year-round in cities whose air pollution levels make them an unsafe habitat for humans or animals.

Many factors, all of them by now familiar, have contributed to making North India’s air toxic, from the growth of vehicular emissions – especially diesel fumes – to the use of hazardous cookstoves, and road dust fuelled by an unchecked urban construction boom. But the fact that air quality has been allowed to decline to this extent and the inadequacy of the response are rooted in a wider crisis of our republic: a persistent failure to value public interest.

By public interest, I mean public goods (not strictly as defined by economists) and public commitments – what we as citizens share with and owe each other, where we would like to go together. A shared concern for public interest, in both abstract and concrete forms, is what common citizenship depends upon. And a democratic republic, as a form of political society rather than merely as a means for electing officials, depends upon common citizenship.

For most of the 20th century, in countries around the world, goods that were traditionally private and available only to the rich became public. First came education and security. Transportation and other public infrastructure (water, electricity) followed, as did, less universally, healthcare. Two centuries ago, even in the industralising countries of the West, none of these were public goods. School education and a modicum of physical security were available to a privileged minority. Now, even when they are imperfectly provided, they are indisputably public: it is generally agreed that they should be available to all.

In most cases, the delivery of a public good will involve a significant degree of state involvement, whether as provider, funder or regulator. It is not necessary that the state have a monopoly in any of them, with the exception of law and order. What is necessary is that citizens agree on the importance of these goods, on the fact that we all have a stake in their being widely and effectively available. A school may be privately run but if it is socially diverse and representative of its community, it can be a thriving public good.

Vehicular emissions, the use of hazardous cookstoves and road dust fuelled by an unchecked urban construction boom have turned North India's air toxic. (Credit: Vivek Muthuramalingam)

Withdrawal from the public

When it comes to public goods, India stands apart from all the prosperous democracies whose ranks it hopes to join. What are some of the fastest-growing industries in urban India? Private healthcare, private education, private security, private electricity generation, private transportation, and private drinking water. India’s elite have withdrawn wholesale from the public realm. They have no stake in the provision of most public goods.

This withdrawal goes beyond an apathy towards the availability and quality of public goods. In school education, healthcare and transport, it involves an active preference that these not be widely shared, that the elite be as removed as possible from the majority of the population. The Right to Education Act – which guarantees free and compulsory education to all children between six and 14 years of age – is a flawed law that has done little to improve learning outcomes. But witness the lengths private schools go to to avoid complying with the 25% quota for economically underprivileged children under this law: to the Indian elite, a school’s attractiveness is in direct proportion to its capacity for social exclusion.

State failure

Yes, in part, the lack of faith in public goods is a consequence of state failure. After all, it is much more than a small elite who use the private alternatives. In many cases – education, health, drinking water – the only people left using public goods are those who cannot afford anything else. But it is difficult to see how the funding or quality of public goods will improve when so many no longer have a stake in them. Even when a public good is relatively well provided – public transport in Delhi, for instance – those who can afford not to use it ensure they never have to.

One source of our declining commitment to public goods is a reaction against state overreach and incompetence in the pre-liberalisation period. The Indian state’s botched attempts at providing private goods – airlines, hotels, watches, commercial banking – have been used, broad-brush, to trash the very concept of public goods or state provision. But the belief that the profit motive is ideally suited to delivering every public good is as ill-conceived and dangerous as the earlier dogma that the state should do everything.

In healthcare, the profit motive may provide excellent services to a few, but at the expense of many more who are poor or chronically ill. Nowhere in the world is quality education delivered at scale by for-profit entities. In both cases, there is no evidence that the profit motive is a suitable way to provide for the citizenry as a whole. In India, the privatisation of education has done little to improve learning standards, while our inability to provide basic healthcare to the majority may be our republic’s most shameful failing.

The only true public goods left in India – in the sense that there is wider interest in and commitment to their provision – are in infrastructure, most notably roads and power. These may be the only areas in which the Indian state has meaningfully improved, as funder, guarantor and provider, in the past two decades.

But shouldn’t air quality be more like roads and power than like schools or hospitals? The optimistic case goes like this: even the elite have to breathe the same air. Yes, they can buy air purifiers and masks, but these offer scant protection. The only true remedy is leaving Delhi, and ideally India, but India’s rich are more likely to do this for tax than health reasons. Thus, air quality will finally be recognised as a public good, and things will start to change.

Ditch cars, take the bus

But how can anything change when the very notion of public interest has been lost? A sustained improvement in air quality will involve sacrifices, and individual sacrifice only occurs when there is a commitment to shared interest. Delhi’s elite may complain about the smog in private and on social media, but how many will trade in their diesel cars to ride public buses and the Metro?

And in the absence of a commitment to public interest, no meaningful pressure will be applied on politicians. It is clear from the actions of the Centre and the governments of most North Indian states that they see little, if any, political benefit to the short-term sacrifices needed to improve air quality.

Improving air quality requires sacrifices. But how many are willing to ditch their diesel cars and take the bus or Metro? (Roberto Schmidt / AFP)

The Delhi government, for its part, is more concerned with being seen to be agitated about air pollution than taking concrete action. They do, however, have the defence that it appears to be the Centre’s de facto policy to stymie any initiative of the Aam Aadmi Party government, more so if it is likely to improve the living conditions of Delhi’s citizens. And when it comes to health and education, the Aam Aadmi Party has done more than most to improve the availability and quality of public provision. Air pollution is not a Delhi problem but a North Indian one; most of those affected live under Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance governments that have shown no concern or urgency at all.

This failure of government to act in public interest reflects wider social failings. We have subtituted politics, understood to mean the team sport of elections, for the public. What if for every newspaper column inch or prime-time television minute spent discussing the next state election or the BJP’s campaign strategy, one was dedicated to air pollution? Once this immediate crisis eases and North India’s air goes from apocalyptic to merely noxious, press and civil society attention will swiftly return to politics as sport and pastime.

Public interest does not have to be defined solely in terms of shared goods. It can also consist of shared principles or aspirations, a shared sense of national purpose. The Indian state never really had the capacity to deliver public goods to the majority, but we did once have shared commitments of this other kind. The years following Independence were marked by a moral aspiration for our future as a republic: that we could raise living standards while expanding freedom and dignity; that we could be truly independent on the world stage, rejecting great power politics, and inspire other former colonies to be likewise; that our shared national resolve would, eventually, overcome caste oppression and religious prejudice.

The fact that we have failed to varying degrees in each of these objectives does not mean they were misplaced. But any idea of a shared national purpose has long been put aside and it is difficult to see where it might be retrieved. The political and intellectual Opposition are as guilty as the Central government of rejecting the notion of public interest, if not more so. The post-Marxist Left that is ascendant on university campuses and social media rejects the aspiration of common citizenship based on shared interests and values in favour of a vision of society that consists of competing groups, rather than individual citizens.

Both campus Left and the post-Mandal parties decline to offer a secular republican alternative to Hindu nationalism; they conceive of politics as a way to reallocate the fruits of power (from government jobs to bribes) between social groups, rather than as a way to improve the liberty, dignity and living standards of citizens. Demonising your fellow citizens and rejecting all kinds of patriotism are no way to build common purpose.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did attempt to create a genuine public commitment in the form of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). But, like so many of his government’s initiatives – such as Make in India and Skill India – the Swachh Bharat campaign never received sustained focus and investment. It has been a casualty of his, and our, broader conception of politics as the winning of elections rather than the pursuit of public interest. And the response, or lack thereof, of the Centre and its supporters to the present crisis lays bare their absence of concern for public interest: from Modi’s deafening silence to the environment minister’s denial that air pollution is a killer and that this is an emergency, to those who use this moment to fight for the right to burst crackers.

The notion of the public is rooted in obligations: to our fellow citizens, even those we do not know, and to the republic as a whole. The current ethos of urban Indian society, by contrast, is every family for themselves, and let the devil take the hindmost. Unless this changes, nothing of any note is going to be accomplished in the fight against air pollution.