What is the connection between the air that we breathe, the ongoing massive advertising campaigns for indoor air-purifiers and relationships between citizens and the state? It is a history of the present that tells us a great deal about some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives and the choices we might make for a decent future.

In the period since 1991, the most significant aspect of our national life has been the changing nature of the state. In all post-colonial societies, the state apparatus has – till recently – enjoyed almost sacred status as the progenitor of the public good. Usually, the post-colonial nation-state was closely identified with a specific political party – the Congress in India, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, for example – and the latter’s moral legitimacy was closely linked to its role in creating a welfare state.

In the immediate post-colonial period – the Nehruvian years of high nationalism – though various forms of private capital plied their trade, the determinative role of the state in realms as diverse as culture, economy, family life, urbanisation and infrastructure provision remained largely unquestioned. The state enjoyed a state-ness that was next to godliness and attempts to interrogate the role of the state in the life of the nation – such as that by the Right-of-Centre Swantantra Party – died a lingering death. It was a period that required stateliness to hold together a society economically and socially ravaged by extractive colonial machinery. Nehru was not a statist as much as a visionary pragmatist.

Unfortunately, the idea of the state as the purveyor of the public good became thoroughly corrupted in the decades that followed the end of colonial rule. Bureaucratic and political elites granted themselves extravagant privileges and access to national resources while they exhorted the rest of the citizenry to sacrifice for the national good. Newly established public institutions and utilities became sites of private enrichment by a tiny group. Slowly, but palpably, the goodwill enjoyed by the post-colonial state began to be eroded.

Popular culture – a reliable barometer of the public mood – began increasingly to represent the state as both corrupt and anti-people. From the 1980s, for example, the character of the filmic hero changed from the sacrificing ‘Five-Year Plan Hero’ – the doctor, the engineer – to the unabashed consumer who would much rather honeymoon in Switzerland than invest in postal savings accounts.

What is public good?

It is here that we need to return to the blanket advertising campaign in various media that seeks to convince us that artificial air-purifiers lie at the heart of public and private good and the care we provide for those we love. The air-purifier is a symbol of both the state’s abandonment of the once-meaningful idea of the public good as well as the citizenry reconciling itself to a constricted idea of the role of the state in the life of the people.

Over the past decade there has been a creeping sense that the state should withdraw from many of the activities it was earlier responsible for. There are good arguments to suggest that the Indian state – or, rather, those at its helm – have played fast and loose with the idea of the public good. The term “public” conveys an unalloyed sense of the greater good. And, hence, we tend to think that a structure – the state – that commits itself to the public good must, axiomatically, be supported in all its activities.

However, in our case, the invocation of this term has been a significant ruse to benefit the coterie that has had direct access to the public purse. The public, on the other hand, has suffered from terrible roads, decrepit infrastructure, a disastrous health system and a failing educational setup. The advertisements for air-purifiers prey on the current dismay over the lack of public-ness of the state. And, sadly, in this they obstruct a meaningful debate over the role of the state and the rights of citizens.

Notwithstanding certain positions within the traditional Left, the Indian experience of the state as the dominant economic player should tell us that it is not equipped – either in terms of expertise or inclination – to continue to play that role. Our bureaucracies – notwithstanding the largely spurious arguments about how a system of examinations recruits the most meritorious – have largely proved oppressive, self-serving and inefficient.

If we are truly interested in a well-functioning state then we ought to think seriously about the sectors where it ought to be a significant actor and those contexts where well-functioning markets (those which do not deepen inequalities, for example) ought to be preferred. The environment and the air we breathe is a fundamental area where the state ought to have the dominant say. It is the natural home of the public good. It is also the arena that the state has willfully abandoned. Is there anything more fundamental to the public good than the right to breathe easy?

Off the hook

We are at a crucial juncture in the battle of ideologies. There are those who continue to argue that the state is best placed to deliver all aspects of the public good – frequently invoking the increasingly meaningless term “neo-liberalism” as catch-all denunciation – and others who suggest that blanket privatisation is the answer. As there is no serious debate about what the state should or should not do – and the conditions where the market might be a more efficient mechanism – we end up with a situation where even our most basic human rights are seen to lie in the realm of privatised environmentalism.

In effect, we let the state off the hook about its fundamental duties and substitute an unsustainable model of daily life. Is it really possible that installing air-purifiers is the answer to the kinds of environmental problems we face? That question can only be answered once those who truly value the state come to grips with the idea that there are certain indispensable tasks of the state, rather than it being the mai-baap of all domains. This would mean that rather than a discourse that is about all or nothing, we can have a debate where governing mechanisms are held accountable for genuine human welfare. I am not really holding my breath, though.

Sanjay Srivastava is a Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, and author of Entangled Urbanism. Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon

This article first appeared on Business Standard.