Back to ‘essentials’ is one positive from corona crisis : The Tribune India

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Back to ‘essentials’ is one positive from corona crisis

A healthier public, less polluted environment and greater consciousness of what constitutes good hygiene and sanitation are not only essential for our well-being, they translate into greater productivity, and hence higher economic growth

Back to ‘essentials’ is one positive from corona crisis

Less activity on Hardwar’s ghats has meant that waters from Ganga are cleaner.

Rahul Singh

MY friend Raju Aneja, a marketing whizkid who also dabbles in writing, is the inspiration for this column. In these days of enforced home confinement, many of us are spending much more time on the phone, talking to friends and relatives. During one of those conversations, Raju mentioned some of the positives that could emerge from the corona crisis.

“Our world leaders — and the public that follows them — had been focusing on matters like building walls between countries and erecting trade barriers,” he said. “And in the process they lost sight of the essentials, issues that are far more important for humanity. Narrow, chauvinistic nationalism has for some years been threatening the forces of globalisation.”

His words got me thinking. What are the “essentials” that we have been losing sight of? One is the importance of preserving the environment and our bio-diversity. This was brought home dramatically to us with graphic images on our TV sets and smartphones of deer trotting happily on deserted streets, even of wild elephants straying into urban areas from nearby forests. When I get up in the morning and sit on my balcony, I am greeted with enchanting birdsong, not the rumble of traffic. The sky is an azure blue, not the usual metallic grey. And at night, a myriad of stars twinkle like they have not done for decades. The air in cities like Delhi and Mumbai has not been clearer and less-polluted for years. From Jalandhar, you can see the snow-clad Dhauladhar range. I have been sent pictures online from the hill cantonment town of Kasauli, of Shimla in the distance, in which you can identify some of the main buildings and behind Shimla, a magnificent panorama of the Himalayas, overlooking Tibet. What a sight! I live in Kasauli for part of the year and don’t recall the air being so pure.

In a very real sense, nature has bounced back, and I truly hope it remains like that, at least for some time. One thing is now clear: vehicles in India running on polluting fuels or with poorly maintained engines have been largely responsible for air pollution in our main cities, though industrial activity, construction and burning of crop stubble (mainly in north India) have also contributed. Reports from Varanasi show that the waters of the Ganga are cleaner than they have been for a long, long time, mainly because there is less human activity on the ghats and the tanneries that used to spew their unchecked effluents into the holy river are presently shut.

Thousands of crores have been spent ever since the days of Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s on various ‘Clean Ganga’ campaigns, with little effect. But the current lockdown has achieved a miracle. That is another “essential” that must be maintained. Human activity on the ghats can’t be stopped, neither can factories on the banks of the Ganga remain closed. Yet, the visiting public and those who live in Varanasi can certainly be made to observe basic rules of sanitation and disposal of waste. The industrial units, too, have to clean up their act, or be compelled to shut shop. Three major rivers in Europe, the Thames, the Rhine and the Danube, also used to be heavily polluted. Not any longer.

Which brings me to what I am convinced is the biggest takeaway from the current corona crisis: the crucial importance of maintaining basic hygiene and better public sanitation. Indeed, primary health is arguably the one major area of development that we have sadly neglected ever since our Independence. We have top-class hospitals, with the latest medical equipment, but not nearly enough simple medical centres and clinics, especially in the rural areas. We spend just 1.28 per cent of our GDP on health. More important, almost the entire population of some countries has a form of basic health insurance. Not so in India. The World Health Organisation recommends a proportion of one doctor for 1,000 persons. India falls way short.

High-sounding campaigns like Swachh Bharat and Ayushman Bharat will not be able to achieve much unless the government’s outlay on primary health is at least tripled. Of course, increased public spending on health cannot guarantee that those funds will be optimally spent to reach those who need them most. But at least the funds should be there. A healthier public, a less polluted environment and, above all, greater consciousness of what constitutes good hygiene and sanitation are not only essential for our well-being, they translate into greater productivity, hence higher economic growth. Fewer people are forced to go on sick leave, or to hospital, and a healthier workforce puts in more productive work.

It’s good to see that more Indians have got into the habit of regularly washing hands or sanitising them, not spitting in public, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, keeping a social distance and wearing masks while the pandemic is on. These are all positive gains which will provide a foundation. However, the real challenge of a healthier society lies ahead. The entire world is also united in fighting the pandemic. Let us hope that this unity transforms into fewer conflicts over relatively smaller issues and greater understanding of what truly matters for our future.

— The writer is a veteran journalist

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