A social drink

  • 29/09/1998

STOCKHOLM. Delhi. Two cities. But two very different cultures. One clean. And the other dirty as hell. And the difference is not just in the physical condition. It is also in the mind-set. One doesn't want to live in dirt and filth. And the other just wallows in it. Since Delhi is my city, I feel sad for it.

The state of the water in and around a city tells you how dirty a city and its city-dwellers are. Because water, the most fluid substance on earth, has the uncanny ability to carry away all the dirt of human beings and accumulate it within itself.

Stockholm is a city situated in an archipelago. Bridges connect the numerous islands which make up the city. The city lies at a point where the freshwater flows into the sea. In 1972, when as a young journalist I had a chance to attend the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the common joke amongst the Swedes was that the water in the numerous channels was so dirty that you could process your photographic film in it!

But the people of Stockholm were dead serious about what they were saying. In the intervening years, they have made such a big effort to clean up the water that Stockholm has possibly the cleanest water in the world. You can not only swim in it but also take a gulp without much fear. And it is today the only city in Europe where its residents will tell you that you can drink tap water. You can kiss bottled water goodbye unless you are desperate for a partkulat taste in your liquids.

And the Swedes are so proud of their achievement that they want to spread the message worldwide. The Stockholm Water Company has created the Stockholm International Water Institute (siwi) which hands out every year the Stockholm Water Prize, the world's biggest prize for those who are trying to make a difference to water, and the prize money is the same as the Nobel. Every year siwi organises the world's biggest conference on water, the Stockholm Water Symposium, while the city simultaneously goes wild with the Stockholm Water Festival. A few years ago, siwi instituted the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for teenagers who have done something to increase their understanding about the importance of water. It is so heartening to see young people from all over the world who have tried to understand what is happening to their water or have developed new devices to clean it.

This year, the award went to Robert Franke, a German lad who has developed a special solar-driven reactor which can treat the wastewaters of dyeing units. It uses the photocatalytk properties of semi-conductors to degrade persistent chemicals which is extremely cost-efficient. Last year, the award went to a young boy from USA, Stephen Tinnin, who had investigated the harm caused by pesticide contamination. He studied the embryos of sea urchins and found that there was a direct correlation between the reproductive rate of sea urchins and water pollution. And siwi is not pre-pared to sit on its laurels. It is seriously considering a strategy to push the various ideas that emerge at the Stockholm Water Symposium.

Watching this in August this year, my heart bled for my city where the Yamuna has been turned into a sewer and people drink filthy water all the time. And the political commitment to do anything about it is abysmal. Actually fraudulent. Because there is no dearth of promises. There is one thought that did strike me about Stockholm. What Stockholm displays is something much more than a political commitment to cleanliness and to respect for its environment. What it displays is a 'societal commitment'. Cleaning up the waters of Stockholm has taken decades. Parties and prime ministers have come and gone. But the city's commitment to the cause has remained unflagging.

As an environmentalist, I have often complained that political commitment to the environment is lacking. And, therefore, seen my role, to some extent, as one trying to create that political commitment. But I think I have been wrong. The challenge before environmentalists is to create something much bigger a 'societal commitment'. Then politicians' commitment becomes irrelevant. They follow the social dictate.

That reminds me of Gandhiji and his irreverent remark about the British Parliament which he compared to a 'prostitute'. Essentially, Gandhiji was pointing out that a country cannot be ruled by changing perspectives. There are some things in the governance of a country which must be constant, deep-rooted and abiding. Governance cannot be something that changes with the whims of a minister or prime minister. How apt were his words. The Prime Minister's "energy", he had said "is concentrated upon securing the success of his party. His care is not always that the Parliament shall do right." "All this is worth thinking over," he had added. Indeed!

So how do we get a social commitment that ensures that the Prime Minister does right?

Anil Agarwal

Related Content