WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
T he oft-used word pollution is one that was almost never heard when I was a schoolboy in the 1940s. The reason is not far to seek. Seventy-odd years ago the planet we inhabit was a much cleaner one, and one was able to breathe clean air almost anywhere except perhaps in the crowded cities of the West. But all our sources of information indicate that pollution was not something mankind worried about in those days. Today, the situation is very different. With the very rapid increase of fossil fuel driven vehicles, there is a great deal of air pollution in almost all urban areas. So much so, that many pedestrians and two-wheeler riders have started wearing protective face masks in the hope of warding off air pollution. And even if grown-ups do not wear these masks they make sure little children with them on their two-wheelers do not step out of home without masks. Honestly, I do not believe that these masks provide much protection against air pollution, though they are certainly effective against dust pollution. There is no doubt whatsoever that there is a lot of pollution in the air we breathe and that our simple means of protection against air pollution are not very effective.
There are also other kinds of pollution that urban populations are subject to. There is a great deal of dust pollution especially during the dry season and in areas where certain industries creating dust particles are located. We are now informed that the water we drink in Guwahati is highly polluted, and that there is arsenic in much of the water that the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) supplies. What is certainly surprising is that it should be deemed such a Herculean task to provide unpolluted water to the residents of the city. What is indeed distressing news is that at least three water supply projects of the city have made no progress at all. This is typical of much that the administration undertakes to do and often pays contractors in advance even for not doing. One shudders to think of what the arsenic-borne water can do to growing children or how badly it can mar their health, growth and intellect. No one is prepared to believe that there are no means of supplying arsenic-free water to the city-dwellers. There is hardly anyone prepared to accept that the waters of the Brahmaputra are full of deadly arsenic and that nothing can be done to provide the residents of the city arsenic-free water. This propensity of our bureaucrats and officers to make mountains of molehills must be strongly resisted by the residents of the city and debunked by the media.
However, there are other pernicious forms of pollution that are far more difficult to cope with because we are not aware of how to cope with such less familiar forms of pollution. These are forms of pollution that are far more difficult to beat because the administration has turned a deaf ear to them. One of them is noise pollution. It is ubiquitous in Guwahati and getting much worse by the day because the administration itself is responsible for much of the noise pollution. One manifestation of it is the cacophonous and high decibel sirens attached to some government vehicles, more commonly of the Home department. Some of them are so high-pitched that they could very well wake up the dead. When these vehicles are on the move with sirens blaring, there can be no question of anyone taking even a short p. Some of the ambulance vehicles too are equipped with high-pitched, cacophonous sirens that turally evoke pity for the hapless occupant of the ambulance on way to a hospital who has to suffer these harsh sounds in addition to the afflictions that are taking him to hospital. We all understand that ambulance vans must have a preferential right of way considering that they generally carry people in urgent need of treatment to hospitals. Even so, there is hardly any justification for such foul-sounding sirens to secure a right of way. In addition to vehicles already fitted with such sirens, we have other owners of vehicles who have special gadgets added to their cars that emit horrible and high-decibel sounds every time these cars reverse. We have a couple of such vehicles near our home that make sleep or rest impossible in the entire neighbourhood. What is intriguing is that the Police department that should be doing everything possible to prevent noise pollution should be using vehicles that produce some of the worst kinds of noise. The Home department now has the responsibility of either getting rid of those vehicles that cause noise pollution or letting the public know in umbiguous terms that it takes no responsibility in the matter of preventing or controlling noise pollution in the city. The latter would be a rather unfortute course of action considering that people have reasons to depend so much on the police not only for the maintence of law and order but also for preventing undesirable trends of behaviour that add to unnecessary noise and disturbance.
In a society where people had to constantly find ways of combating more visible forms of pollution, noise pollution might seem less harmful than the foul smelling heaps of garbage on roadsides that are often not cleared for days together. In fact, the other forms of pollution that I am about to discuss are probably not viewed as pollution of any kind at all. One of them is the pollution of our language. For someone whose mother tongue is Assamese, I am understandably distressed at what is being done to our language not only in the print medium but also in the electronic medium through some of the local television channels. The most common kind of language pollution is seen in the faulty spelling and in the transliteration of English and other languages. People who use foreign words (mainly mes) in television programmes have an inescapable responsibility of getting the pronunciation of the foreign words right largely because they are responsible for the way viewers are going to pronounce unfamiliar words from what they had picked up from television programmes. This is not a very difficult task considering that there is the English Pronouncing Dictiory (Dent and Dutton) compiled by Daniel Jones that gives us the pronunciation of not only all English words and mes, but also the pronunciation of several mes that are not British. This dictiory, regarded as the best reference work for English pronunciation, has been in wide circulation ever since it was first published in 1917. What surprises me is why this valuable dictiory (particularly for those who have to transliterate English words and mes in other languages) is not in use in every television studio and on the news desks of every Assamese newspaper. The most visible proof of this glaring neglect is to be had in the pronunciation of the me Venus. Over several decades, the mispronunciation of the me in Assamese has got petrified through the way it is written in Assamese. The letter e after V should be pronounced as the long /i:/ and not as /e/.
Much of the pollution I have referred to so far would seem to pale into insignificance when compared to the deadliest form pollution that affects our society. This is the pollution of our work ethics that has already taken a heavy toll of our development and threatens to bring about our extinction in a matter of a few decades unless remedial measures are put in place without any delay. This form of pollution arises from our disinclition for any kind of productive work. And because we do not like any work that makes us perspire, we have developed the kck of cutting corners and not doing things as they should be done. Our obsession with shortcuts and shoddy work has robbed us of skills that our people once had but have gradually lost without any visible signs of neglect. Till my school-going days there were competent Assamese masons and carpenters in Jorhat. Today it is difficult to find any skilled indigenous workers in Assam. And since people have lost the skills they once had, there is the urge to put on all kinds of meaningless activities and much talk and to pretend that all this constitutes work. This is a way of hoodwinking ourselves. It is a kind of subtle collective suicide that we do not wish to talk about even though we know where we are going to land up with our pretence. It is difficult to conceive of a worse kind of pollution that affects us collectively. And even if we cannot do anything much to counter this deadly pollution, we would be far more honest and far better prepared for remedial measures if we acknowledge this pollution and resolve to combat it. Our bureaucrats, who are largely responsible for this particular form of pollution, will render great service to our society if they introspect on the extent of their failure as the leading executives of the State and decide to make amends.