THE RIVER RHINE used to be so polluted about half-a-century ago that they called it the sewer of Europe. Now, people merrily swim in it. There is no surprise in this because Germany threw, by one estimate, about $75 billion on it. This it could do because development crossed a threshold level that made it possible to spend such vast sums of money on a river. India is nowhere near that point by any measure, but we like to borrow First World attitudes that eventually and inevitably do exactly the opposite of what they intend. This is what we see in the story of the building of a Metro railway system in Mumbai, one that the city desperately needs because millions of people have for decades been enduring horribly crowded commutes daily.
An article in the Times of India this week said that Maharashtra Metro Rail Corporation Limited, the body tasked with the Metro project, has asked the Supreme Court for permission to cut 84 trees. What makes this striking is the city’s biggest newspaper choosing to highlight it on its front page. The corporation had earlier promised to cut no more trees after a long political and judicial battle to get a shed up in Aarey Milk Colony where repairs could take place once the lines got going. It was true that they were backtracking now, but 84 trees still seems negligible relative to the scale of a project that would mean a new artery for Mumbai. It is as if trees were being equated to human lives. Such anthropomorphism towards animals and plants is also a phenomenon of wealthy societies but they have the resources and ability to feed that empathy. If Germany found 84 trees blocking a Metro project, it would transplant them elsewhere or promise to plant many more than what was being lost, except that no one would doubt their intention or execution.
Here, what we get is chaos. As when the previous government of Shiv Sena decided to take the shed out of Aarey completely to another corner of Mumbai and it led to no shed coming up anywhere and contributed to the completion of the Metro getting delayed by unknown years while also escalating the cost by thousands of crores, which obviously is being paid from the taxes of a middle-class office worker getting crushed in the compartment of a suburban local because the Metro is not coming up. Between trees and human beings, the choice should be clear to anyone, except environmentalists and opposition politicians. There is no better instrument of environmental protection than becoming a wealthy nation but the process of reaching that wealth will take its toll on the environment. India has to navigate that painful irony for greener forests and bluer rivers. In the meanwhile, unfortunately for Indians, commuters are not a voting block and so their voice is drowned in the stridency of politics and activism. They don’t really want anything out of anyone except to go from one place to another in reasonable discomfort. But that is asking for too much.