Sunday April 21, 2024

Whither public goods?

By Raashid Wali Janjua
December 27, 2016

What happens when a society sets itself upon a course to self destruction without understanding the consequences of its actions or – in a situation that is more germane to the Pakistani context – its egregiously flawed inaction?

The human condition is captured in beautifully evocative prose by Lothar of Segni Pope Innocent III: “Oh! The vile indignity of the human condition! Oh! The undeserving condition of the human cowardice! Go and inquire the grass and the trees. They from themselves produce flowers, leaves and fruits; you from yourself, you produce nits, lice, and worms.”

When we multiply like worms sans environmental empathy, the resulting degradation leads to a dystopian existence that devours the fruits of whatever little progress mankind has made so far. For the purpose of clarity, public goods can be divided in two broad categories – natural and manmade. The natural category includes air, water, forests, and soil whereas the manmade category includes health, education, communication infrastructure, and law and order.

Public goods are non excludable and non-rivalrous. You have to provide these to everyone while tackling the challenge of equitable contribution by those who cannot afford to buy these goods such as the poor and the dispossessed. The non-rivalrous nature of these goods ensures that everyone is affected by these, regardless of their state of affluence or penury. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the roads we travel on, the oceans and rivers that we use, the soil we live on, and the trees we benefit from are all public goods. Once they are bestowed by nature, these public goods are controlled by mankind through consumption patterns and technologies differentiated by the priorities of respective nations. The industrialised economies having reaped the fruits of resource extraction through colonial enterprises that have reached a state where the sharing and utilisation of public goods has been brought in harmony with the environment.

Through stringent regulations and sound strategies, developed countries have ensured that their air remains clean, their water drinkable, their forests untouched and their roads safe for travel. They have also ensured that the urban areas uncluttered, effectively warding off disease, squalor, climate risks, and urban chaos. Countries like Pakistan have been caught in a vortex of unplanned development due to lack of planning and vision, consigning future generations to the risks of disease, destitution, and conflicts. The notion of security that relied primarily upon a military dimension has bilked us of a true concept of security. It is time we securitised our natural as well as manmade public goods, such as air, water, forest cover, communication infrastructure, justice delivery, health and education.

While the rich might buy their way to better manmade public goods – such as health, education, justice delivery and urban infrastructure – they just cannot buy their way out of air and water pollution that would haunt the poor and rich alike.

It is time our predatorial elite realises the folly of living in a secure cocoon of gated comforts. The untenability of excluding the unexcludable has eluded the consciousness of our policymaking elite as they consign the impoverished multitude to a vicious cycle of exploitation. The disproportionate allocation of resources towards these islands of affluence denies the provision of public goods to the destitute majority. It is not difficult to imagine what happens to a society that buries its head in asphyxiating sands of cloying comforts, thinking that the gated communities and wealth would protect them from toxic air, contaminated water, and urban chaos. The inadequate allocation of resources for environmental protection and the efficient provision of public goods – such as justice, health care and education – results in an unplanned urban chaos that diminishes the overall quality of life.

The skewed distribution of national wealth and lack of industrialisation has resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of environmental degradation and poverty that feed off each other. Since 70% of Pakistan’s population lives in the rural areas, where the lack of basic amenities forces people to over consume natural resources, the absence of conservation strategies exacerbates environmental degradation. The situation in cities is even worse as poor urban planning has resulted in the ‘ghettoisation’ of a vast majority of poor people. The urban, gated communities of affluence exist cheek by jowl with the ghettos rendering the overall quality of life subhuman. With no waste disposal and sewage treatment facilities available in our heavily populated cities, the ground water gets contaminated, resulting in water-borne diseases – a major cause of infant mortality.

The air pollution in urban centres has reached dangerous levels. According to a World Bank study, the harmful particulate matter concentration in Pakistan is four times higher than the World Health Organization’s safe limit. The high infant mortality and adult morbidity rates along with traffic accidents are a dangerous concomitant of the alarmingly poor air quality in Pakistan. This state of poor air quality is a direct result of lax regulatory structures that could enforce adherence to safe carbon emissions from automobiles as well as industrial activity. Rickety, old jalopies and smoke-belching auto rickshaws move about spreading mayhem on our roads. However, there is hardly a squeal of protest from environmental lobbies whose sights are set on more lucrative and attention-grabbing projects.

The average noise pollution levels in the major cities of Pakistan stand at over 100 decibels – way above the internationally accepted standards of 70 decibels. The absence of legal enforcement and noise levels standards has let loose a cacophony of noise, resulting in sleep disturbances, psychiatric disorders and endocrine imbalance among the affected population.

The main question that arises is: For how long will our oligarchs remain immune to the pernicious effects of polluted air, toxic water, depleted forests, eroded soil, and clogged infrastructure? While they could buy manmade public goods – such as health, education, housing, communication infrastructure, and personal security – what would they do with the air, water, soil, noise, and the death traps passing off as roads in our country?

The elite simply cannot cocoon itself in gated islands of comfort and security. The rich will, at some hour of the day, have to come out to breathe or travel on the death traps passing off as roads in our country. Gated communities and bottled water is no permanent cure to the problem of a gross neglect in providing public goods to people. It is time that the empowered and rich decision-making elite realise that unless the deterioration of natural public goods is prevented through emergency measures, a mortal threat looms over the living conditions of the rich and poor alike.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.