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HomeInspireProductive Politicisation' is the Key to Unlocking Delhi's Pollution Problem

Productive Politicisation’ is the Key to Unlocking Delhi’s Pollution Problem

As Delhi remains locked in air pollution crisis, we ponder what needs to be done to fix it, and who has the will to make it better 

Words by Abhiir Bhalla 

With Delhi’s AQI well over 450, the city is yet again struggling to breathe. Clouds of smoke and dust aren’t the only ones shrouding the National Capital Region (NCR). Instead of a glimmer of sunshine on the horizon, Delhi’s toxic skies have been blanketed by clouds of political disarray and the dust of institutional failure. As has been the norm every year over the past decade, an inter-governmental blame game between the States and the Centre has captured the imagination of media consumers. Primetime debates and editorials dissect and discuss the causes and consequences, while trying to assign the blame to a singular institution or individual, instead of discussing the way forward. 

The causes are known: heightened anthropogenic activities (vehicular emissions) are heightened by seasonal factors (stubble burning & firecrackers) lead to higher emissions, which, due to meteorological phenomena (heavy & slow moving hot air, and changing wind currents) trap Delhi’s air, rendering it a gas chamber. Similarly, the consequences are known: air pollution is silently killing us all. According to an often-cited Lancet study, air pollution led to the premature deaths of 23 lakh deaths in the country in 2019: that’s over 250 deaths an hour! Innumerable studies have linked air pollution to significantly higher health risk: Covid, Diabetes, Parkinson’s. Short-term effects include headaches, burning eyes, bronchitis, amongst many others – no part of our body is immune to polluted air, since it enters our bloodstreams.  

All of this has been discussed repeatedly. Parallelly, politicians across state and party lines are stuck in their own rut, assigning the blame to one another. Orders from the National Green Tribunal & Supreme Court, and guidelines from the Commission for Air Quality Management, grow increasingly frustrated as the months progress, without much avail. The question this then begs, is what is the solution? If the causes and consequences are known, and the political debate remains stuck in a loop, how does one move forward? 

To answer this question, we must first dissect the problem. Today, society at large is stuck in a ‘catch 22’, a vicious cycle, if you will. Individuals in society believe air pollution – much like the climate crisis at large – is too massive an issue for them to tackle, and is one that requires institutional solutions by governments and polluting companies. On their part, institutions believe that having introduced ‘pro-climate’ bans or laws, they’ve done their bit. Each stakeholder is thus waiting for the other to act, whilst neither takes concrete steps.  

This is best illustrated through the example of the firecracker ban. Though this ban has been reiterated year after year by competent authorities, it falls on deaf ears each time. Critics, in fact, stand up and claim it to be ‘Hinduphobic’ since it comes around the time of Diwali. The reality is that the ban is overarching, to include the wedding and festive season at large. Even if credence is to be given to the critics, the bottom line remains that in the Ramayana there’s no tradition of firecrackers in celebrating the return of Lord Ram, merely with Diyas.  

In Delhi, 1200 reports of firecrackers were filed with the Delhi Police. Undoubtedly, the real numbers are bound to be manifold higher than those reported, because few people take the trouble to file a police complaint around the festive season for something so frivolous. In fact, several reports have even indicated that even these complaints are often used as a means to settle scores with neighbours.  

Nonetheless, the point remains that if these complaints were to fall drastically the following year, that would send a strong message to our policymakers. To the rational politician, a dramatic drop in these complaints would signal a shift in societal will – indicating that a much larger segment of the population was becoming increasingly climate conscious. Thus, this rational politician would gain the political will/incentive to not just promise climate conscious laws in manifestos and rallies, but also to promise to enforce them.  

This is just one example to make an argument – the same argument can apply also to the 10 & 15-year ban on diesel & fuel cars, or on the enforcement of the odd-even scheme.  

 The gist of this argument, thus, is this: in such a vicious cycle, the burden of action lies on society, rather than on institutions. Individuals in society must come together to demonstrate a ‘snowball effect’, which in turn will catalyse and inspire political and institutional action. While this might seem too good to be true – or  merely one that sounds good in theory – the reality of its success has been previously demonstrated in cities such as California and London which used to be similarly polluted. 

Political will always needs an incentive to be mobilised – that incentive must come from the masses. Thus, the often-cited belief that one must overcome petty politics might only be wise as rhetoric. The reality is that for institutional action at scale, political will must be grounded in electoral incentives. Pollution must not be merely politicised as we see today – society must demonstrate that they care, for pollution to be ‘productively politicised’.    

Abhiir Bhalla is an environmentalist & is the youth advisor to the Governing Board at the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council. 

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