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The deadly smog over New Delhi is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with India

Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
What pollution?
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It is shocking but not surprising: for the last few years, smog over large swathes of north India heralds the winter.

Everybody knows it will happen. We know that come November, the air quality index will shoot through the charts. And the failure to prevent this massive public health emergency, year after year, is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with India.

We the people don’t care 

Public discourse of air pollution, from WhatsApp groups to the streets, is about which mask to buy, which air purifier works best, which indoor plants to get, and whether eating jaggery gives immunity against particulate matter (PM) 2.5.

There’s a strange lack of outrage over government inaction. We’ve seen the studies and the data. The smog over our skies reduces our lifespans. PM 2.5 enters our lungs and our bloodstreams. Headlines have screamed, for three years now, that doctors are telling patients to leave Delhi if they can. A World Health Organisation report has claimed 2.5 million Indians died of pollution in 2015 alone—the largest number of pollution deaths in the world. Breathing the Delhi air these days is said to be like smoking 45 cigarettes a day.

These warnings perhaps don’t move us because, like climate change, we think the price we’ll pay with our health will be in the distant future. But when the smog peaks so much that people start seeing the smoky air inside their houses, when cars start ramming into each other on the highways and killing people, you’d think there’d be widespread public anger. As Delhi rose up in anger against rape in December 2012 or against corruption in August 2011, you’d think citizens would be angry with the government.

But beyond share pictures of low visibility and cracking jokes on social media, the people are not demanding action.

It’s symptomatic of India: we don’t see clean air as a right, our expectations of our government are generally low, and we have long made peace with the idea that we are a mess of a country.

The elites close themselves with expensive air purifiers and imported masks. Their hold over public discourse means, for instance, that people don’t demand better transport that would reduce vehicular pollution.

The government doesn’t care 

We get the government we deserve. To use another cliché, there’s lack of political will. The authorities know exactly what they need to reduce air pollution, but the implementation in India begins after the disaster has struck.

Headlines even in the international press have been telling for years that India has the worst air quality in the world. The planet’s most polluted cities are concentrated in this country. You’d think prime minister Narendra Modi would at least want to be seen as doing something about this, if not actually doing something. He hasn’t said a word.

In December 2016, India’s supreme court ordered the central government to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution in Delhi and its suburbs. It took the government 10 months to notify the plan, known as the Graded Response Action Plan (pdf)

An analysis by IndiaSpend found that under this plan, the government should have issued 30 alerts to citizens, and taken various measures, by Nov. 08, since pollution had started rising in October itself. The government did no such thing, waking up only when rising pollution became white smog, beyond emergency levels.

Evasive measures, like banning construction activity and reducing the entry of trucks into that city, should have been taken days ago, but were implemented only when the air went from alarming to apocalyptic.

Last year, Delhi faced the worst smog in 17 years. The Delhi government had promised various long-term measures, such as the vacuum cleaning of roads to reduce road dust, but such measures haven’t gone beyond experiments. This year, too, they will make various claims and promises, only to forget them by spring.

In September, the union ministry of road transport actually requested the National Green Tribunal to lift its ban on diesel vehicles that were older than 10 years. Instead of helping, it appears, the government wants to worsen air pollution!

It is easy for the government to say it has banned the entry of trucks that aren’t going to a destination in Delhi, but it’s still difficult to figure out where exactly a truck is headed. And why blame truck transporters anyway, when the construction of an eastern peripheral road for them began only in 2015, a decade after the supreme court ordered it. It was supposed to have been finished by August this year, but in the long list of the deadline extensions the latest is March 2018.

What about public transport? Instead of putting more buses on the roads, the number has actually reduced from over 6,000 to under 4,000 in six years. The Delhi government is struggling to find parking space for new buses. Despite this fall, Delhi’s buses carry more passengers than its metro system, the extension of whose network has been severely delayed.

The ban on burning farm residues has been implemented half-heartedly in Punjab and Haryana because alienating farmers is not easy for politicians. The states need huge public investments to make it affordable for farmers to find other ways of stubble disposal, but why should the Punjab and Haryana governments care when the public does not?

One can go on and on, and one will find that in every aspect of fighting pollution the government has been sleeping at the wheel.

Who is the government anyway?

Successfully implementing the Graded Response Action Plan needs coordination between 16 different government agencies—and we are talking here only of Delhi and its suburbs, not the rest of north India. Such coordination between different government institutions controlled by different political parties and interests is impossible in India’s federal structure.

The Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab defends farmers for burning stubble, asking that they be compensated. The same party’s chief minister in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, puts the blame on Punjab’s chief minister, Congress politician Amarinder Singh, saying he isn’t cracking down on the farm fires. On his part, Singh says only the central government can take the lead. Meanwhile, the central government’s environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, a politician from Delhi, was in Goa when the capital faced an emergency situation. Waking up after days to the issue, he said the state governments have to do the job. Other than the state governments, he also passed the buck to the weather, adding that the air will be normal again in a few days, why panic? Keep calm and carry on.

Not his fault. He is only reflecting the Indian answer to difficult matters: chalta hai, it happens.

Gimmicks as policy 

Meanwhile, the odd-even car-rationing gimmick is back. The main cause of pollution is road dust and farm fires, but even within vehicular pollution, it is trucks and two-wheelers. But the noise-making elites who drive cars are made to feel guilty by a shrewd Delhi government.

In any case, the winds will arrive by the time people are done discussing if leaving their cars home has reduced the smog. So, until next year, do nothing.

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