Chanakya: The politics of Delhi’s air pollution
It seems only apt that a column that usually restricts itself to politics, digressing occasionally into related areas such as economic affairs and foreign policy, focus on Delhi’s bad air problem, which surfaces around this time every year. For, while the factors responsible for it may be meteorological, economic, and scientific, the reason it remains unsolved is entirely political.
Delhi is unfortunately located from the perspective of air quality — at the foot of the hills and the head of the northern plains, and on the eastern periphery of a desert. The lower temperatures and non-existent winds of late autumn and early winter do not help.
Then, there are the human interventions.
Entire ranges of the Aravallis, which shielded Delhi from the dust and sand-laden winds from the Thar, have been ravaged by mining. There are far too many vehicles in Delhi — more than in all the other metropolitan cities in the country taken together. For two decades now, Delhi and other parts of the National Capital Region (NCR) have been one extended construction zone — thanks to the Delhi Metro (which helps in other ways by taking vehicles off roads), and the emergence of Gurugram, and to a lesser extent, Faridabad, Noida, and Indirapuram. Despite a late-1990s court order that moved industries out of Delhi, some continue to operate within it illegally. And like every other urban agglomeration in India, Delhi has a garbage (and a garbage burning) problem.
The bottom line of all this is that the air quality in Delhi is bad — unless the meteorological conditions are favourable, as they usually are through some part of the summer and the monsoon (when Delhi’s air is actually the cleanest). Chanakya is aware that some baseline studies on air quality have been done during the lockdown enforced to slow the coronavirus disease, but a real baseline would have to factor in activities and mobility, not assume that all vehicles and people will be off the streets. And at this time of the year, helped along by farm fires, mostly in Punjab, but also in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, and the weather, the Capital and the NCR’s bad air becomes worse. Which is when everyone starts to take note.
Solutions to complex problems such as Delhi’s bad air are always temporally-tiered. There are some that are short-term; others that are medium-term; and still others that are long-term. It’s also possible to categorise them as scientific, economic, or behavioural. And clearly, since it isn’t possible to change Delhi’s location (or the Thar’s), or influence the weather in any meaningful way, it’s not very difficult to figure out what needs doing.
The three easiest things to do, which will also have an immediate impact on air quality, are the following — stopping farm fires; preventing the burning of garbage; and prohibiting the use of diesel generators, not just in Delhi, but the entire NCR (an exception is made almost every year for Haryana, many of whose environmentally unfriendly glass-and-chrome condominiums survive on diesel generators). Doing this will ensure the region’s air quality remains bad, and doesn’t become worse. In the language everyone has come to understand now, addressing these three issues is akin to removing co-morbidities.
The long-term cure to the original problem involves de-desertification, re-greening and re-wilding of the Aravallis; the move to greener fuel for vehicles; better garbage management; and moving polluting industries out.
The reasons why a solution hasn’t been found yet are purely political.
The Centre and Haryana (and Uttar Pradesh) are governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party; Delhi by the Aam Aadmi Party; and Punjab by the Congress. And so, the Union environment ministry has shown itself to be far more interested in laying the blame at the Delhi government’s door than finding a solution; Delhi blames Punjab, Haryana, and the Centre; and both Punjab and Haryana (more the former than the latter) have not managed to ensure their farmers do not burn the post-harvest stubble ahead of the next cropping season.
As this paper reported on Saturday, Punjab has seen almost 4,000 stubble burning incidents this year (till October 15) as compared to 1,266 in the same period a year ago. For Haryana, the numbers are around 1,800 and 1,072. And only six farmers have been booked in Punjab this year, as compared to around 1700 last year — because officials usually involved in monitoring the fires were busy in crop procurement; and because the government didn’t want to act against farmers already upset at the new farm laws passed by the Centre.
The pattern is no different than it was in previous years. Local governments flout National Green Tribunal and Supreme Court (SC) orders with impunity, and Delhi and the NCR suffer.
Chanakya is against judicial overreach into the domain of the executive, but because the latter has been found wanting in terms of willingness, ability, or both to address the air pollution issue, it is good that the SC has appointed former SC judge Madan Lokur in a role that makes him the NCR’s unofficial Air Commissioner. The immediate task before him is to stop the farm fires, but there’s a lot more he can do — from ensuring real-time monitoring of the contributors to Delhi’s bad air to addressing the reason why Punjab’s farmers are compelled to burn stubble. There are scientific, economic, behavioural and administrative solutions to the NCR’s pollution problem and with politics out of the way, we may finally be able to breathe easy.