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Monday, Dec 16, 2019

Make rulers accountable for pollution

Politicians often make comparisons with China, but never about its efforts to curb pollution

columns Updated: Nov 19, 2019 11:49 IST
Shashi Shekhar
Shashi Shekhar
Protecting the environment is a key responsibility of governments. But they have failed miserably
Protecting the environment is a key responsibility of governments. But they have failed miserably (Sushil Kumar/HT PHOTO)
         

The first Sunday of November brought with it an ominous air for Delhi-NCR. In the morning, I found there was no sunlight beyond the window panes of the bedroom. An impenetrable cover of dust was all around. Was it fog? No. The air was laden with poisonous particles which were choking people.

This was the morning of the auspicious Chhath festival, as people wilted under this toxic atmosphere, suffering due to the miscalculations and wrong policies of our leaders.

The previous evening, the devotees who fasted offered water not to the Sun but its faint image behind the haze. While wishing and praying for the well-being of their families, they must have felt an unfamiliar apprehension. If the Sun god remained captive to the poisonous winds, which had now created a sinister environment, people must have wondered how they could complete their fast. Who will they offer water to? Their fears were proved on that fateful smoggy Sunday.

In the old days, autumn brought about a pleasant change in north India. Now, it comes with a warning bell, though our leaders pay no heed to it. On the one hand, the Delhi chief minister is anguished that farmers in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab are not being stopped from burning stubble. As a result, Delhi is forced to bear the brunt every year. On the other hand, environment minister Prakash Javadekar has alleged that the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi hasn’t done anything in this regard.

Citizens elect governments with hope and expectations. Our rulers invariably make tall promises during elections to score points over opponents. But these are quickly forgotten once the election results are out. How can they forget that political power comes with duties and responsibilities? Protecting the environment is one of the most important responsibilities. But alas! it has been given short shrift.

Deeply anguished by this, the apex court has commented that the people of this country have been left to die. The situation amounts to a health emergency. We are not safe even in our own homes. A bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Justice Deepak Gupta summoned the chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh and sought a report from them. The Supreme Court also ordered that, within seven days, the farmers should be given assistance of ~100 per quintal, so that they do not burn stubble in the fields. The judges, while tersely commenting on the attitude of state governments, said that if they do not care for the people, then they do not have the right to remain in power.

Significantly, our politicians,who are only too eager to make comparisons with China on several issues, do not even mention China in this regard. The Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, and it was called the most polluted event of the time. On August 10, 2008, PM10 levels in Beijing reached 604 micrograms per cubic metre. Not only this, in 2014, when the level of PM2.5, a harmful micro-pollutant, exceeded the safe limit by 45 times in Beijing, the Chinese government practically launched a war on pollution. In just four years, Beijing has ensured a 35% reduction in pollutants, when reducing them to 25% would have been enough.

The government of China ensured a budget of $120 billion to control and combat pollution. New rules were enacted and enforced strictly. No new power plants running on coal were allowed to be built around the cities which were suffering the most from pollution. Those which were already functioning were instructed to reduce their emissions. Coal-based power plants were made to switch to natural gas. The number of vehicles was controlled in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The production of iron ore and steel was reduced.

How did China succeed in doing this commendable job? The then vice premier of the state council, Li Keqiang, summed it up, saying, “Just as we fought with poverty, with the same firmness, we will also confront pollution.” When Beijing was struggling with this problem back in 2008, Delhi was in a better condition despite being unsafe. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, in those days the PM10 level in Delhi used to reach just 209 micrograms per cubic metre.

China, with its strong will, converted an adverse scenario into a positive one, while the exact opposite has happened in Delhi. How long will we keep suffering due to the cavalier attitude of our rulers?

Shashi Shekhar is the editor-in-chief, Hindustan

The views expressed are personal