Putting air pollution on the agenda
The piece is authored by Amar Patnaik is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG bureaucrat and currently a lawyer.
Over 76% of India's population resides in areas that permanently exceed the national ambient air quality standards. However, people are yet to demand clean air from their government and representatives. Hence, it has never entered into the mainstream political agenda and discourse in any election or political battle. It was only in 2019 that a handful of political parties included it in their election manifestos for the first time.
Every year, nearly 1.67 million lives are lost as a direct or indirect result of contaminated air, accounting for 17% of all deaths in the country. Besides, air pollution costs Indian businesses approximately $95 billion – or ₹7 lakh crore – every fiscal, which accounts for approximately 3% of India's total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Why does it then not take up the center stage in India’s political discourse? More importantly, why are citizens not actively demanding clean air from their political representatives?
To begin, citizens can demand cleaner air from their representatives only if they truly understand the gravity of the crisis themselves. A 2019 study revealed that although 90% of Indians are aware of what air pollution means, their understanding of its causes and effects is sorely lacking. The situation is not very different among those with higher educational qualifications. Experts and academics spend a lot of time discussing air quality index and economic efficiency – which are important, but abstract concepts. In reality, very little of this discourse reaches or is understood at the grassroots. Besides, strong evidence-based causal relationship between air pollution and health-related diseases which could actually attract the eyeballs of the poor who spend 54% of their income as out-of-pocket expenses on health, are yet to permeate public discourse thus failing to make a strong narrative with the common people.
This lack of understanding also stems primarily from the lack of continuous engagement on the matter. Although deteriorating air quality is a year-long menace which is not confined to cities and towns, conversations around it tend to be sporadic and urban-centric. Discussions in both houses of the Parliament revolve only around urban spaces with excessive focus on the National Capital Region (NCR) in the winter months when pollution levels tend to peak in the NCR.
There is also a public perception created mostly by economic growth-seeking governments, bureaucrats, private sector and political class that of environmental preservation acts as a barrier to economic growth. In developing countries like India, the popular idea is that environmental crises can be prioritised after more pressing concerns are dealt with, consistent with the idea behind the Kuznet Curve which propose that environmental degradation would rise up until a certain level of economic progress, after which it starts falling. A 2020 study by Pew Research Centre revealed that 25% of India’s population prioritises job creation at the cost of the environment. In a study conducted by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) prior to the 2019 elections, Air Pollution ranked a poor 17th in the Top Governance Issues amongst both urban and rural voters. Only 42 of the 534 constituencies listed it as among their top three priority concerns.
In competitive politics, a social problem is more likely to feature in a party’s election agenda in two cases -- first, when its effects are clear, immediate and visible to the public eye; second, when it is viewed as the result of another party's failure.
But the impact of air pollution is gradual, less visible, and, therefore, neglected by the public. Further, although everyone is hurt by it, it is regarded as nobody’s fault – a typical problem resembling the tragedy of the commons, making it rarely an important factor in motivating voters. Thus, it comes as no surprise that cleaner air is not a political promise in India, in contrast to issues like unemployment and bijli-paani-sadak (electricity, water and roadways).
The absence of concrete political will manifests in the form of budget cuts. In 2021, the government slashed budgetary allocation to clean air initiatives by nearly 50% from the year preceding it. Currently, ₹3030 crore (Budget 2022-23) outlay towards the ministry of environment is merely a minuscule fraction (0.012%) of India’s total GDP.
First, we must recognise that in a competitive political environment, parties respond to the demands of the majority. Therefore, the demand for cleaner air must come from the public, and it must be clearly articulated and sustained throughout the year. Air pollution cannot simply be a talking point amongst the elite; it must evolve into an impactful political discourse that reaches the grassroots. For this, it is necessary to improve climate literacy while also framing conversations around cleaner air in a more personal manner linking to the health hazards it can cause. In a similar vein, cleaner air can be made a topic of conversation in homes by incorporating it into well-known programmes like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which aimed to provide Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) to 80 million below poverty line households, and the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Jyoti Yojana, which promised to electrify all villages in India. Parliamentarians must bear the burden of bringing all stakeholders on the same page through collaborative efforts. Further, they need to leverage parliamentary interventions to start and sustain a conversation on citizens’ right to clean air. It augurs well that between 2000 and 2019, more than 368 questions have been raised on air pollution in India, with over 200 being raised in 2016 or later.
Secondly, we must devise mechanisms to fix accountability. While India has some of the world's most comprehensive environmental laws, their implementation is far from satisfactory. The burden of ensuring compliance falls on the executive and by extension, those seeking to come to power. In this regard, information disclosure and data transparency play an essential role. Odisha’s recently introduced STAR-rating programme has done a remarkable job in this area. It tracks the environmental performance of every large factory and makes the information publicly known.
The only thing more toxic than the country’s constantly worsening air quality is the lack of engagement, political commitment and the laxity on the part of those seeking power to recognise clean air as an electoral promise. To see any real impact, it is imperative to put air pollution on the political agenda at the earliest. We must look at the continuous political will demonstrated in cities like London, Beijing and Mexico City.
(The piece is authored by Amar Patnaik is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG bureaucrat and currently a lawyer.)