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Air Pollution in Delhi: It is ‘Passive Political Imagination’ that impedes solution

By Bobby Luthra Sinha and Pankaj Kumar Jha

Delhi-NCR’s Seasonal ‘Hungama’ on its Air Quality Index (AQI)

Air Pollution in Delhi: It is that time of the year again. Onset of winters and the passing of festivities of Navratri, Pooja, Dussehra and Diwali in quick succession of each other.  Amidst this, immunity and well-being buckle under the impacts of Air Pollution in  Delhi and the  National Capital Region (NCR) making  tempers flare, once again kick-starting the stormy blame- game of the season. Delhi-NCR witnesses the usual  sombre scenario of ailing and scared  residents busy exchanging information on  precautions and  remedies. Doctors issue advisories, schools announce off days, activists and researchers  share awareness campaigns and data. Yet others turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to reality. Post-Diwali, estimates are that each day spent in Delhi is equivalent to smoking more than 40 cigarettes

To make matters insanely unforgettable, the 2023 Air Pollution discourse in the national capital Delhi is rife with an additional political whataboutery. As the country inches towards the General Elections 2024, political parties and their supporters and opponents in Delhi-NCR are busy reviewing one another’s lapses on the issue. Farming and non-farming residents and communities are also fiercely divided in exercising their own power over the situation. “We will”, say some who are vehemently followed by stubborn refusals by others who are steadfast in their resolve of, “we will not’’. Half of them favour burning stubble, bursting crackers while the other half will vouch for car and transport pools and following clean-air practices.

For its part, on November 6, 2023 the  Supreme Court (SC) directed the states of Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to stop stubble burning “forthwith”.  Responding to the incessantly severe AQI of Delhi-NCR since a past couple of weeks, the bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia hearing air pollution matters announced that chief secretaries and director general of police concerned would be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the court order.  Subsequently as air pollution continued to become worse the SC and Delhi government issues a complete ban on bursting crackers, in a hope that some positive measures on land will help curb the impacts of Delhi’s toxic air. However, a ban on crackers was only partially successful. Delhi’s severe AQI is an undeniable evidence of the capital city in the grips of a climate crisis. It is not just Fires and Fire-Crackers, but Emissions and Dust too.

High AQI- A full-blown Climate Crisis in Delhi compounded by a passive political imagination

Each year, around  October and November, citizens and governments reeling under the impact of air pollution start a  marathon discourse across media and social media. Newspapers, Television, Radio and Whatsapp groups, Instagram posts and Facebook et al  explode with objective and personal data, heart-felt analysis, warnings, alerts and advisories on air pollution and health emergencies in the affected states and  Delhi-NCR region.

Amidst the Government and citizen’s struggle to deal with Delhi’s toxic air, unfolds a passive politics of seasonal dead-ends and blame shifting. Everyone has something to say on air pollution but little to offer in terms of implementing long lasting remedies. While farmers and governments in the four states of  Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh  are judged for their actions w.r.t stubble burning, the fact is that Delhi’s air pollution goes beyond India’s rice and wheat harvesting and cropping patterns. Nonetheless, setting crop residues ablaze does no local good to these four states surrounding and they could certainly turn towards sustainable farming practices.

Since November 11 this year, i.e. a day prior to Diwali 2023 and on Diwali the following day, it was clear that enforcing the ban on firecrackers was just as troubled as the obedience to it. Nonetheless, courts and governments alone cannot tackle reducing air pollutants when the situation becomes alrming unless citizens cooperate.

The air quality index in Delhi has been measured above 400 in the first ten days of the month of November, which falls under the severe category. From the data released by the central pollution control Board, it is clear that on 3,4,5,6,7,8 and 9 November 2023, the air quality of Delhi was measured ‘severe’ at 468, 415, 454, 421, 426 and 420 respectively.

Air Pollution Measure: First Nine Days of November 2023

Date                                                                                  Air Quality Index (AQI)

2 November                                                                    392

03 November                                                                  468

04 November                                                                  415

05 November                                                                  454

06 November                                                                  421

07 November                                                                  395

08 November                                                                  426

09 November                                                                  420

Due to light rainfall on November 10, the air quality index came down for one day falling to 339. On November 11, it was once again measured at 376 venturing back into “poor category”. It is noteworthy that the air quality index remained in very poor condition in many important and crowded places of Delhi like Anand Vihar (432), RK Puram (453), Punjabi Bagh (444) and ITO (441). The fact is that outdoor air pollution is ranked as one of the leading causes of death in India since the past few years. Diwali and the days after, saw the capital reeling under the impacts of such poor quality air that those who could moved out of the city for a few days. Running away from problems is seldom a lasting solution. How many have the privilege to escape the capital when air pollution rises? The question is, why must people falter on their preparedness as citizens to mitigate the climate crisis?

Self-gratifying Lifestyles and low Awareness smother Citizen Well-being

Rather than a passive political imagination where everything is left to the governments and courts, alarming pollution levels require pro-active climate action by citizens. As responsible citizens, our endeavour should be to curb the menace of Air Pollution at the local and household level.  Since almost three decades, Delhi’s furiously contaminated air and heavy smog around Dussehra and Diwali have made the vulnerable and frail succumb to fatal respiratory and cardiological illnesses.  Added to the older problems, one observes the ever-expanding cases of skin and eye allergies, digestive issues  as well as general malaise owing to Delhi’s toxic air.

Although there is a minority of pro-active citizens and groups  who propagate adopting air-healthy practices, they are not always taken  kindly by fellow compatriots.  People mistake climate action, that may for instance demand a ban on firecrackers, as  an interference in their personal liberties and religious festivities. However, a majority would readily accept that lack of trees and vegetation in Delhi have led harmful amounts of dust particles perpetually suspended in the air. This proves that, awareness drives, educational action and information campaigns can be beneficial at school, university and   household levels. to retrospect, reflect and  change the  attitude towards air pollution.

“An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory”, opined E F Schumacher, in his seminal work, ‘Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered’. While it is true that governments need to pull up their acts, yet Schumacher’s vision  of  ‘small is  beautiful’ deserves  to be given  a fair chance to negotiate the climate change scenario at an individual level.  Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) must incorporate tree plantation  drives alongside arranging for celebrations and maintenance tasks in residential areas. Each RWA can involve  youth as a resource and help in spawning young leaders to help environmental causes that  linked to public health.

Installation of Garbage segregation units as well as compost-making drives in independent housing colonies as well as gated communities can be a prescient contribution towards climate justice and help in Reduce, Recycle and Re-use waste. This will also   prevent garbage burning that will in turn relieve the choke in Delhi’s air. Citizen -actions can go a long way to reduce the choke  in the air and  green the Delhi-NCR.

Locking horns on vital Public Health Issues No excuse  for Government Inaction

What Delhites need is a stable dialogue between the city and national governments to reduce emissions and improve long term air quality. On the contrary, what we see is an unpardonable ‘holier than thou’ attitude -war between the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) vis-à-vis air pollution in the capital. Both the parties should be united in their efforts for reducing the air pollutants choking Delhi.

Emissions aside, alarming dust levels in Delhi’s ambience contribute a perpetual health hazard to the old and the frail whether  outdoors  or indoors. Children at home, on the street as well as in schools and classrooms are not safe from the harmful impacts of air pollution. Garbage heaps and dumps that ignite and burn in various Delhi-NCR locations are no good, Diwali or no Diwali.  In such a scenario concerned parents, citizen groups, environmental activists, architects and social workers see no logic in the national government’s ever expanding demolition as well as reconstruction drives in the Capital.

Reducing the pollutants in Delhi’s air is as important as eliminating the politics of blame-game that blows over it as intensely as the toxic air that engulf it. Any political blame game on vital public health issues are indeed a dangerous dead-end in discourse. Not surprisingly then, Delhi-NCR’s air pollution ironically, – either belongs  to all when its  impacts unfold, or is sheepishly  refuted by every actor in the fray when their responsibilities are fixed and underlined.

Transient steps are insufficient.  Both the city and the central governments need to exercise their accountability beyond using air guns for dispelling smog before much publicized luxurious national and international events and occasions or announcing school holidays and temporary odd-even vehicular traffic rules.

Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha is the Deputy Director at the Centre for Asian, African and Latin American Studies (CAALAS), Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Delhi and Head of Research at Un Paso Mas LLP, Delhi.

Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha teaches Political Science at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi

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