City City Bang Bang, Columns

A Smog of Indifference

What is staggering is the indifference. The capital city of the country and much of North India is covered in a poisonous shroud. Unlike global warming and issues to do with the environment which are often dismissed as the fantasised fears of a few, there is nothing abstract, conceptual or distant about the disastrous quality of air that surrounds us. In the here and now, we are engulfed by pollution so visible that nothing else is. And yet, the Centre and most governments of the day seem unperturbed.

25 out of 29 members of a committee set up to discuss this issue decided this did not warrant their time. No meeting of the concerned Chief Ministers has been called. No communication to the public about the steps that it intends to take. No acknowledgement by any major leader of the gravity of the situation. This is nothing but gross dereliction of duty. The Delhi CM has at least been attempting to do something about the problem, but token action, however flashy, is not sufficient. Somewhat belatedly, the leaders of the other concerned states have begun to acknowledge the problem, but little by way of significant action has been taken so far. The Supreme Court has stepped in, doing what it can do which is to ban stubble burning and mutter dark threats about holding the entire administration responsible in case they failed to do so.

The nature of the problem and the consequences that it unleashes are such that one would expected this particular government to have done much more. This is an issue that hurts the country in many concrete and significant ways. The most obvious and glaring issue of how it is affecting the health of so many citizens. Doctors warn of a host of health problems that pollution of this level is likely to unleash. Long-term exposure to pollution raises the risk of asthma, lung cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and autism to name but a few. It is a problem whose consequences that no one is immune from, from the PM of the country down to the ordinary citizen.

Given that this government is so focused on the country’s image internationally, its inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the repercussions on that front are perplexing. The idea of a country whose capital city has air that is positively hazardous to life is the worst advertisement one can imagine for any nation. It doesn’t make sense to be as focused on the Ease of Doing Business index as this government is, and then ignoring an issue that negates any image benefits accrued on that front. The fact that 9 out of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India is a fact that has got tremendous coverage throughout the world, and is likely to have cascading consequences across a range of sectors. International tourism is already is getting affected, and this is likely to get much worse.

Also, Swachh Bharat is this government’s flagship programme. It has elevated the notion of hygiene and cleanliness to a level that no other government in the past has. Whatever the criticism about the extent of success of this programme, no one can discount the seriousness with which this massive drive has been undertaken. How is it that the same government that takes such keen interest in one aspect of health and hygiene shows such indifference towards another?

There is no political gain either from inaction. Two of the 4 states that are most affected are ruled by the BJP, and pollution is unlikely to be a stick with which the ruling party can beat either the AAP or the Congress in Delhi and Punjab respectively. Visible action by the Centre can only help it politically, particularly in Delhi where it is an issue that is likely to have some electoral heft.

There are no reasonable explanations for the current lack of action. But whatever the reason for the Government’s apathy so far, it simply has to dramatically reorient its approach towards this issue. It is a complex problem that no single action by any single body will solve. The search for a magic bullet solution is flawed. The pollution is the result of a combination of several factors acting in concert. Stubble burning is a key factor but is by no means the only one. Had that been the case, the problem would have been limited to those periods in a year when this phenomenon is widespread. Vehicular pollution is again a key factor, but the problem is not restricted to large cities where vehicular populations are high- vast swathes of the rural countryside face the same issues. What is needed is a thorough understanding of pollution as a system and an integrated plan of action. It needs the leadership of the Centre to integrate a variety of measures involving a large number of stakeholders and agents; no other organisation can play this role.

There are many potential solutions that have been put forward. Suggestions include a more targeted system of incentives and disincentives that reduces stubble burning and promotes crops that are less harmful to the environment, removal of distortions caused by legislation, the adoption of new technologies and a program of public education. There is the example of other countries that have successfully faced up to this challenge. But to initiate any of this, the gravity and urgency of the problem will need to be recognised. Decisive leadership is not only about big, audacious action. Sometimes it needs detailed and systemic thinking and collaborative action across a wide cross-section of stakeholders. And it needs to come from the very top.

The last few weeks has seen the nation getting immersed in a debate located firmly in medieval times. Having got that out of the way, perhaps it is time to focus on a slightly more pressing and immediate issue?

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