The Politics of Pollution: Why Can’t Delhi Find a Solution to its Toxic Air Problem?


The Politics of Pollution: Why Can’t Delhi Find a Solution to its Toxic Air Problem?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Some 2,000 years ago, the insane Roman emperor Caligula is rumoured to have ordered his legionaries to stab the waves of the sea and collect seashells off of the beach as a sign of victory over Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea. Historians have argued over the story’s historical accuracy, but it does point to the enduring legacy of politically symbolic actions, or in the case of New Delhi’s air crisis, inaction. So, centuries later (provided the human race survives), when historians are studying what the rich and powerful were doing when Delhi was hit by an apocalyptic health emergency, the answer would be: Nothing.

Over the last week or so, in the aftermath of Diwali, Delhi’s pollution crisis has turned into a high-school debate that ministers of three states have chosen to spar over on Twitter, rather than act upon with urgency. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh demands more compensation for stubble-burning farmers, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal wants Haryana to curb burning, while Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar claims he has, somehow, magically solved Haryana’s pollution but evidently can’t address Gurugram’s.

This political passing of the buck says something about the unpreparedness of most of North India — from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, all the way to Uttar Pradesh — where despite two yearly spells of dastardly pollution in recent times, there is little will and little know-how to address the situation. That said, the central government, does little to cooperate with the city authorities. Take for example, the odd-even scheme which was implemented in Delhi today. BJP leader Vijay Goel drove out of his house in an odd-numbered SUV to protest against AAP’s plan.

When it comes to stubble burning, which is a major cause of pollution in Delhi-NCR, AAP says the Centre has not being doing its bit. Not enough machines have been distributed to farmers as an alternative to stubble burning, AAP’s Atishi said. She has even accused environment minister Prakash Javadekar of cancelling meetings to discuss pollution – Javadekar in turn asked the AAP if it was following the Central Pollution Control Board directives.

Even as the blame game continues, the Supreme Court has stepped in. “It is not the way we can live. ‘Centre should do.. state should do’ can’t go on. This is too much. No room is safe to live in this city, even in homes. We are losing precious years of our lives due to this,” the court said today.

Insulation and ignorance, after all feeds on privilege.

It isn’t just the political and administrative end of the knife that is woefully blunt. The rich and influential continue to hold conservative opinions about pressing problems like climate change, largely because they can afford to. Insulation and ignorance, after all feeds on privilege. Diwali can be celebrated in a number of ways, but the insistence on burning crackers to assert the rights of “Hindus” or to make a show of it, all for a brief moment of light and days worth of smoke is in itself a privilege only a fraction of the country’s population can afford. Even though on Diwali, many areas in Delhi recorded an unimaginable AQI: In areas such as RK Puram, Patparganj, and around Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the reading reached 999, which is 16 times more than the prescribed limit.

All of this is premised on the thinking that the earth must be subjugated, that our natural resources are just awaiting their plunder. This isn’t as modern a thought process as you’d think. The use of coal on a commercial scale began as early as the 1700s. Ancient Rome, many now suggest, may have been brought down by climate changes, while the Egyptian kingdom suffered from air pollution and waste management problems even thousands of years ago.

The sad fact, however, is that we haven’t gotten any smarter. In fact, we have become more predatory. People who are responsible for this daylight robbery of essentials that belong to everyone, like clean, breathable air or pure, drinkable water, wear the glove of faint activism out in the open. Be it large corporate firms that donate to charity funds despite having enormous carbon footprints, or individuals who will drive to a protest and back to their plush, self-centered lifestyles. If they weren’t so streetsmart they might deny the risks outright. At least the latter version is honest.

The category of citizens that causes the most pollution makes the most noise about it from their safe havens or air-purified rooms. People who refuse to use public transport and insist on year-round air-conditioning can naturally afford to deny environmental emergencies for as long as they don’t affect one directly.

The lethargy of the well-heeled of Delhi to accommodate the others has had disastrous consequences. I live in Noida, a place teeming with towering, ugly, unfinished and disputed structures that seem perpetually in-process. Such unplanned, cynical, and reckless development only momentarily serves the buyers – it eternally serves those profiting off of it. There has been a ban on construction activity until November 5, but despite a public emergency being declared, the violations continue. A ban of firecrackers and construction was imposed last year and will once again be imposed next winter, but it has had little impact on the air quality.

A disproportionate amount of violation of the environment has been carried out by a select group that neither feels guilty nor reacts to the consequences.

Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein summarises this conflict perfectly. In her book This Changes Everything she writes, “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

India’s “development model” has now become a euphemism for taking raw land and concretising it to serve one corporate entity or the other. Not only has this strategy commodified the environment, it has forever compromised the future of the poor who cannot afford to contemplate the quality of the air while risking the meal they must work toward earning. They must consume this poison to survive just a little bit longer.

It wouldn’t take a genius to suggest where to look and what to change. Since declaring war on pollution in 2013, China has gradually brought down its carbon footprint and strictly regulated its construction businesses. The new regulations haven’t delivered completely, but at least they’ve shown the way. Who in the entirety of India’s administrative landscape will be willing to bell the fat and wealthy Indian cat?

A disproportionate amount of violation of the environment has been carried out by a select group that neither feels guilty nor reacts to the consequences. Right-wing, left-wing or centrists, regardless of the colour of the political lens, pollution is for the rich to create and the poor to suffer. We can choose to see it for what it is today, or live long enough to read about it through some laughably tragicomic metaphors like Caligula’s seashells or a union minister’s carrots. We, remember, will only get to play the tragedy.