Only Policy Can Help Tackle India’s Pollution. Not Individual Action By Woke Citizens


Only Policy Can Help Tackle India’s Pollution. Not Individual Action By Woke Citizens

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Just imagine for a moment that every Delhi citizen suddenly decided to do their individual bit to tackle pollution. Not some silly brand-driven online thing (#IPledgeToTackleDelhiPollutionUsingAClunkyHashtag). But actual action like ditching cars and using public transport. Segregating waste and cycling too, for good measure.

Sounds great, except that:

  1. It would realistically never happen.
  2. Even if it did, it wouldn’t help Delhi’s pollution crisis.

Let me explain. Around the world, successful tackling of pollution has always been rooted in policy, not individual action. Most people are just too busy and stressed trying to make ends meet to have the mindspace and luxury to drastically change their lifestyle, especially if it adds an element of discomfort or uncertainty. Sweeping statements like “we should all use public transport” or “cycle to office!” mean nothing unless there is ease of adoption – people cannot afford to be civic-minded beyond a point. (Although, carrying out our country’s health minister’s suggestion of eating carrots to tackle pollution should be easy to implement.)

Let’s take a tour around the world of countries that have managed to deal with pollution. Don’t worry, it’s a (sadly) short tour.

A great place to start is Western European and Scandinavia. Paris, Copenhagen and Berlin have partially banned cars in certain areas. The Netherlands will ban petrol and diesel cars by 2025 – the famously pedal-friendly country allows cycles to be carried on public transport anyway. Car use is dissuaded is this region as well – Zurich is restricting parking areas, while Helsinki is hiking parking fees. France and Luxembourg make public transport free during certain events.

Perhaps the more extreme example of policy being used to tackle pollution comes from our regional Sharmaji ka beta, China. The reason this is a good comparison is that China has several problems similar to us – heavy polluting industries and a massive population that’s discovering energy. After publicly declaring war on pollution in 2014, there has been a startling reduction in pollutants in major cities in just five years. These efforts could be classified as progressive or aggressive, depending on your point of view – shutting down several polluting plants, removing coal-based heaters from homes, massive fines for industry and individual alike, and more. All this worked – Beijing reduced pollution by 35 per cent, and a study found its citizens would live 3.3 years longer on average. Opinion of the implementation aside, China’s approach definitely acts as proof that permanent tackling of climate change can happen only from the top. This is in line with another major environmental issue – banning plastic. But for the success of this, we need well thought-through government measures (unlike India’s rushed decision where we announced a ban on single-use plastic and then shelved it) to successfully implement a policy, rather than a cute acronym and posing with celebrities.

Climate change (and hence, pollution) can be tackled only by international cooperation.

The measures taken by the government in tackling climate is not just limited to the punitive but also constructive. European cities have invested heavily in building cycle lanes (which are actually used for cycles, unlike the perfunctory effort at Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex) and there are several studies showing that an improved public transport system helps reduce vehicular pollution around the world – from Barcelona to Brazil. Why, Delhi’s own Metro helped reduce noxious gases by over 30 per cent in some areas.

The other reason why we need the government to step up is more international in nature. Climate change (and hence, pollution) can be tackled only by international cooperation. Hence, strong representation at climate agreements like the Paris Accord is vital, as is doing trade responsibly.

All of which brings us back to Delhi’s current woes. If you ask any expert or Google “reasons for Delhi’s climate change” you’ll see that most of the line items needs policy to solve them.

For starters, a problem unique to Delhi is the crop burning in Punjab. The machinations of electoral politics and low wind speeds have teamed up to predictably smog up the capital region every year. The former has persisted for years thanks to the immaturity of our elected overlords. The overall story is quite complicated, but we can sum it up thus:

Delhi government: Dude, tell your farmers to quit that crop * cough * burning 

Punjab: lol not our problem bro

Centre: Pass the popcorn. Oh, who wants to open another polluting factory in Delhi-NCR while environmental laws are still lax?

Several industrialists: Me! Me! Me!

Given the above, you’d be forgiven for secretly wishing for a China-like authoritarian crackdown for a while.

The measures taken by the government in tackling climate is not just limited to the punitive but also constructive.

As for the low wind speeds thanks to Delhi’s “cursed geography” as one climate writer put it, nothing can really be done on the policy front, though our health minister might well recommend drinking cow urine so the Gods can bring us stronger speeds.

As for pollution from cars – the limited impact that CM Arvind Kejriwal’s odd-even experiment should show that even if well-meant, it’s not a sole solution for Delhi. Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a correlation in rise of pollution with crop-burning, obviating any benefit of taking cars off the road. Even if all of Delhi’s cars were to suddenly go electric, given the region’s dependence on coal-based electricity, the problem won’t be solved – just shifted nearby.

By now, what I’m saying should be pretty clear. Global examples and public data points to solutions for Delhi’s (and any city’s) pollution lying in new policies and programmes, not someone using one less firecracker during Diwali. Given that this region has bitter politics, and seats a Union government keen to denigrate any efforts of the city government, don’t count on any region-wide cooperation.

Get a mask and air purifier. And sure, some carrots.