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Indians gasp as governments grope

Prakash Javadekar, once again environment minister, must be experiencing a sense of déja vu.

Published: 03rd November 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd November 2019 10:18 AM   |  A+A-

People wear masks during their morning walk in a park amid heavy smog in New Delhi.

People wear masks during their morning walk in a park amid heavy smog in New Delhi. (Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)

History, it is said, repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. In India, history simply repeats itself as tragedy and again as tragedy. On December 30, 2015, as decibels rose with the smog, Prakash Javadekar, then the Minister of Environment, announced 39 steps under Section 18 of the Air Act. These dealt with garbage burning, managing construction waste, public transport, curbing emissions and agri waste disposal. Two years later, in 2017, little had changed. In November, schools were shut down as smog enveloped the national capital region. In December, air pollution levels shot up to 15 times WHO limits, play was halted in a match between Sri Lanka and India as a Lankan player had vomited, and United Airlines halted flights to Delhi.

In November 2019, it is sequel season once again. Prakash Javadekar, once again environment minister, must be experiencing a sense of déja vu. This week, despite the ban on crackers, the air quality index for areas of the national capital region yo-yoed between unhealthy and hazardous. The Delhi government was forced to shut down schools until November 5. The Environment Protection Agency initiated emergency measures, shutting down power plants, manufacturing units and all construction. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the India-Bangladesh T20 match, players were forced to wear masks while training. 

It is not just Delhi which is affected by air pollution. The granularity of data on PM2.5 levels in Delhi simply represents a national crisis. And it is not seasonal either — the inversion in winter only makes apparent what is choking millions through the year across the country. Earlier this year, a global study analysed data on the lethal particulate matter levels (PM2.5) with reference to WHO guidelines and placed 15 of India’s cities, many of them smart cities, among the 30 most polluted cities of the world. A WHO study revealed only eight of 124 Indian cities had liveable air quality — over 650 million people live in areas where annual mean concentration of PM2.5 exceeds safe levels.

The consequence of poor air quality on people is not unknown.  The reality of fatalities caused by morbidity triggered by poor air quality has been known since the 1990s. In 1995, a World Bank study titled ‘The cost of inaction’ revealed that air pollution was causing over 40,000 premature deaths. In 2015, a study led by Johannes Lelieveld at Max Planck Institute revealed that 6.5 lakh people die because of air pollution in India. In 2018, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation revealed that 1.24 million deaths in 2017 were attributable to air pollution. 

Poor air quality has left Indians gasping even as the government is groping for solutions for over two decades. In every Lok Sabha for the past two decades, MPs questioned the government on pollution-related deaths. In 1998, the government’s response was, “No conclusive evidence on the incidence of ailments due to environmental pollution could be inferred.”

In 2019, the government said, “There is no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlation of death/disease exclusively due to air pollution.” There is an unmistakable sameness in the narrative of successive regimes — notwithstanding the facts presented in a series of studies. Starting with the United Front, NDA I, UPA I, UPA II and NDA II have all chosen almost the same words to question the correlation between morbidity and mortality. It is almost as if morbidity is an acceptable state of living for Indians. 

Every administration in Parliament recites chapter and verse of steps being taken. In July 2000, India was told that “The government has formulated a comprehensive Policy for Abatement of Pollution that lays stress on both the control and preventive aspects of pollution.”

In 2010, Parliament was informed, “A number of activities have been undertaken by different ministries and agencies of the Central government for improving the ambient air quality in metropolitan cities.” In July 2019, the government told Lok Sabha that it has “taken a number of regulatory measures”. Yet, this winter in the national capital, the government must enforce emergency measures under the Supreme Court-determined graded response action plan. 

The discourse on the causes and consequences air pollution is enveloped in the dense smog of breathless confusion and conflation — of seasonal, spatial and systemic issues. The chatter around the issue has triggered binary views on burning of firecrackers and crop stubble. It is true that firecrackers aggravate conditions. It is equally true that burning of agri waste, soon after harvest in October, worsens air quality across the northern states. However, these are not the only reasons for the worsening air quality. 

Poor air quality is a manifestation of policies on the ground. In urbanisation, it is about management of space and population density, in infrastructure it is about mass transport for last-mile connectivity, in power it is about choice of location and fuel, in agriculture it is dovetailing of subsidies and waste management, and above all it is about enforcing regulations and law. India needs smart cities, yes, it also needs smart policies which imagine a better life.

(The author can be contacted at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com)

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  • bala

    urban unruly expansion --is it caused by common man; Stubble burningis the oldest form. Did any Govt try to improve to prevent pollution. Politicians irrespective of any party bent upon looting public. and common man is a silent spectator. in every state there is scndal amounting over Rs 10000 crores. Whose money > From Sonia to sharad pawar
    8 months ago reply
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