Delhi Pollution Crisis Ignites ‘Pollution Politics’

Winter has approached, and so have the headlines about the degrading quality of air in the national capital- Delhi. Covered in ‘hazardous’ blanket of thick, noxious smog, Delhi and near regions have now become a hub that ignited a new spark in politics forcing forced politicians like Arvind Kejriwal, Captain Amarinder Singh, Prakash Javadekar to speak up.

Amid the worsening air quality in and around the National Capital Region (NCR), Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on October 19, said that the pollution can be defeated if all the parties keep their politics aside.

CM Arvind Kejriwal said that if all the governments work hard and make honest efforts together, then the pollution caused due to stubble can be substantially reduced in a short period.

Is stubble the major issue? 

As farmers in India’s north finish harvesting their rice crop, thick, dark plumes of smoke and soot have risen into the air over the Indo-Gangetic plains. The state of Punjab has banned stubble-burning, but for many farmers – especially those running smaller scale operations – simply setting fire to the paddy straw remains the fastest way to clear the land and begin sowing wheat.

Delhi Pollution Politics
Image Credits: The Logical Indian

The fundamental issue is that, from 2009, the Punjab government has had farmers delay the start of the rice crop so that seasonal rains could replenish the groundwater first before being diverted to agriculture. There are only a couple weeks between the rice and wheat seasons, making combustion a tempting solution.

But while the state government has advanced plenty of alternatives to farmers, farmers have complained that the alternatives are still less lucrative than simply starting fires.

Stubble-burning is not new – but it became more intense after the 2009 rule to delay rice-sowing, in marked fashion on air-pollution maps from around 2016, and ultimately after the country’s capital of Delhi began to rank in the top 10 on lists of the world’s cities with the worst air. And when pressurised to do something about the problem, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has regularly invoked stubble-burning as one of the causes of the city’s plight.

However, experts – as well as Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar – have said that stubble-burning is only one of many sources of pollution. The former has also cautioned that focusing on stubble-burning could allow political leaders to escape blame for not attending to point-sources of pollution within the city. These include vehicular and industrial emissions.

Centre vs Kejriwal

Refuting Delhi government’s assertion that sharp spike in pollution levels in NCR during winters is due to stubble burning, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said that it is not a major factor behind the air pollution.

Blaming it on the local factors, Javadekar said, “50 teams of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) will be deployed for inspection in Delhi-NCR from today. Stubble burning contributes only 4% of pollutants in the environment of Delhi. Rest are due to local factors like dust, construction and biomass burning.”

Over the last month, Javadekar held meetings with representatives of states from North India to discuss steps that can be taken to reduce levels of pollution.

Taking into account the local factors responsible for the air pollution, the Delhi government has launched an anti-dust campaign and issued guidelines for construction sites. It has instructed all the concerned departments to take immediate action against any violation.

They also launched a new campaign to encourage people to switch engines of their vehicles off while waiting at traffic signals.

Can air quality influence voters?

Just a few years ago, Congress leader from Haryana Deepender Hooda had said that Padmaavat, not pollution becomes a political issue in India. A nation has to cross a threshold before issues like air quality can begin to influence voters. Delhi appears to have reached that point now.

Now, Delhi is witnessing the politicisation of the pollution debate. The issue is now just one step away from the ballot box. BSP chief Mayawati compared the problem to demonetisation and unemployment. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh called upon the Narendra Modi government to compensate farmers for stubble management. Uttar Pradesh minister Sunil Bharara sought divine intervention in the matter and asked governments to perform Yagya.

Not the first time for ‘Pollution Politics’

This won’t be the first-time air pollution has played out in the Delhi politics. The first pollution politics was fought by the Congress government of late Sheila Dikshit between 1998 and 2003.

In the 1998 election, calling Delhi ‘the pollution capital’ was one of the main attacks of the Congress against the BJP-ruled government in Delhi. The Congress won and Sheila Dikshit set out to change Delhi’s public transport fleet.  The Supreme Court set a deadline of 2001 for buses, taxis and autos to convert to CNG. Despite widespread protests, Dikshit introduced CNG.

In the subsequent election in 2003, ‘saaf hawa’ was one of the Congress campaign slogans. Congress even ran a campaign film that mentioned how a Delhi resident’s white shirt used to turn black due to pollution earlier.

Appreciable improvement in clean air was widely accepted as one of the factors for Sheila Dikshit’s victory – probably for the first time in India. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress and the BJP manifestos even pledged to tackle the country’s air pollution.

In present times, Arvind Kejriwal and Delhi itself have many difficult challenges and times are different from 1998. The problem is complex and needs a solution. But the solution should take into consideration the economic condition of farmers, the scientific options available and the willingness of the Central government to change policy and fund a major part of the expenditure. Blaming any particular part alone will not do; citizens need to put in their bit too.

The real challenge and test will be the winter sky after Diwali.

Also Read: Delhi CM Kejriwal launches ‘Green Delhi’ mobile app to check air pollution