As Delhi pollution levels hit 'severe' on Christmas eve, green activists argue for decentralised governance

A blanket of grey smog concealed the fairy lights that were used to deck up Delhi for Diwali. Even now, when twinkling Christmas lights are up, the rising PM 2.5 levels are playing killjoy. Diwali, a time when pollution rises to lung-clogging PM 2.5 levels of over 900 in Delhi, coincides with the stubble burning season in the agrarian belts of Punjab and Haryana.

On 23 December, a month and a half after the Festival of Lights, data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) showed the overall Air Quality Index (AQI) at 446, which falls under the 'severe' category. The Centre-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting (SAFAR) showed a higher AQI level, at 471. This was the second-highest pollution level of this year, with the highest recorded on 8 November, the morning after Diwali, when the PM 2.5 levels touched 571.

At 4 pm on Christmas Eve, PM 2.5 levels around the Mother Dairy Plant in East Delhi's Patparganj area were at a 'hazardous' 311. At the same time, around the National Institute for Malaria Research in South West Delhi's Dwarka, PM 2.5 levels hit a staggering 581.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

One of the primary problems in this regard is that pollution tends to become a national concern only during Diwali, when a grey envelope of smog appears around the city and disrupts not just people's health but their peace of mind. Poor quality air deserves a deconstructed analysis because its sources are aplenty, and bans by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and Supreme Court orders that are haphazardly lashed out after pollution levels touch unbearable highs are not the answer.

Ashutosh Dikshit, CEO of the United Residents Joint Action (URJA), believes that decentralised governance is the solution to this problem. We'll come back to this in a bit.

In his 2012 book Swaraj, Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal had emphasised on the need for mohalla sabhas, or community meetings, as urban equivalents to the gram sabhas. He had written that mohalla sabhas, which were given the same recognition as gram sabhas by the Nagar Raj Bill Act, should be created "by putting together 3,000 people of a particular area"; all decisions should be made collectively, and local officials should implement these decisions. This was an over-simplistic estimation for a place like Delhi, where multiple — and often opposing — administrative authorities are engaged in urban governance.

Here's an explainer: The centrally-run Delhi Development Authority (DDA) can own land in the national capital, but the Delhi government can plan its usage; the Delhi Police functions under the Centre central government; roads above 60 feet are managed by the Public Works Department (PWD) and those below that level are controlled by municipal corporations of Delhi (MCDs); a particular road may be under the control of the MCD, but its maintenance may become the domain of the PWD.

Moreover, the filth in the Yamuna is a hot subject for discussions, but the fact that there is no single unified body that oversees the state of the river is barely known. There are a dozen authorities to look after the river, which is the source of 70 percent of Delhi's water needs. These include the Delhi government's revenue department, the irrigation and flood control department, the Delhi Jal Board and the DDA, along with civic bodies. How can the planning and delivery of civic services by the DDA and MCDs be subject to democratic feedback if the local government has no direct control over these administrative bodies?

In contrast, the regional government of Beijing is well-funded, and its decentralised plans to incorporate local data on air pollution has succeeded in areas that are 25 times the size of Delhi. The Chinese national capital has deployed a large number of sensors to crowdsource localised data into official stats sourced from expensive instruments.

"In a place like Delhi, too, results from low-cost sensors on air purifiers that cost upwards of Rs 2,000 can be incorporated into the findings of instruments that cost over Rs 10 lakh but can't be placed everywhere. Crowdsourcing data and mixing that information with official data will help Delhi monitor air quality better," said Amit Bhatt of the World Resources Institute.

Now back to URJA. The group is a non-ideological, apolitical network of more than 2,500 Resident Welfare Associations. It was formed in 2005 to deal with the increase in power tariffs that year after privatisation of power distribution, but the group now focuses on improving the last mile of governance where politicians and bureaucrats seem absent.

"A broken road has no ideology, and a broken road cannot be justified by piles of paperwork. Indian cities need a ground force that is non-ideological and can implement decisions, a ground force that is neither political nor bureaucratic," said URJA CEO Ashutosh, explaining that his experience in local administration shows that citizens feel compelled to participate only when governments show seriousness about matters.

Environmentalist C Srinivasan developed what is called the Vellore model, which can be executed through a decentralised disposal system. It involves associations of service providers separately composting or safely disposing of the waste generated by firms in their field. All that the local body has to do, in Srinivas' opinion, is to give them a site for safe disposal or composting along with facilitating them with the technology. This way, zero waste reaches dumps or landfills, and the waste is segregated into broad categories of recyclable and organic waste at the source.

Unless local bodies work hand-in-hand with citizens, segregating waste at the source will be impossible. "If people segregate the waste and MCDs put it all together in one truck, they will see no sense in keeping up the practice," Ashutosh explained.

Similarly, there are talks about developing a pedestrian-friendly environment, but citizens cannot set out to make a footpath.

The other problem here is that welfare and market associations don't have any statutory powers. In 2011, the MCD approved setting up resident ward committees in each of Delhi's 272 wards. The then mayor of Delhi, PR Sawhney, had said this move "will bring a new level of accountability, transparency and trust between the elected representatives and residents". Within a year, the MCD was divided into three wings — the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, North Delhi Municipal Corporation and East Delhi Municipal Corporation — and the resident ward committees that were going to be headed by municipal councillors were dismantled.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act provided for ward committees to be constituted in urban local bodies that covered areas with a population over 3 lakh. The ward committees were expected to act as an institutional space to encourage citizens' participation in matters related to urban local governance. Unless RWAs are given statutory powers, all kinds of evidence-based, policy-related agitations are bound to hit a glass ceiling.

Ashutosh shared a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between URJA and the Delhi mayor's office to implement the resident ward committee scheme:

MOU_RWC (1)

"Delhi has a problem of complete uncertainty of authority. If there is a road, even the drains on that road are managed by different authorities. The sewage drains are managed by the Delhi Jal Board, and the storm water drains are controlled by the MCD."

Ashutosh described this as a territorial problem, not a political problem.

Sources in the Delhi government said the legwork, research and proposal for the operation of mohalla sabhas is pending with the revenue department. These days, governance failures in the national capital are reduced to the tussle between the BJP-led Centre and the AAP-led Delhi government, which claims that its hands are tied by the lieutenant general. While the central and Delhi governments continue to fail to come together to resolve the air pollution problem, they slay Delhi's spirits one festival at a time.

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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2018 11:21 AM

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