Delhi air pollution: Environmental crisis must be seen in conjunction with politics for effective solutions

  • The pollution problem in North India is not a technology problem or an agriculture problem, or even a traffic problem

  • The solution must be sought in changing economic incentives for farmers in North India to get out of their bad habits

  • We have almost reached the point where the air will similarly become a commodity

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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Most places on earth, you don’t see the air, and you generally breathe it without thinking about it. Nothing is more natural and more vital for any human being, or indeed, for any mammal on land. Delhi is now a rare exception to this. Here, if you are arriving by air, the city’s presence is visible first as an immense grey cloud of gloom. The aircraft, if it is able to – low visibility caused 37 flights to be diverted and over 500 to be delayed on Monday — flies into this noxious cloud, and lands. Thereafter, the traveller emerges into a thick, soupy haze. The air is an endless blanket of grey through which a weak sun barely shines.

Delhi’s air in 2018 was the worst of any capital city in the world in the density of the harmful fine particulate matter called PM 2.5, according to Swiss monitoring group IQ AirVisual and Greenpeace. India also managed to have seven of the top ten cities in this list of “most polluted in the world”. Greenpeace, which is viewed with suspicion by many because it is an international NGO, is probably biased against India, because the World Health Organisation list puts nine of the top ten most polluted cities in the world in India. Why did Greenpeace reduce the scale of our achievement?

 Delhi air pollution: Environmental crisis must be seen in conjunction with politics for effective solutions

A view of Rajpath shrouded in smog in New Delhi. PTI

Soon, if things continue in the present manner, we will have all the top 10 slots for the most polluted cities in the world; indeed, it is possible that we already do, since Delhi, despite its international infamy in the global hall of pollution, is not even in the top 10 in India itself, judging by Central Pollution Control Board data. We also have a situation where every man, woman and child breathing the air in those cities will lose a few years from their lives, as they already are. Their lives are being shortened by 10 or more years relative to how long they could be expected to live if World Health Organisation air quality guidelines were met. This can be deduced from a report on Air Quality Life Index in India by the University of Chicago.

Incidents of lung cancer afflicting non-smokers are spiralling. Those who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases are literally struggling to breathe. Even those who are fully fit are suffering. Our ministers, being great and wise and deeply concerned about our welfare, have been dispensing advice and taking measures on how to deal with this situation. The Union health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has recommended eating carrots. Sunil Bharala, a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, also of the BJP, has recommended conducting a “yagya” and praying to Lord Indra.

Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate, has brought back his favourite odd/even vehicle rationing scheme. While this is more useful in combating pollution than eating carrots or sitting on them, it does not really address the situation, whose primary cause is not vehicular pollution from cars. As is well known, the principal factor in the seasonal spike in air pollution over North India around Diwali is mainly due to the burning of crop stubbles from fields after harvest season. The effects of this do not remain localised, because the air does not remain in one place. It spreads out all over the Indo-Gangetic plain and reaches Bengal, Orissa and South India.

North India is not the only place in the world where crops of wheat and rice are grown and harvested. Crops grow around the globe. Even in India, every region has agriculture. Why then is North India the only part of the country and the world to see such levels of pollution from crop burning? It probably has something to do with the fact that elsewhere, the crop stubbles left after harvesting are not burnt on such scale. Instead, they are put to use, as compost for fertilising the soil, as animal feed, or as inputs for industries such as brick kilns.

The pollution problem in North India is not a technology problem or an agriculture problem, or even a traffic problem. It is an economics problem. The solution must be sought in changing economic incentives for farmers in North India to get out of their bad habits. The carrot that will improve health is not the one with Vitamin A but the one with Vitamin M, where M stands for money. This carrot needs to be paired with a matching stick, in the shape of fines for those who continue with polluting environmentally harmful practices, even if they happen to be farmers, a class that is usually given a free pass on everything from water to electricity to crop burning.

The environmental crisis facing India and the developing world at present cannot be separated from economic issues. We are seeing massive greed leading to a reckless loot of natural resources in the form of land, water, minerals and forests, across the country. This is happening at the small local level but also at the big global level. The participants in the loot range from the penurious illegal miner risking his life to extract a bit of coal, to the billionaire barons before whom governments bend.

What is generally understood as progress and development – meaning economic and technological advancement – has benefited a vast number of people around the world. It has also kept us humans ahead of Malthusian predictions of impending doom. In the process, everything has been monetised. Water, for instance, flowed free in most of the world. I still have recollections of drinking spring water from actual springs while walking home from school in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, of course, the only spring water you’re likely to find anywhere is in a bottle.

We have almost reached the point where the air will similarly become a commodity. Already, those with fancy masks and air purifiers have a quality of air denied to those who cannot afford those. The days of clean pure air being sold in tanks is probably not far, if things go as they are going in India. Business interests will no doubt be thrilled at the immense opportunity. After all, everyone has to breathe to live. The question is, is it a human right – and a right for those poor animals who didn’t poison the planet and now suffer the consequences of our greed — to breathe clean air for free?

Or must we now conclude that only those who can afford to pay for the air they breathe have the right to live?

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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2019 10:14:41 IST