The body of evidence is simply compelling–Delhi’s apocalyptic sky, the thick smog that sits on the city like an unbearable sadness, the acrid smell, the burning sensation in the eyes, the itchy throat, the wheezing of senior citizens that alarmingly sounds like a death rattle, and the air quality index dipping as if in freefall. These are telling details about Delhi’s residents choking on the air they are condemned to breathe.
But these also testify to the constitutional arrangement in the city-state turning toxic. Delhi’s air is turning poisonous because its politics too has.
For an office that claims that it is the government of Delhi, the silence of its occupant, Anil Baijal, on the city’s deteriorating air quality is bewildering, even shocking. For all the anxiety and alarm spawned by media reports on the city’s air quality index, Baijal has yet to publicly offer his diagnosis or solutions or even provide assurances to its citizens gasping in quiet desperation. Perhaps Baijal is of the retiring kind.
But then, come to think of it, why would Baijal want to calm people down, and promise them a future in which the air would be clean and fresh? It isn’t the people who have elected him to the office of Lieutenant Governor; it isn’t to them he is answerable and accountable.
Baijal is the appointee of the Central government; he is answerable to it alone. It makes sense for Baijal to say whatever he has to on the pollution issue to the Central government. This is more so because of the three-year history of the tussle between the Central government and the Aam Aadmi Party government. The tussle has been over the question: Who’s the government of Delhi? Is it the Centre’s nominee, the Lieutenant Governor, or a government that the people elected?
The manner in which the question has been framed camouflages the bruising battle the Centre has been engaged in arrogating to itself the power to rule over Delhiites. And this despite the AAP winning 67 out of Delhi’s 70 seats months after the Bharatiya Janata Party swept all the seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi in 2014. The logic behind the choice of Delhiites could be deciphered thus–they wanted the BJP to rule at the Centre, and AAP to solve their everyday problems.
Yet, ever since the AAP’s victory in Delhi, just about every proposal of the its government has been stonewalled, including the setting up of mohalla clinics, praised around the world for its novelty, and lowering of fees in schools built on government land. The authority stonewalling these measures has been the Lieutenant Governor, the Centre’s appointee.
No doubt, the question as to who the government of Delhi is will be answered by the Supreme Court after interpreting the Constitution. Yet, Delhi’s deadly air quality underscores the perils of having as government an unelected entity–which the Lieutenant Governor is.
For instance, it is an annual feature of Delhi to have its sky turn forbiddingly dark between end-October to mid-November, give or take a few days. This is because farmers in Punjab and Haryana, as is now well known, take to burning the stalks of crops left behind after the harvest season. The smoke then drifts across to Delhi, leading to the pathetic air quality.
The problem of burning the stubble is linked to the increasing use of mechanized harvesters–these scythe the crop, but don’t uproot it. The stalks left behind could be cleared manually to prepare the land for the next sowing season. However, the rising cost of labour has prompted farmers to opt for the more cost-effective method of burning their fields, much to the lament of Delhiites and environmentalists, now an annual feature before the onset of every winter.
The terrible headlines Delhi’s poor air quality generates at this time of the year should have been enough to goad any government to think of preventive measures. After all, governments are image-conscious, acutely sensitive to angering people.
For starters, the Delhi government could have entered into dialogue with the neighbouring states for encouraging farmers to desist from burning the stubble– for instance, subsidising the cost involved in clearing the stalks manually. Alternatively, Delhi and the neighbouring states could have together presented a memorandum to the Central government to allocate funds for bankrolling the removal of stubble manually.
Such plans can’t even be contemplated because dyarchy defines the system of governance in Delhi. There is an elected government, but it doesn’t have real powers. There is the Lieutenant Government who has those powers, but he isn’t elected. He isn’t answerable to Delhiites, but to the ruling party at the Centre, which is at loggerheads with AAP, the ruling party in Delhi.
The farcical nature of democracy in Delhi is best proved by the notice of meeting which the Environment Department of the Delhi government issued on 8 November. The notice was addressed to a list of officers. It said, “In view of the severe air pollution situation in Delhi, an urgent meeting has been called under the Chairmanship of Hon’ble Lt Governor, Delhi on 8.11.2017 at 5.30 p.m. in the Conference Room, Raj Niwas, Delhi. You are requested to kindly attend the meeting personally.”
The first name on the list of officers requested to attend the meeting is that of the Secretary to the Chief Minister, Delhi. And then these words, in bold, “– with a request to Hon’ble Chief Minister to attend the meeting.”
It should tell Delhites that the man who they chose as Chief Minister is denied even the power to improve the quality of air they breathe.
Democracy can become farcical because of its contradiction, as it is true of what Delhi has. The outline of the farce can be sketched–if Delhiites lament or become furious at the poor air quality, they have the option of venting it on the polling day. But it isn’t the Lieutenant Governor who they will be voting against. They will be voting against Delhi’s ruling party, which the BJP will claim could not provide good governance. But it couldn’t provide good governance because it didn’t have the powers or these were simply usurped.
Perhaps the Lt. Governor believes that Delhiites, through their racking lungs and incurable coughs, will acquire the sagacity to vote for that party in the next Assembly election that is also ruling at the Centre. The BJP hopes it will return to power at the Centre in 2019. Delhi will have its Assembly elections in 2020.
Delhi is trapped in the circle of futility, because its democracy is farcical, scripted for a dystopia. Baijal has no choice but to remain silent.
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 06:35 AM