How policymakers are accountable for air pollution deaths in India

We have quietly endured the inability of our governments to provide us with basic amenities such as clean air and potable water

Santosh Mangal December 18, 2021 11:20:53 IST
How policymakers are accountable for air pollution deaths in India

Representational image. AFP

In a recently published report in environmental journal, Science of the Total Environment, IIT Kanpur’s pollution experts Mukesh Kumar and Prateik Saini wrote about one lakh deaths in 29 Indian cities due to air pollution. The report said that these deaths could be attributed to the rising PM 2.5 levels. Delhi leads the pack in pollution, with Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Ahmedabad not far behind. Studies were conducted previously too, but this one was based on Ischemic Heart Disease and actual measured data on PM 2.5-related mortality.

In November-December, Delhi’s air gets heavy with smoke and the Air Quality Index (AQI) crosses the alarming 990 mark. Schools are shut, parks deserted. Yet, the problem of air pollution has been dealt with rather superficially over the years. As a result, the condition has worsened to the point of threatening the lives and livelihoods of people. The fact that a recurring health hazard has been handled rather feebly by the government, has forced the Supreme Court to step in suo motu.

The apex court has ordered government officials to develop a comprehensive policy and solution roadmap within three months. Authorities have also been instructed to present a feasibility report on the transition from fossil-based to hydrogen-based fuels. An unambiguous order in a strong language cannot be taken lightly, especially when accountability across ranks has been stressed upon. I believe that poor Indians can now hope that a solution will soon begin to take concrete shape.

Besides the fruitless measures taken to curb pollution, government officials have been lax on a couple of other related issues. Over 1,700 unauthorised colonies in Delhi have been regularised with the intent of maximising keeping in view the upcoming Assembly polls in the city. Urban planning has received little importance — the density ratio (number of people or the number of dwelling units per square kilometre) has evidently not been prioritised. A higher density than permissible leads to a deterioration in the quality of air and water.

When the quality of natural resources worsens, it is naturally the poorest sections of society that are worst affected. For a country that aspires and has the potential to be a global superpower, the proportion of people living below the poverty line is huge. In my opinion, public policy in India has largely been responsible for the inequality in incomes. It is in a political party’s interest to keep a segment of the population dependent on the freebies it doles out ahead of elections and after its victory. Government ‘largesse’ (be it cooking gas, food, healthcare support or toilets) often inappropriately sustains vote-bank politics.

Illiteracy and election

Governments in the last 50 years could have definitely raised the living standards by laying out better policies than by giving away food, clothing and basic amenities. However, despite slogans such as Garibi Hatao or present day schemes Ujjwala Yojana and Ayushman Bharat, the poor have continued to remain marginalised.

Likewise, at the time of Independence, every adult was given the right to vote. Does it make sense to give equal voting rights to those who are less likely to make an informed decision? Although this point was raised when the Constitution was drafted, it was overruled by illustrious authors such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and BR Ambedkar. I believe that an individual who is both poor and illiterate is not in the best situation to make a prudent decision. He will most likely be swayed by hunger, promises of freebies and the charm of immediate indulgence.

Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist and economist who got the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his research and study on human behaviour, conducted an in-depth study with some incredible findings. He said that the decision-making abilities of people who live under the rule of foreign invaders for more than 300 years get hampered and they act almost like those of slaves.

This finding helps explain a lot in the Indian context. It’s probably the reason why we as a country have behaved very similarly. We have been at the mercy of India’s bureaucracy for too long. We have quietly endured the inability of our governments to provide us with basic amenities such as clean air and potable water.

The author is president, Blackboard Education & Research Foundation, working for Skilling and educating Indian students and also founding chairman of WAIONN TECHNOLOGY, which is committed to working on transforming the water and AIR. The views expressed are personal.

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