Why Delhi's perennial air pollution isn't election issue for AAP, BJP or Congress: It's not a political problem yet

  • Today the problem of air pollution in Delhi has, merely, become the rhetoric of politicians, the orthodoxy of the scientific community, and thrives in the hot-house of climate debate

  • There is something called the tyranny of proximity. That is to say that people care about issues which are either immediate or have been troubling them consistently for a long time

  • As valuable as scientific data might be in alerting our rational brain to the existence of pollution, it does not galvanize our emotional brain into action. Pollution today is faceless and nameless

  • There is an urgent need to politicise the debate on pollution in Delhi so that Delhi's citizens can hold their politicians accountable for their laxity and follies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Delhi suffers from a debilitating bout of air pollution annually — from October to early January. Even people who have lived their entire lives in Delhi have come to dread the winters — when the city is striking in its likeliness to the unnerving visions described in the raw pages of a dystopia created by Cormac McCarthy — one which is not only besieged with high levels of toxic pollution but is accompanied with a spike in respiratory diseases, burning eyes, itching throats, all of which are compounded by a general sense of helplessness.

Studies show that a typical adult takes around 20,000 breaths per day. For someone living in Delhi, those 20,000 breaths include the equivalent of around 20 grains of table salt worth of particulate matter deposited in their lungs each day.

However, today the problem of air pollution in Delhi has, merely, become the rhetoric of politicians, the orthodoxy of the scientific community, and thrives in the hot-house of climate debate. Is it not pertinent to ask why are none of the political parties (AAP, BJP and Congress) or even Delhi's much vaunted 'informed' electorate talking about air pollution in the run-up to the Assembly elections on 8 February?

Barring, stray media bytes, air pollution simply does not seem to be an issue on which Delhi's elections are going to be fought. But why?

 Why Delhis perennial air pollution isnt election issue for AAP, BJP or Congress: Its not a political problem yet

Representational image. Reuters

First, during the winter months of pollution, the liberal commentariat, activist courts, and NGOs, predictably, lay into both the state government led by Arvind Kejriwal and the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for not doing anything 'constructive' (which often is a euphemism for not involving them in the decision-making process). Dons and area specialists incessantly wax eloquent on the subject of air pollution. They participate in obscure public seminars, give television interviews which no one watches, and write (Delphic) op-eds which put forward impractical solutions. Their zeal for educating the public and the policy makers is truly astonishing. However, more astonishing is how little they matter and that their prolific punditry (to quote Shashi Tharoor) is destined by providence to come to nought.

For, had they sufficiently and satisfactorily done their job, then today the electorate would be questioning political leaders who make specious claims like, "… we have reduced pollution in Delhi by 25% and it happened because we are in power in the state..." or "…it was the western and eastern peripheral expressways that reduced pollution in Delhi and it happened because we are in power in centre…".

Second, there is something called the tyranny of proximity. That is to say that people care about issues which are either immediate or have been troubling them consistently for a long time. Delhi's pollution problem fails on both the metrics: neither is it immediate (pollution declined in early January), nor is consistently long-term (the problem arises for 3 months annually, and then disappears). And the fear mongering, indulged in by the liberal lobby, does not help either, when the effects of pollution can rarely be seen in real time. That is why the politicos have gone conspicuously silent on this issue.

Third, George Marshall, in his book, shows (which seems likely to prove seminal in its impact in the fields of both environmentalism and psychology) Don't Even Think About It, that even though most of us are affected by climate change (here pollution), our brains are wired to ignore it. A prime reason he says is the use of scientific data in wanting to reach out to people. As valuable as scientific data might be in alerting our rational brain to the existence of pollution, it does not galvanize our emotional brain into action. Pollution today is faceless and nameless, or as psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, "…a distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn't have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion…"

Lastly, people who live in Delhi have just got used to it. For them the issue of pollution is akin to a broken road or an overflowing sewer in the locality. It might be resolved eventually or might not be resolved at all. It just doesn't matter for it is now part of the daily routine — a habit that we have got used to, as Moore and Obradovich show in their paper.

There is an urgent need to politicise the debate on pollution in Delhi so that Delhi's citizens can hold their politicians accountable for their laxity and follies. This can only happen when the issue moves out of the entwined labyrinth of science, carbon dioxide and temperature change models. It has to become about biases, values, and ideology, so that the issue can resonate with the people.

The author is an independent columnist

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2020 13:04:24 IST