Deadly political calculations: Why India isn’t fixing its toxic smog problem
As pollution levels surged to “severe” and “hazardous” levels in New Delhi this week, there was little sign that residents of India’s teeming capital were doing much to protect themselves.
The smog, which is expected to worsen in the next few days, exposed people to as much as 24 times the recommended limits for dangerous particles on Monday. But unlike in many Chinese cities, where face masks are a common sight when smog levels spike, it is still rare to see locals taking measures to reduce their exposure.
Toddlers stand at school bus stops in crisply ironed uniforms, while security guards, street sweepers, and rickshaw drivers spend many hours outside breathing in filthy air – all without any attempt at protection.
Ask middle-class residents whether they have air purifiers in their homes and the answer is invariably no.
This is despite the extensive coverage of the capital’s pollution crisis by local media, including numerous warnings from doctors about massive health hazards, especially for children, the sick and the elderly.
The apparent lack of concern about the toxic air – whether through ignorance, apathy or the blinding impact of poverty -gives federal and local politicians the cover they need for failing to vigorously address the problem, said pollution activists, social scientists and political experts.
Neither the governing party at federal level nor the main opposition are in power in the capital, giving them little incentive to cooperate with the city authorities.
And while Delhi may have a population of more than 20 million, its importance at voting time – a national election is due by May next year – is insignificant in comparison with states such as neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which has 220 million.
“The tragedy is that there is no political will at all either on the part of the federal government or the state government of Delhi and, as a result, we can see both blaming each other for the crisis that we are in,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political polling expert. “Whatever little government action you get to see is because of the pressure that environmental activists and the Supreme Court get to exert.”
Cocktail of fumes
India’s problems with smog extend far beyond Delhi – the nation of 1.3 billion has 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.
But in the capital, at least, this was the year the problem was supposed to be addressed.
After a cocktail of toxic fumes enveloped the area in October and November last year, the Delhi city government declared it a public health emergency and its Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described the Indian capital as a “gas chamber”. Officials of the federal government said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office had asked them to ensure that it did not happen again.
But steps taken so far have failed to make much difference, and now there is finger-pointing between Modi’s administration, the Delhi city government, and the governments of states around the capital.
As this year’s crisis has worsened, environment ministers from Punjab and Haryana – whose farmers’ stubble-burning is a major contributor to the haze – failed to turn up for a meeting called by the federal environment ministry last week, sending their civil servants instead.
The farmers have been torching their fields as they get ready for new plantings, despite being offered government subsidies on machinery that would allow them to mulch the material into the ground without lighting fires.
Farmers say the subsidies were not enough to cover the price of the machinery, the cost of running it, and the additional labor needed, especially given higher fuel prices.
India had planned to reduce crop burning by up to 70 percent this year but only a 30 percent drop has been visible so far, according to a government statement last Thursday.
Blaming that as the main reason behind New Delhi’s poisonous air, a spokesman for the city government, said: “We can’t take steps in isolation in Delhi; we can’t build a wall.”
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