Pollution concerns vanish behind haze of toxic poll campaign in Delhi

Updated 12:22 AM, 10 May, 2019
BJP supporters during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

As a sea of crowd waited for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on May 8, a scrawny Santosh Ranjan could hardly contain his excitement. “It was my dream to see Modiji live,” he said, literally gasping for breath.

Once the Prime Minister took the stage, almost everything that he said was greeted with wild cheers and collective tongue-clickings from the audience. But much before the PM’s speech reached its climax, Santosh readied himself to leave. “Ghutan ho rahi hai (It’s getting very stifling). It’s too crowded, I can hardly breathe,” he tried to justify his early exit.

While the BJP supporter was perhaps unaware of what was possibly causing his breathlessness in the midst of a heated poll campaign, the Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) had nosedived to a ‘very poor’ 341 on Wednesday. According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), it was expected to deteriorate further to ‘severe’ category due to dust storm in northwest India. On Thursday, it rose to 386. The Central Pollution Control Board defines clean days as those when the air quality index is either “good”, “satisfactory” or “moderate”. While an AQI between 0 and 50 is considered “good”, 51 and 100 “satisfactory”, 101 and 200 “moderate”, 201 and 300 “poor”, 301 and 400 “very poor”, and 401 and 500 “severe”.

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According to SAFAR scientist Gufran Beig, the entire northwest India, including Delhi, was going to be in the grip of dust storm from Wednesday night and the air quality in the national capital now predicted to touch ‘severe’ category. “It will continue to be so till May 10,” he says.

That’s two days before Delhi goes to polls on May 12.

A toxic tale

The air quality in Delhi reaches toxic levels every year during winters, but many living in the city hardly realise that Delhi records high levels of pollution throughout the year. This summer, while the election season has become increasingly toxic, air pollution crisis has failed to command the attention of the noxious cloud that covers poll campaigns in India.

According to a recent report — Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India 2014-2019 — released by Delhi-based Climate Trends, our MPs have not been “pro-active in addressing the issue of air quality in their respective constituencies”.

The national capital, it said, has been witnessing “negligence and laziness from its elected caretakers”. “The government institutional machinery in Delhi, which sends seven MPs to Lok Sabha and has an elected government with several MLAs, can at best be described as reactive than pro-active based on evidence available.” the report added.

Interestingly, it also pointed out what Delhi MPs have done on air pollution in Parliament. For instance, in January this year, Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, Dr Harsh Vardhan said in Parliament that there is “no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlation of death/disease exclusively to air pollution”. While he dismissed various reports about pollution-related deaths in India, the minister said such reports were released only to cause panic. An MP from Chandni Chowk constituency, Harsh Vardhan is seeking a re-election.

Meanwhile, MP and BJP’s New Delhi candidate Meenakshi Lekhi asked questions about air pollution at different times on AAP government’s odd-even car rationing formula, level of pollution, impact of pollution on monuments, etc.

Poll manifestoes

However, climate change and air pollution have featured in the manifestoes of the major political parties for the first time in 2019. While the Congress manifesto promises to strengthen the ‘National Clean Air Programme’ to tackle the problem, environmental experts fear that may not be adequate.

“In Section 3, point 5 of the Congress manifesto, a promise has been made to formulate a policy on clean energy in power plants that use fossil fuels. While this does show positive intent, it does not adequately respond to the complexity of the issue,” Balasubramanian Viswanathan, Energy Analyst Consultant at International Institute of Sustainable Development, was quoted by news agency IANS.

The BJP too has underlined the issue of climate change and the effort it has been making to tackle the challenges related to it. The manifesto also makes ambitious plans to establish renewable energy capacity of 175 gigawatt (GW) by 2022.

As far as the Aam Aadmi Party’s manifesto is concerned, cleanliness, pollution, transport, Yamuna rejuvenation feature prominently in it. On Tuesday (May 7), the party released constituency-wise manifestos of South Delhi and North West Delhi Lok Sabha seats. Combating pollution and access to higher educational institutions were two key promises highlighted it them.

But environmental experts contended that going into the details may expose serious flaws in the promises made by the political parties. They, however, believed “it is positive sign that Indian political parties now have realised the importance of the environment”.

Are MPs alone responsible?

Given that local issues are managed by the state governments, there is little that the MPs alone can do to bring the desired change. However, parliamentarians are entitled do get funds from Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to spend on “local interventions”. “There has been a lukewarm response from both the state government and the MPs towards attaining safe air quality standards,” the above-mentioned report added.

However, it’s not just the politicians. Even voters don’t seem to be aware of the actual dangers. In Delhi, across constituencies, a number of voters that The Federal approached talked about pollution only when asked.

Discussions about air pollution are limited to winters and among upper middle class and the rich, some of who now have made it a habit to wear a face mask while stepping out or/and stay inside with air purifiers. But not all of them are aware despite the purchasing powers. Top manufacturers and retailers say Indians are still sceptical about purchasing air purifiers despite the fact that entry-level prices have been cut to almost half (nearly Rs 8,000).

“For the middle class mindset, air purifiers, not withstanding the impact on environment, are still considered a matter of luxury. Last year, I spent Rs 75,000 to buy a new TV but still couldn’t make up my mind about an air purifier,” said Vandana, who works at a Noida-based private company.

According to South-Delhi resident Naresh Singh, he and his wife bought a basic model when their daughter was born last year but haven’t used it this summer. When asked if he was not worried about the deteriorating AQI, he said, “You don’t realise much when inside an AC-room. Moreover, Delhi has now got used to this brown haze of pollution over the horizon even on days with blue skies.”

Apathy?

Various studies show that one of the reasons for apathy could be the air we breathe that affects our mental capacity — the power to think and gauge the gravity of the situation.

For instance, researchers from Beijing University and Yale School of Health published a research paper recently showing that people who live in major cities not only suffer from increases in respiratory illnesses and other chronic conditions due to air pollution, but are losing cognitive functions.

Back at Ramlila Maidan, when told about such possibilities, Santosh started to introspect.
Sahi hai (It’s possible). There is no dearth of people taking smog selfies in Delhi posing with their face masks on. So many of my friends change their profile pictures on Facebook with their new ‘winter look’ every year,” he said, before making a dash for home.

In the background, PM Modi’s voice started to fade out amid deafening chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

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