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Canada ranks New Delhi as a hardship posting for its diplomatic staff. Employees get a hardship allowance. Missions of other Western countries also pay employees for what they consider irreversible health damage because of their Delhi posting.
It’s the smog, which has been overtaken by politics.
It started about two weeks ago, when Delhi was enveloped in a haze of pollution. What was responsible for it nobody really knows. But the discourse was that it had its source in Haryana and Punjab because farmers were burning paddy stubble there. Add to this the weather conditions, construction, pollution from diesel-powered generators, and vehicular pollution and it was the perfect recipe for the thick, soupy air that could cause irritation in the throat, stinging and streaming eyes, and flare-ups in pre-existing bronchial conditions.
The contrast was dramatic. As diplomats of the Commonwealth stood to attention at cemeteries in Delhi to pay tribute to the fallen in World War II, they tried not to cough. The same ceremony was observed the world over. In Beijing, video feeds showed diplomats of the same countries standing under a clear blue sky with the sun shining down benevolently — Beijing, the centre of crippling smog till a year ago.
In China, the war against pollution is on the way to being won. In India nothing had changed.
First, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a ban on construction in the National Capital Region (NCR). Then the Delhi government, headed by Arvind Kejriwal, announced that the policy of allowing only odd- and even-numbered vehicles to enter Delhi would kick off from the start of the new week, only to announce inexplicably that it had been put in abeyance. Then the NGT lifted the order on construction. United Airlines first announced it had suspended flights from Newark, New Jersey, to New Delhi temporarily over concerns about poor air quality in the Indian capital but later said it was resuming flights. Schools were shut, only to reopen a few days later. And face masks were reported to be flying off the shelves.
As everyone was scratching his head, wondering what was causing the pollution, Kejriwal virtually begged political rival Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar for a meeting. He also sought a meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, another rival, provoking Singh to remark that Kejriwal was a “peculiar person”.
While Kejriwal travelled to Chandigarh to meet Khattar (who was in Delhi earlier but was supposedly told by Kejriwal’s office that the CM did not have the time to meet him here) and the two leaders shook hands for the camera and agreed on some measures to bring down smog levels, Singh said he could do nothing. The coffers of the state were empty. Farmers had to clear their fields and if the government did not want them to burn the stubble it had to offer an alternative. And the Punjab government had no means to support an alternative. While Singh and Kejriwal did not meet, providing Kejriwal the moral high ground of trying but not succeeding in opening a dialogue with the Punjab chief minister on a matter that is life and death, the fact is posturing became the name of the game.
Centre of Science and Environment Director General Sunita Narain says the biggest reason for smog is vehicular pollution. “The fact is that Delhi’s automobile population has imploded during this period. The city registers 1,000 vehicles a day. This is more than double of what it did in the pre-CNG period. Over 1.2 million car trips are made daily between Delhi and its neighbouring cities. That’s why even when each vehicle has become cleaner — fuel quality and vehicle emission standards have been progressively tightened at a considerable cost — air quality remains poor because of the drastic increase in the number of vehicles.”
But the government of Delhi has done nothing to ramp up public transport, cycle tracks, and pedestrian walkways. Not one bus has been bought in the past several years. Worse, over the last two years, the Delhi government earned Rs 800 crore by taxing polluting trucks that entered the National Capital Territory of Delhi. But of that “environment compensation charge”, or cess, less than Rs 1 crore, or 0.12 per cent, was spent on fighting pollution.
The ruling Aam Aadmi Party has said it wanted to use the money to buy low-floor electric buses, a plan it says is stuck because the Centre has not helped with land.
The net result is that Delhi will probably have to live with the problem of seasonal atmospheric pollution with air toxicity 30 times the World Health Organization’s safe level.