Pollution has taken centre stage perhaps for the first time in Indian democracy, especially with the upcoming Assembly elections in Delhi. The ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) started the campaign on pollution in Delhi even before the air quality worsened to alarming levels in the National Capital Region.
In a series of newspaper advertisements, AAP said the pollution level dropped by 25 per cent in 2016-18 over the period 2012-14.
Delhi goes to the polls in February. While the last election was fought on the issue of corruption, AAP has moved to development issues, including pollution.
In its media campaigns, AAP blamed Haryana for not curbing crop-residue burning. The Haryana government, run by the BJP, has attacked both AAP and the Punjab government, which the Congress controls. M L Khattar, Haryana chief minister, has been sharing on social media satellite images supposedly showing more stubble burning in Punjab than Haryana. He is reacting to a statement by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who alleged that the two states had not curbed crop burning.
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javedekar, however, said: “It is unfortunate Kejriwal is politicising the issue of air pollution and instigating students to write a letter to the Haryana and Punjab CMs to show them in a bad light and present them as villains.”
Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister, Delhi, said Javedekar postponed three meetings with the environment ministers of these states. “I want to ask the Centre for how long the people of Delhi will breathe this poisonous air. Either he has no time or does not consider treating the national capital’s poor air quality on priority,” Sisodia said last week. Farmer organisations in Haryana are blaming the state for not providing threshers for disposing of crop residue.
The Centre last year announced disbursing Rs 1,100 crore to curb stubble burning. The money was for introducing farm machinery such as shredders and threshers. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana, however, are complaining they have not got any benefits to date. They also alleged the states had not purchased their crops, making it difficult for them to spend on crop residue.
Punjab has initiated legal action against 2,923 farmers as of November 1. “The government is filing cases against us for stubble burning. Had it purchased our crops, we would have spent on threshers and decomposers. We don’t have the money (for those),” Satyawan, national president, All India Krishak Khet Majdoor Sangathan, said.
Experts tracking air pollution in Delhi say none seems to be addressing the problem or creating public consciousness of it.
“There have been political statements on how much Delhi has sacrificed but there has been no public health warning. Public acknowledgment is missing and no resources are going into disseminating this as a health crisis. The public should understand it is part of the problem and their small missteps contribute to pollution,” said Karthik Ganesan, research fellow, Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
The Delhi government, last year, initiated a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to mitigate air pollution. The measures included reducing vehicular pollution, industrial pollutants, and curbs on construction.
Ganesan said while GRAP is a part of the solution but beyond a certain point things are not in control of Delhi. "So steps needs to be taken which penalise consumption. Even if it would be political hot potato, doing anything would be a first. No government in India has treated this subject with the kind of sensitivity that it needs. Environment consciousness is needed in policy making and infrastructure creation," he said.
Pollution and the environment are electoral issues in other countries. In Australian elections, parties sparred over Adani's coal mine and in the recently concluded elections in Canada, climate change and emissions were major political topics.
US President Donald Trump, however, supported coal in his campaign in 2016 and has pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement.