Delhi air is at gas-chamber levels despite well-intended measures

SHEKHAR GUPTA
Sunday, 22 October 2017

Everybody then does her “something”, the media conjures up glorious headlines, and talking heads declare victory. Google and check how many times, drastic, one-shot solutions have been announced and hailed as a death-blow to smog. You can’t be seen to be doing nothing. So let’s do “something”. When I have done my something, my responsibility is over. You can, meanwhile, buy that air-purifier (which costs more than an air-conditioner) and keep that steroid inhaler handy. And if you can’t afford these, gasp, and pray

The headline for this week’s National Interest is inspired by Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (1973). Dimple Kapadia pleads with Rishi Kapoor in Lata Mangeshkar’s voice: “Mujhe kuchh kehna hai” (I must tell you something). And Rishi Kapoor responds, in Shailendra Singh’s voice: “Mujhe bhi kuchch kehna hai” (even I must tell you something). It tugs at your heart-strings as teenagers bare their love in Anand Bakshi’s subtle lyrics.

There is, however, nothing subtle about the phenomenon we are analysing, by twisting these famous lines, replacing “kehna” with “karna”. So, when faced with a a grave national emergency like North India’s murderous air quality, our response usually is, echoing Dimple: “mujhe kuchh karna hai” (I must do something about this). The rest of us in the larger governance elite – judiciary, activists, media and the smartest of all, the politicians – then become Rishi Kapoor’s: “mujhe bhi kuchh karna hai”.

Everybody then does her “something”, the media conjures up glorious headlines, and talking heads declare victory. Google and check how many times, drastic, one-shot solutions have been announced and hailed as a death-blow to smog. You can’t be seen to be doing nothing. So let’s do “something”. When I have done my something, my responsibility is over. You can, meanwhile, buy that air-purifier (which costs more than an air-conditioner) and keep that steroid inhaler handy. And if you can’t afford these, gasp, and pray.

This is a quick recounting of some headline-grabbing things our champion smog-slayers have done in the last many years. Somebody banned all vehicles beyond a certain age, another cracked down on diesel, a pollution tax was levied on heavy trucks entering the city, work-stoppage ordered at construction sites, household fined (Rs 50,000) for leaving debris on the kerbside, an ‘odd-even’ scheme for cars implemented and now the sale of crackers banned. How much better is our air quality?

There is no doubt the activist-judiciary complex that rose in the mid-1990s, the years of Supreme Court’s Justice “Environment” Kuldip Singh and PIL warrior MC Mehta, has made a real contribution. Its high point was the successful shifting of the capital’s public and commercial transport to CNG. It brought about a phenomenal improvement in air quality. But this benefit peaked a decade back.

Much that has followed is gimmicky, arrogant, dictatorial. Something on the lines of: we, the activists, judges, and friends in the media, know what is best for you. So we order, and you follow. On fear of contempt of court. Ask no questions, seek no accountability. Meanwhile, learn to nebulise your children.

Some of the solutions have been too desperate and unthinking. For example, the overnight shifting of all of Delhi’s cottage industry to outlying areas like Bawana. Industry and jobs were moved out before public transport and housing could fetch up, so the result was job losses, spawning of new slums, and illegal housing sprawls and simply shifting the capital’s pollution from its relatively core areas to the outskirts.

That poison-laden air does not respect municipal or national boundaries was a lesson taught by father of modern environmental activism, Lester Brown, in his bible on the issue, World Without Borders, published in 1972.

In 2015, AAP, a party of former activists, took power in Delhi. It was quick to see the opportunity to shift from its old anti-corruption agenda to anti-pollution, and took gimmickry to another plane altogether. I have compiled the following facts with the help of my colleague Rajgopal Singh.

First, it announced the ‘odd-even’ scheme, which made no difference to air quality. Then followed the promise of installation of five giant air purifiers, a mist fountain, and a virtual chimney in the most polluted areas, done on “trial basis” in October 2016. There were other promises: mechanised, vacuum-sweeping of Delhi’s roads to reduce dust, our nastiest lung-destroyer. Spotted one of those lately?

Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), the Supreme Court, and the National Green Tribunal, meanwhile, kept doing their own thing, passing so many orders that you’d need to call McKinsey to make sense of these. The EPCA report submitted to the Supreme Court on 1 February this year is revealing, especially the section on status report on the implementation of SC orders (page 14-20).

More instructive is the report EPCA submitted on 4 April, detailing the Supreme Court’s action plan on the capital’s smog (page 10-29). It is comprehensive and would usher in the perfect world. But it is impossible to implement, short of a revolution, or even after a full revolution. It has steps that will be binding on at least two dozen agencies of the Centre and several states. It will have implications on budgets (buy thousands more buses and create special corridors for them), fuels, taxes, agriculture in adjoining and distant states, Haryana and Punjab, municipal and civic operations.

If you read each point of this plan, and the agency tasked for compliance, you will see that the least it will take to implement is a full-time Supreme Court bench, or may be the entire Supreme Court sitting on a daily basis with a dozen empowered committees to oversee everything. With the greatest respect, we have to say that while this makes brilliantly reassuring reading, it’s not going to happen.

These committees, created as a result of an MC Mehta PIL beginning 1985, have done a stellar job, but have outlived their utility. In its 20th year now, the EPCA could be among our longest lasting Court-mandated authorities. Its chief, Bhure Lal (whose name recently surfaced as a Bofors investigator), took over the EPCA in 1998 and has carried on through the tenure of 17 chief justices of India. All that would have been fine if, meanwhile, our air quality had improved.

It’s time for the Centre to set up a new, empowered political authority, under the Prime Minister if necessary, including all chief ministers, set targets and be held accountable. It’s time also, I say with the greatest humility, for the courts to get off the kerb. They have done a lot, but why let the executive pass the buck to them, sit back, and mock the ineffectuality of their actions?

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