Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Delhi’s nightmare: Leaders bicker while citizens suffer

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Opinion, Columnists

The Centre wants commercial vehicles which do not cater to essential services to be stopped, & 50 percent of employees to work from home

The capital city of Delhi enveloped in smog in New Delhi, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Air pollution level is Delhi-NCR has started rising owing much to stubble (parali) burning in adjoining states. (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma)

The alarming levels of poor air quality in Delhi and its neighbourhood in the National Capital Region (NCR) have been beamed all around, but both the Delhi government and the Centre are only following their bureaucratic drill of responding to it. The Central government issues the Stage 4 orders under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) and Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal gets into a huddle with ministers and officials. And each of them -- the Central government and the Delhi government -- comes out with guidelines of their own. The Centre wants commercial vehicles which do not cater to essential services to be stopped, and it wants 50 per cent of the employees to work from home, while the chief minister is for reducing vehicular pollution by following the alternate-day vehicle plying plan of allowing even number plates one day and the odd numbers the next. First, primary schools were ordered closed till November 10, and then secondary and high schools as well (with the exception of Class 10 and 12 which have board exams ahead). These restrictions may be extended. And citizens continue to get choked by the pollutants-heavy air. This is a crisis that has been recurring every year, at least for the past seven years, and each time the Central and Delhi governments wake up from their slumber when the smog descends on the city and people are going about the work through it all.

The response measures all seem to be in place, they all are ad hoc, and they are brought into force in a flurry of activity when the crisis has set in. One is always left wondering as to why the emergency measures are not implemented in a gradual manner, spread over a few weeks, so that the Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers do not have to soar to critical levels and the people submit themselves to the crisis, murmuring their protests. It is possible to have a long-term plan because the factors

that contribute to the hazardous AQI numbers are well known. Even as summers should be used for clearing the drains to face the monsoon, so it is but common sense that vehicular traffic should be regulated keeping the falling temperature and the pollutants that hang in the air in mind. It does not even need the political bigwigs to convene emergency meetings. The response measures should be rolled out at the local administration level. And this is what governance is all about. It is one thing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Central government, which is constantly interfering in the Delhi administration only to create roadblocks for Arvind Kejriwal and his elected government, should be focusing on. The lieutenant-governor of Delhi, who is only too eager to be an activist on behalf of the Central government, does not seem to be bothered to step in and give the necessary advice and instructions to take quick action. Delhi’s extended metropolitan area, with its humongous population that is forever growing -- 30 million-plus in 2023 -- and its population density of 29,000-plus per square mile, always poses environmental challenges of great magnitude. A larger population and greater population density makes the environment a key factor for keeping the city on an even keel. But the key political leaders at the moment -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal -- are so caught up in the web of their own rhetoric, that toxic pollution escapes their attention. The two leaders are too eager to deliver homilies about ecological good sense, but they do not have the time to work out the necessary plans to deal with the fallout of reckless economic activity, including grandiose building plans, and for destroying the green lungs of the urban conglomeration.

The Central government, instead of constantly interfering in the working of the Delhi government, should be coordinating with it to work out long-term plans for keeping the national capital and its citizens alive and healthy. It should be playing a positive role in getting the chief ministers of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to sit together and work out a larger inter-state urban plan to keep the environmental hazards to the minimum. One of the claims made by Mr Modi when he dismantled the Planning Commission and set up the Niti Aayog back in 2014 was that it would be a coordinating agency for all the states. The Niti Aayog is now caught up in preparing futuristic reports about the country’s development instead of working along with the states to manage concrete issues like urban planning.

In the last few years, the talking point has been the burning of the post-harvest stubble in the Punjab farmlands (as well as in Haryana and UP), and blaming the farmers and the state government for their callous unconcern for the citizens of Delhi. There was a point when Mr Kejriwal said that he would manage the burning of the stubble with a better technology. With the AAP government in Punjab in the saddle, he is falling back on ad hoc responses in the city like the “odd-even” measure of regulating vehicular traffic. It is evident that it is an inadequate measure and it does not help ease either the rush-hour traffic or bring down pollution levels. Vehicular traffic has to be regulated through the year, and public transport has to be strengthened to take the extra pressure when half the private vehicles are off the road.

The Central government’s diktat that half the employees should work from home because that would decrease commute issues is a half-baked idea because most employees do not have the wherewithal in their small homes to do their work. Blinkered responses of this kind arise when governments think of dealing with a crisis on a day-to-day basis. Governments cannot, and should not, be working this way. More importantly, municipalities should be involved in the decision-making because they handle dust -- the streets swept in the morning throw up enough clouds of dust and create problems -- and the management of garbage, which add to the pollution levels.

Politicians, bureaucrats and policy wonks are quite fond of using the jargon of holistic and integrated planning, but they always talk and think -- that is the indeed the sequence -- without bringing together all the people and all the wings of the government to deal with the problem. Both Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal are masters of rhetoric but they do not pay attention to get things done. Getting this done is what is needed.