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  Opinion   Columnists  30 Oct 2019  When will climate, bad air be a live poll issue?

When will climate, bad air be a live poll issue?

The writer is president of the Delhi Pradesh Mahila Congress and an AICC national media panellist.
Published : Oct 31, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Oct 31, 2019, 12:00 am IST

In India, there have been several instances where public protests led to some changes or withdrawal of policy decisions.

Today, Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world.
 Today, Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world.

There was a time that New Delhi used to be a beautiful city in the winter. Anyone growing up in Delhi in the 1970s or earlier would recollect with nostalgia the azure blue skies, the crisp winter mornings, basking in the warm golden sun in the afternoons and the clear nights when not enveloped in fog (not smog). Though it’s hard to believe now, one could actually see the stars despite all the ambient lights. The children painted the sky with the colour blue, not grey, as today’s children would perhaps be more prone
to do.

Today, Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world. As the winter approaches, the discourse on pollution in the media and the social media gets more intense. There are frequent reports and panel discussions on television news channels about the worsening AQI (Air Quality Index). As seen in the past couple of years, schools are shut down during the really bad days. People could be seen walking around the streets wearing masks for protection. At times, one could almost feel and touch the thick layer of haze that surrounds the entire National Capital Region — which includes Delhi and its neighbouring areas in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan — on the bad air days. And it’s not just Delhi, going by a recent Greenpeace report, 22 of the 30 worst cities for air pollution in the world are in India.

Living in an age of information technology, forest fires in the Amazon, floods in Ethiopia and the Philippines, an earthquake in China and a drought in Somalia elicit a response from citizens across the world. While there is ever-increasing concern and environmental activism is on the rise, there has not been any real public discourse and engagement on a scale large enough to influence a fundamental impact on policymakers to arrest and reverse the flow of environmental damage. This holds true not just for India, but globally.

In India, there have been several instances where public protests led to some changes or withdrawal of policy decisions. The Chipko movement, the protests to save the Silent valley in Palakkad, Kerala, and recent protests in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai over the felling of trees indicate that people’s involvement and agitation can have the desired impact of reversing, or at least a temporary withdrawal, of anti-environmental policies by governments. But pollution, climate change and the environment in general are yet to become prime election issues.

One of the reasons behind it is the perceived dichotomy between the environment and development in voters’ psyche. That perhaps is the reason why the first green parties were formed in developed countries. In some countries like Germany and Finland, they have had some limited success, being a part of coalition governments. But in a developing country like India, where the fulfilment of basic material necessities is still a major concern for a large section of people, growth rather than environment is associated with opportunities for a better life in the voters’ mind. The government and its agencies need to come out with viable and sustainable alternatives that neither compromise on development nor on
the environment. But there’s not always an easy solution.

To play the devil’s advocate, one may take up the problem of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, both of which are detrimental to the health of the soil, pollute ground water and there is the ever-present danger of chemical residues in fruits and vegetables. India achieved food sufficiency through the Green Revolution with heavy use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides, both heavily subsidised. Can the government take the risk of substantially reducing the subsidies or easing off their usage? It will not only create hardships for farmers and lead to food inflation, but also reduce productivity. Organic farming by the use of organic fertilisers and insecticides are not feasible on a large scale as it has low productivity and the costs of production are much higher. The fancy shops selling organic fruits and vegetables at a much higher price cater to a niche clientele. It’s not for mass consumption, and beyond the reach of most ordinary people. More important, if India is unable to feed its 130 crore people and is not self-sufficient in food production, it will seriously compromise its food security, which is no lesser a threat than national security. No other country can take the responsibility of feeding 130 crore people.  With major reforms in the agricultural sector, including structural reforms and heavy investment in agricultural infrastructure, the government might induce farmers to reduce use of chemicals, but perhaps not totally stop it. Experts need to come out with viable solutions that do not contaminate, pollute and permanently damage soil and water resources without compromising with the nation’s food security.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, both the Congress and the BJP had addressed environment concerns in their respective manifestos. But these were not the key issues that determined voting patterns. Even in a place like Delhi, which will hold elections soon, one wonders if pollution would play a decisive role in influencing the results. Despite visibly being under the grip of terrible and sustained air pollution, despite the lack of solid waste management that contaminates the soil, water and air; perhaps the key issues in the elections will be free water, free electricity and free rides (for women) in public transport buses and the Metro.

In India, a green political party called India Greens Party was founded in 2018 and registered with the Election Commission in July 2019. It is yet to make its electoral debut. Even at the cost of sounding sceptical, one may easily surmise its fate if it ever decides to fight elections. Perhaps it will be a better strategy for the party to create pressure groups through mass mobilisation on environmental issues and lend its support to parties or candidates that make environmental concerns a part of their key agenda.

In her landmark speech at the first global conference on the human environment in Stockholm in 1972, then PM Indira Gandhi had asked “are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”, and thus laid the foundation for collective responsibility and the need for cooperation between the rich and poor nations that would further develop into key principles of the politics of climate change.

Tags: climate, bad air, air quality index