Is India at all serious about fighting pollution?

But how does one counter the Swiss-based air-quality monitoring group IQAir which reports that India was the third most polluted country in the world after Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2023 and Delhi was the “most polluted” capital in the world?

Representational Photo

In the heat of electioneering to win any which way (saam, daam, dand, bhed) and skyrocketing sale-purchase prices of lawmakers, we should remember that India is ranked 111th out of 125 in the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI), 93rd out of 180 countries in the global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and 126th out of 143 countries in the Global Happiness Report.

The usual stance of the authorities is that these rankings are because the West sprites India; especially in terms of corruption given the government rhetoric of making India ``corruption-free”. Factually, shades of corruption can be found in any politician around the world, whether linked to money, morality, ideology, or whatever. However, in India, any politician joining the ruling party automatically becomes void of any corruption whatsoever – akin to bathing in the holy Ganga river.

But how does one counter the Swiss-based air-quality monitoring group IQAir which reports that India was the third most polluted country in the world after Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2023 and Delhi was the “most polluted” capital in the world? According to the World Air Quality Report, based on data from IQAir, India's annual PM 2.5 was 54.4µg/m3 compared to Pakistan's 73.7µg/m3 and Bangladesh's 79.9µg/m3.

Reports in the media state that Delhi witnessed 92 days of ‘very poor’ air quality, compared to 73 in 2022-23 and 67 in 2021-22; a nearly 40 percent increase in the last two years.  The period from October 2023 to February 2024, was one of the worst, with the AQI at 304, increasing from 280 in 2022-23 and 278 in 2021-22. The situation has clearly deteriorated and is likely to continue so despite the blame game between the Centre and the States, plus all the periodic noises made by the Supreme Court of India and the National Green Tribunal. 

Coal dependency will continue

The Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, as well as, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, remain dumb spectators. Rising pollution and poor air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) have led to a spurt in respiratory and cardiac ailments; and cases of asthma, bronchitis, cardiac arrests, strokes and gastric problems have increased. There is little accountability of authorities who remain nonchalant. Who are the authorities responsible anyway? Pollution is viewed as assisting population reduction and benefiting the 'business' of hospitals.   

Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said last year that youth of today will be the custodians of Planet Earth tomorrow and their participation in attempts to save the planet is of utmost importance. But how many trees have we chopped off in the name of development, how many have we planted, and where? Does the uneven pattern of rain pan-India indicate something, which we need to follow up on?  

India aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 and has been able to “decouple” economic growth from emissions. Considering the size of India and its population, our coal dependency is not disappearing tomorrow. In mid-2023, our energy generation from fossil fuels like coal and oil was 56 percent compared to 43 percent from non-fossil fuel resources.

The ‘decoupling’ bit appears more to simply ignore or not talk about it because data can always be manipulated. The crop burning in winter months continues unabated in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh despite the drama of alternative innovations (practicability?) and incentives for farmers. 

Invoke GRAP in stages

The sole remedy against rising pollution is invoking a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in various stages: banning open burning, construction and mining, waste management, traffic restrictions, dust suppression, enforcing pollution laws and the like depending on the stage of GRAP applied.

Most visible are the GRAP vehicle restrictions, which are more of a money-making racket by the police even as vehicle pollution accounts for less than four percent of pollution and government vehicles defy GRAP restrictions. The official fine for a civilian vehicle violating GRAP is Rs 20,000 but violators are coaxed to settle for less in cash, filling up pockets of traffic police and catering for the share up the chain. 

Then GRAP vehicular restrictions are suddenly lifted - when ‘collections’ reach the required levels? Not very different from sources within IMD disclosing that heavy snowfall predictions in Gulmarg, Manali and Shimla last Christmas and New Year were only to benefit hoteliers - naturally for a price.  

Little action against pollution

The stinking mountain of garbage at Ghazipur, Delhi isn’t a tourist attraction; yet no other capital in the world boasts of such a marvel. Hundreds of smaller garbage dumps adorn roadsides in Delhi/National Capital Region and beyond. Indians residing in Japan, like the Japanese, sweep the road in front of their houses. Littering muck in Singapore invites community cleaning as punishment wearing a yellow jacket. Indians in the US pay for garbage going out of their house.

But this is India where the army is tasked to clean the muck thrown in tourist spots, although the area is under an administration and there are paid employees for the job. Military cantonments were spick and span even half a century ago but politicians rather than imbibing cleanliness in public is only interested in votes. To top this is the charade by broom-wielding politicians and ministers cleaning some spot/area which has already been swept and mopped. At best some waste paper is thrown around for the photo-op, which the minister picks up to show his/her tremendous contribution to Swachh Bharat.  

Every year there is talk about proactive anti-pollution measures that also include deploying air purifiers, watering roads to settle dust, using drones, strict waste management, use of LPG, artificial rain and the like.  But there is very little action. Are we as a nation serious about fighting pollution and can we enforce accountability of government officials beyond slogans like ‘Viksit Bharat’ and ‘Amrit Kaal’?   

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)

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