In the fight against air pollution, needs of the most vulnerable should be put first.
According to WHO estimates released Tuesday, one-eighth of all deaths in the world are due to air pollution. The smog and haze in Delhi’s skies were noticed nationally and globally, and drew attention to the urgent need to clean the capital’s air. Comparisons have been drawn between Delhi and Beijing’s pollution levels, and the respective government responses. While Beijing holds air pollution as an unequivocal priority, Delhi squabbles over the merits of pollution data.
The juxtaposition of Delhi’s air quality with that of Beijing, and the attention to scientific data alone to redress the rights of citizens, however, is shallow. It is critical to pay attention to the right to clean air because it entails specific individual entitlements and obligations of the state. Rights are an important legal tool to redress environmental issues. They recognise moral entitlements and are based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination. They equip citizens with tools for redressal through information and participation.
The battle for Delhi’s air was laid out in the civic discourse of the 1980s and subsequent Supreme Court judgments relating to the closure and zoning of industries, and the conversion of buses, autorickshaws and taxis in the national capital region to CNG. These rulings were augmented by a plethora of pollution-control laws and bodies such as the Saikia, Bhure Lal and Mashelkar committees to explore the scientific aspects of pollution and how to curb it. The general conclusion was that the right to clean air can be realised by fixing urban transportation and through effective industrial zoning. But now, the court is once again deliberating on pollution in the city and the health rights of its citizens, especially since vehicular pollution in Delhi has skyrocketed.
Air is a common resource, and the right to clean air is integral to human rights and our constitutional right to life. Hence, protecting air quality is a prime duty of the state. The right to clean air should be universally applicable and non-discriminatory. However, as seen in the aftermath of the CNG ruling, the clean-up of Delhi’s air was an exercise that was narrowly restricted to the regulation of some sectors. The harm was relocated to the periphery of Delhi by shifting polluting units there. While the national capital region reported a decrease in particulate matter, it burgeoned on the outskirts.
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While the green movement in Delhi was guided by scientific data, it didn’t pay enough attention to how it impacted different sections of society differently. In particular, there was no regulation focused on controlling the number of private vehicles on the road. There was no concerted attempt to create green public spaces, or pedestrian and cycle pathways. On the other hand, the state encouraged the construction of highways, sometimes even at the cost of pedestrian pathways, the sale of gas-guzzling SUVs and provided tax breaks for automobile sales.
The state should not only ensure clean air for all, but also see to it that the more vulnerable sections of society — low-income neighbourhoods, the elderly, children etc — are not disproportionately harmed due to the lack of clean air. It is the most vulnerable who are most exposed to the hazards of air pollution as they navigate the city for work. These sections also lack the resources to keep their homes sealed off from pollutants and need special protection, as they do not have the luxury to stay or work indoors, access to medical care and the financial ability to buy air purifiers. Even if healthcare in government hospitals is free, accessing it comes at the cost of foregoing the day’s wages.
Participation and information are the two most-important tools of human rights. The city lacks a system to warn people about air quality and health hazards. Even if data is made available, as has been done through billboards in crowded high-traffic areas, the numbers mean very little to a vast majority of Delhi’s residents. In the absence of city-wide data and special efforts to disseminate information and educate people, knowledge of air pollution is a tool of the privileged. Those who are most impacted by pollution remain uninformed about it and continue their daily lives in these poisoned spaces.
Rights are important, but they require concerted efforts grounded in social contexts to implement them. Cities are not growth machines, they are places where people live, work and play. A rights-based approach needs to pay attention to the individuals and communities that live in these spaces and their ecology.