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Air, an election issue

The growing public concern over pollution must enable a political moment where governments view action on air quality as a vote-getter

Written by Radhika Khosla , Navroz K Dubash |
Updated: April 20, 2015 8:21:38 am
Delhi pollution, air pollution delhi, air pollution india, idndia air pollution, delhi air pollution, most polluted city in the world, air pollution, Delhi news, India news, death by breath Without sustained public pressure, governments will not have the necessary backbone to take on the structures and interests that stymie action. (Source: Express Archive)

By Navroz K. Dubash, Shibani Ghosh and Radhika Khosla

Delhi may finally be approaching a tipping point in concerns about air quality. The drumroll of evidence presented in the national and international media is getting steadily louder. It is now official: Delhi is currently the most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, based on the highest global readings of respirable suspended particulate matter (PM 2.5) that cause damage to the lungs. And many other Indian cities are not far behind. Statistics matter because they back up personal experience. Many of us have family and friends who increasingly frequent hospitals for respiratory problems.

So how do we ensure that we make full use of the growing moment of concern around Delhi’s air? The challenge is to generate a virtuous cycle where the growing public moment of sustained information and awareness-raising enables a political moment, where governments view effective action on air quality as a vote-getter. Both are necessary and complementary. Without sustained public pressure, governments will not have the necessary backbone to take on the structures and interests that stymie action. Without government action, the collective action problem is simply too large to solve. The risk is that lukewarm public interest and expedient but ineffective government action will cause a vicious cycle of fatalism and paralysis. How do we ensure the former is the outcome of the recent upsurge of attention to Delhi’s air?

It is important to acknowledge the complexity of the air quality challenge. There is no single pollutant source responsible — road dust, construction activities, waste burning, vehicle emissions, diesel generators, industries, power plants, brick kilns and biomass-based cooking, all play a role, and contribute in varying measure to different pollutants. Moreover, the sources are widely dispersed — individual cars and construction sites, for instance — which can make enforcement of any government action difficult, compounded by the jurisdictional problem of multiple agencies at multiple levels. Importantly, both ethically and politically, it is relevant to examine who bears the costs of action to curb air pollution. These arguments suggest a triple set of criteria for air pollution actions: scale of contribution to solving the problem, addressing questions of jurisdiction and enforceability, and the distributional effect of costs.

These are not easy criteria to address simultaneously, and it is in this thicket that the challenging political economy of air pollution lies. Dust from construction activities is linked with enforcement issues in arguably India’s least governable and most politically connected sectors. The proliferation of diesel generators is inextricable from the larger problems of the electricity grid, which in turn is challenged by complex questions of multiple jurisdictions and the politics of winners and losers from electricity reform.

The increasing use of private vehicles is driven by aspirations, an often insatiable consumer appetite and a limited public transport system. Further, building an effective air pollution regulatory system is hampered by jurisdictional issues across at least three acts (air, environment, and motor vehicles) and a multitude of weak and under-resourced agencies. Even a seemingly straightforward solution like building a bypass road so trucks do not  inject pollutants into the city each night has been stalled for years by jurisdictional battles over accessing the necessary land.

Addressing these issues requires a willingness to take on entrenched politics and the staying power to bring about long-term structural change.

For this reason, an amplified public moment around Delhi’s air has to be the driving force for political action, with failure punishable at the ballot box. Significantly, greater public awareness and demand for clean air brings two additional benefits. First, it can affect individual behavioural choices that improve air quality, such as buying efficient cars and a willingness to use public transport. Second, it reduces the enforcement cost of regulation and thereby makes viable a broader range of regulatory measures. Diwali is a good example. Enforcing a firecracker ban across the national capital territory’s 16 million citizens is impossible without a larger normative change that prioritises clean air over an individual’s choice to light crackers. There are also positive feedback loops across these benefits — public willingness to take public transport is enhanced by higher investment in high-quality mass transport, which in turn is made more likely by public demand for this service.

But public awareness must swiftly translate into effective political action. Obviously, only legal and regulatory approaches can take on the slew of structural problems that result in air pollution. This requires both a considered long-term approach and an effort to find low-hanging fruit, such as the longstanding call to buy and run cleaner buses in the city. In addition, government action is necessary to upgrade the information base on air quality and communicate this to the broader public. The communication and awareness mechanism is fuel for the virtuous cycle, which is why implementing the Central government’s recent air quality index, won after sustained pressure from advocacy groups, is so important.

What are the steps towards enabling mutually reinforcing public and political action, and avoiding a negative spiral? The biggest challenge is the social dialogue required to bring higher levels of awareness about air pollution costs and build consensus around the need and willingness for action. This may require some difficult conversations. For example, upper-class fury against the bus rapid transport system which, warts and all, held at least the promise of efficient transport for the majority, was sobering. A sustained and broad-based programme of public outreach led by civil society and backed by ever-better data is thus needed.

In addition, it is important that this public pressure is not dissipated through the pressure valve of misguided and token government actions. Some recent well-meaning efforts risk falling in this category. For example, recent work at IIT-Delhi suggests that a National Green Tribunal order to get 15 years and older cars off the roads will not help much because they do not add up to a large share of the vehicle population and many are likely operating outside Delhi.

Finally, awareness-raising will be enhanced and political action emboldened by a few early wins. For example, a sustained citizen campaign for a firecracker-free Diwali and a discernibly cleaner winter would be a wake-up call. Taking head-on the political and jurisdictional challenges of a bypass for the city would build greater citizen confidence in the government. Ultimately, we must recognise that our challenge to reclaim clean air is as much, or more, social and political as it is technical.

The writers are at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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