By court order 17 years ago, Delhi switched its public transport to CNG and banned leaded fuel. The capital’s air quality immediately improved but over time, under the pressure of urbanisation, it slid slowly back into the range of the unacceptable. Now, Delhi is again grappling with the silent and underestimated scourge of air pollution. The government has just launched a national air quality index, colour-coded and presented in a comprehensible manner. By taking ownership of the initiative, it has taken a welcome step away from the roadmap of the past, which was charted mainly by activists, scientists and the courts, and in which the role of government, as provider of pollution certificates, building permissions and so on, was only coercive and instrumental.
The political disinterest in the issue has been inexplicable, since the air that the general public breathes is identical with that which the highest functionaries live — or choke — on. The lives of the masses and the political leadership are identically affected, and yet, clean air has never been a serious election issue in Delhi at any level — national, state or municipal. The capital has been doomed to repeatedly grapple with an air pollution crisis because of this political disengagement.
The government has now chosen to engage the public on the issue through a readily understood pollution index, but the challenge lies in keeping the channel of communication open and, indeed, widening it to accommodate other concerns. There is public anxiety about pollutants in food, fuelling a fledgeling trade in organic produce, for instance. But the middle class is so satisfied with reverse osmosis that it has forgotten that the provision of potable water is not every household’s private business. In such matters, Delhi is a precursor for the rest of India, which will face new environmental challenges as it grows and industrialises. While urbanisation proceeds at an ever-accelerating pace, the government seeks to take the pressure off towns by moving industry to villages. This means that rural India will begin to exhibit the environmental problems that cities now deal with. These have been explored in a series of reports in this paper, and another series on possible solutions begins on the Op-ed page today. The problem won’t go away, however, if the people who breathe the air remain innocent bystanders. The air quality index is only the first step to engaging the public towards a permanent solution.