Every time I gulp air, I am consumed with fear. First, for myself, then, very quickly, for my one-year-old son. I am nervous that the air we breathe is hurting us. A thick cloud of smog weighs upon our minds. Unfortunately, little is being done about it. The city I take pride in, and see as the citadel of democracy, is choking as ministers squabble and chief ministers pass the buck.
As a young Indian and as the lone Opposition MP from the National Capital Region, someone who has represented a constituency on the periphery of Delhi in Lok Sabha for the last 13 years, it is clear to me why things have steadily become worse. The present legal and administrative framework has not been able to make the desired impact, forcing the executive and judiciary to undertake ad hoc emergency measures whenever the situation reaches a boiling point. Banning firecrackers or restricting odd or even numbered vehicles are examples of impromptu thinking, not a comprehensive policy plan.
Apart from resorting to these band-aid measures, the other approach by our leaders has been that of blaming others, citing lack of jurisdiction and other issues. The Delhi CM blames the Haryana or Punjab CM, the BJP blames the AAP, someone blames the Congress and so on. In the thick smog over Delhi, our structures and systems have lost direction, we are failing each other.
The result is there to see. India is one of the global hotspots for air pollution and the problem is not confined to Delhi. A heavy cloud shrouds the entire North Indian Gangetic plains. To put the human cost of pollution of air and water in perspective, it has killed more people in India than war, violence, smoking, hunger, natural disasters, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together.
Data suggests that one in four premature deaths in India is caused by pollution. As a parent, it is painful to know that my one-year-old is inhaling 50 cigarettes’ worth of pollution in a day. Worse, still, is the feeling of helplessness. Things can’t go on like this. But no matter how bad things are, there is no scope for pessimism. To those who say India is doomed to stay a gas chamber forever, I reply that if there is one thing the history of human civilisation has taught us, it is this: There is nothing that we humans are incapable of achieving if we set out to do it collectively, no matter what the odds. On this issue, all that we need is strong collective will, longer-term vision and proper planning with zero politics.
There are success stories we can learn from. In 1992, the United Nations had declared Mexico City as the most polluted city in the world but they managed to bring down the air pollution after years of work. The Air Quality Index (AQI) for Mexico City now is in the 50 to 100 range. London, too, in the early ‘50s faced a similar crisis, known as the “Great Smog” that led to a massive loss of lives in the days that followed. The British government brought in the Clean Air Act in 1956 to control the problem. Bejing is another city that has been able to turn things around for its citizens.
We need to begin by first stopping these seasonal blame-games, band-aid-only approach and CM Twitter-wars. All those at the highest echelons of our democratic system must come together, rise above partisan politics, and give themselves a statutory mechanism to act together. Our prime minister and the warring chief ministers need to join hands to lead the fight for clean air. This working group should be headed by the prime minister given the gravity of this matter for all our futures and should have a defined mandate to propose and oversee implementation of long-term solutions to fight hazardous levels of air pollution.
With this in mind, I wrote a letter to our PM last week requesting him to constitute and lead a statutory high-level committee with the CMs of north Indian states, including Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, UP, as members. This committee, that I call the “National Clean Air Committee”, needs a defined mandate to come up with a “Model Action Plan for Sustainable Mitigation of Air Pollution”, to monitor its implementation in affected states and to provide adequate budgetary allocations for its implementation with respect to both short-term and long-term measures. The objective of the committee should be to chart the country’s course to meet healthy air quality standards within a defined period.
I have drafted a private member’s bill called the “Right to Clean Air Bill” that I plan to introduce in Lok Sabha in the coming Winter Session. If we can have detailed legislation to create systems to ensure the Right to Food and the Right to Education, we should have one which creates a functional administrative framework that is effective in ensuring our Right to Clean Air.
This proposed draft bill seeks to do two things: Firstly, it will seek to constitute the previously-mentioned “National Clean Air Committee” headed by the PM by means of constitutional amendment. While the Right to Clean Air is implicit in Article 21 of our constitution that provides for the Right to Life, the time has come to enshrine it explicitly.
Secondly, the bill also seeks to create an open platform through which every citizen can join the movement and work with others to resolve this problem and suggest possible measures that can be taken up by the “National Clean Air Committee”. The intention is to reach out to every concerned citizen and expert through social media to ensure that we can incorporate the wisdom of the people in finding solutions to a problem that concerns us all.
Following the principle of crowd-sourcing ideas, I have put the draft bill for all to see, support and give suggestions online and through social media. I am doing my bit, I request you to pitch in with your support and ideas at ww.righttocleanair.org. It would ensure that the voice of every concerned citizen is heard in the Parliament.
Having been a mute spectator to the problem, albeit from the front row, I have had an awakening. I have taken up the issue as an MP, but more importantly, as a father and a concerned citizen. I believe that clean air is the fundamental right of every citizen. I’ve had enough! Have you? If you have, it is time we all get together and do our bit. Let’s strengthen systems, build administrative platforms and create response mechanisms. Let’s clear the air.