The year began with the Delhi government rationing road space through the odd-even scheme. People in the city were, by all accounts, appreciative of the move and there was genuine hope that Delhi had taken the first step in cleaning up its notoriously bad air. As 2016 draws to a close, an announcement by the Delhi police signals the waning of that hope. Pollution masks will now be a mandatory accessory for the city’s traffic cops. The decision was taken after several complaints from traffic personnel of ill-health and respiratory problems due to long exposure to Delhi’s unhealthy air. The Delhi government threw in the towel, in the last week of December, when its health minister Satyendar Jain ruled out the resumption of the odd-even plan in the immediate future.
In November, the US Environmental Protection Agency described Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. But this is not just about Delhi. A study by the Central Pollution Control Board shows that 41 Indian cities with a population of more than one million faced bad air quality on 60 per cent of the days monitored by the agency. Allahabad, Varanasi and Gwalior did not have a single day with good quality air. India seems to be all at sea in the battle against pollution. And the sad news is that there is very little political initiative to stem the rot. In the past, pollution received a modicum of attention after courts pulled up governments in the aftermath of an emergency. But now it seems that governments have developed thick skins. After a deathly smog engulfed Delhi in the first week of November, the city’s high court excoriated the “inaction” of the authorities and said that their failure “to curb pollution was akin to a genocide”. In the past, a reprimand such as this would have chastened the government into taking measures that would have placated the judges, if only temporarily. But the government’s reactions to the November smog shows that today even piece-meal schemes are at a premium.
It does not require rocket science to prove that India is losing out on productivity due to its toxic air quality. An ASSOCHAM study shows that five to 10 per cent staff in private and public sector outfits reported sick in smog-hit Delhi in November. This does not augur well for a country that aims to scale up GDP growth to eight per cent over the next year. Let’s hope the authorities have learnt some lessons in 2016 and we breathe a cleaner air in 2017.
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