The pollution crisis in Delhi seems to be following a familiar pattern. Last week, the Supreme Court admonished the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for being “sluggish” in responding to the crisis. “Do you want to wait till people start dying,” the court asked the country’s premier pollution watchdog. The same day, the Delhi High Court had strong words for the Delhi government. “The inaction by government authorities to curb pollution in Delhi was like genocide,” it said. This is the umpteenth time that government and environmental agencies have been pulled up by courts. Last year, the Supreme Court described Delhi as a “gas chamber”. Chastened by the reprimand, the Delhi government embarked on the odd-even scheme to ration road space for vehicles. After two fortnights of running the scheme, the Delhi government gave up. There was no follow-up, no evaluation of the scheme’s successes and failures and no concomitant measure to check the city’s pollution. The government, it seems, was waiting for another censure from the courts.
It’s not just Delhi. Government agencies in several parts of the country have been found wanting by the courts on environmental matters. In May, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government to pay compensation to workers who had died of silicosis contracted while labouring in the stone crushing industry. The court pulled up the CPCB for being tardy in regulating hazardous industries. Some of the landmark environmental interventions — introduction of CNG in Delhi, closing down polluting units in different parts of the country, the short-lived odd-even scheme — are either products of litigation or have been precipitated by court injunctions. These interventions are laudable. But they are also symptomatic of a larger problem — pollution receives attention only when it becomes an emergency. Policymaking, in general, has given it a short-shrift. This omission is not a result of a paucity of laws. The country has an environmental protection act and air, water and wildlife protection acts. But pollution has not become part of mainstream political discourse.
Building safeguards without hurting economic growth requires creativity and political will. But the general thrust has been to treat pollution as a one-time affair, as individual violation or, at most, a series of disparate episodes. Political discourse has not recognised that lifestyle choices, fiscal policies and planning leave their mark on the environment. Concerted action on pollution rarely makes it to manifestos of political parties. Civil society too seems to get galvanised only during emergencies. All this is unfortunate because pollution hits people’s health and, in turn, affects productivity.