The Delhi government has announced the return of the odd-even scheme next week, and the National Green Tribunal has produced sound and fury concerning construction activities, polluting traffic and paddy stubble burning. But these are emergency interventions. While north India’s pollution issue has become an annual feature, last-minute crisis management remains the political response of choice. This approach is unsustainable over the long term, since it is effected by imposing sudden curbs on free movement and routine activities. Repeat curbs to deal with expected events only expose the unpreparedness of government, and the public interest would be better secured by persuasion, seeking to cultivate behavioural change by conviction rather than by law. That is a political objective, to be achieved by political action, rather than legal intervention and coercive controls.
It represents a political opportunity. This year’s chokehold on north India has had the politically salubrious effect of forcing the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi to recognise it as a regional problem, and it has reached out to neighbouring Punjab and Haryana, where stubble burning is in progress. Effectively, air pollution stands escalated to a federal matter, and there is a compelling case for the Central government to step in and evolve a mechanism which can operate across borders to routinely contain the menace every year. It could serve as a beginning towards a green politics which Indian parties have played with in fits and starts, but which has not been institutionalised. All the issues which now engage political attention — littering, open defecation, air and water pollution, toxic industrial effluents — have caused concern for at least two decades, and it is surprising that no party has been able to make them central election issues.
The AAP had championed such issues when it took office, but they remained restricted to the municipal level, where they can be turned to electoral profit. The prime minister has taken them to a higher level with national programmes like Swachh Bharat, and the movement to build toilets. However, we are yet to see an election campaign in which suspended particulate matter, a problem which affects every voter, enjoys the same status as job creation or inflation. Smog, which respects no borders and whose effects will be cumulatively felt in the years ahead by everyone who has lived in its shadow, is an issue emotive enough to serve as the trigger for the long-awaited green politics. While the routine requests not to politicise the issue are being issued, parties should rather be urged to sharply politicise the issue. Not by blaming each other, but by making it a central feature of their politics in routinely affected areas.