Flippancy is in the Air as Netas, Bureaucrats Pay Lip Service to Delhi's Pollution Crisis

Image for representation. (Reuters)

Image for representation. (Reuters)

The fact is that there is no such thing as panacea; the need of the hour is an array of actions at various levels — central, state, and local.

Ravi Shanker Kapoor
  • Last Updated: November 17, 2019, 9:11 AM IST
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Air pollution in the national Capital, indeed in the entire northern part of the country, has assumed alarming proportions. The air quality index (AQI) is loitering in the severe and hazardous categories; schools are getting shut; people, especially the vulnerable sections, are suffering from various ailments related to breathing. Yet, our political masters are not bothered. As many as 25 Parliamentarians of the 29-member Parliamentary Standing Committee were absent for a high-level meeting that was supposed to be held over the subject on Friday. Their absence confirmed, if any confirmation was needed, that they don’t want to do anything more than mouthing inanities and platitudes.

It’s not just the netas who are insouciant; the officials are little better. Municipal commissioners, the Delhi Development Authority Vice-Chairman, and other top bureaucrats too ignored the important meeting. Only committee chairman Jagdambika Pal, Hasnain Masoodi, CR Patil, and Sanjay Singh turned up. Unsurprisingly, the meeting was called off.

The officers didn’t even bother to inform the committee about their inability to attend the meeting. Pal has taken a serious view of the situation; he told the media that he would lodge a complaint against them with the Speaker. He must, for it is not just gross negligence but also monumental impropriety. In our parliamentary democracy, the executive is responsible to the legislature; and the executive doesn’t mean just political executive but also the permanent executive, that is, the bureaucracy. If officials don’t behave responsibly, they must be penalised.

Typically, the matter got politicised with Aam Aadmi Party leaders targeting cricketer and BJP leader Gautam Gambhir who didn’t attend the meeting because he was reportedly on a leisure trip to Indore.

Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s response was an essay in banality and, unwittingly, admission of guilt: “We will look into why people didn’t turn up. We are very concerned about the environment. We were the first ones to start a joint action plan — short-term, medium-term, and long-term since 2015. There are challenges and we need to fight together. I’ve always said that joint cooperation is needed.”

Can’t our politicians get over the ‘look into the matter’ mindset? In plain English, ‘look into the matter’ means that ‘people will soon forget about the issue, and so will we.’ Can’t they see that people are suffering badly? Maybe even dying?

Politicians are so hopelessly entrapped in speechifying that they often don’t realise that the very rhetoric that they use to fool people can expose them. The honourable minister said that his government was the first “to start a joint action plan — short-term, medium-term, and long-term since 2015”. Meticulous planning indeed, but to what avail? To make the gas chamber even more toxic?

Javadekar didn’t realise that his bombast was akin to the joke: ‘Quitting alcohol is very easy. I have done it hundreds of times.’ Except that the pollution threatening millions of lives is no joke.

To the AAP’s credit, it must be said its government in Delhi did try something — the odd-even scheme — to address the issue. It is, however, also true that it has tried to derive undue political mileage out of it. Worse, the state government seems to have convinced that the scheme is the panacea for air pollution, despite the opinion of experts to the contrary.

The fact is that there is no such thing as panacea; the need of the hour is an array of actions at various levels — central, state, and local. Further, most of them require fundamental changes in terms of policy and execution. For instance, checking farm fires calls for structural changes in agricultural policy. Free power in Punjab is at the root of paddy cultivation, which is anyway not suitable for the state. But no political party is willing to rethink over the subject, so most proposed solutions are oriented around more subsidies and greater government intervention into the sector.

Similarly, the problem of dust in Delhi is targeted in a simplistic, easy manner — e.g., stopping construction activity when air pollution peaks. The difficult but correct approach is to reduce the amount of dust generation. The Central Pollution Control Board recently gave the local authorities in Delhi a 15-day plan to control dust from unpaved roads at seven spots in the Capital and adjacent towns. This, the apex body said, could reduce air pollution by as much as 17 per cent.

Evidently, those who matter are not interested. Nothing else explains their lackadaisical approach. The absence of politicians and officials from the important meeting on Friday highlights this truth.

(The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal)

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