The US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintains an online database of fires burning across the globe, with data collected from satellites. If you were to hop on to their website right now, or at any point in the last three to four weeks and zoom into a map of India, you would come across a shocking sight. It would appear that the entire state of Punjab is on fire. Also the northern part of Haryana, along the border with Punjab. As you move away from this belt, the red color fades away, and all you have is a handful of red dots spread sporadically over the rest of India.
Houston, we have a problem. And everyone can see it. But we are not going to do anything to fix it. In fact, we shall not even talk about it. Because politics.
Delhi is India’s national capital. It is the nerve center of India’s political apparatus and media complex. Normally speaking, therefore, incidents in Delhi dominate the ‘national’ news. Issues that happen in Delhi’s neighborhoods quickly become ‘national’ issues. But right now, Delhi cannot breathe. And Delhi it seems, along with the rest of us, cannot even talk about it.
To be sure, you can find here and there sterile news reports containing data. The air quality in Delhi and the rest of the National Capital Region went from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’ to ‘severe’. For today, crop stubble burning contributed to 36 per cent of air pollution in Delhi, yesterday it was 40 per cent and tomorrow it may be 35 per cent. But oddly enough, these reports are not accompanied by commentary. Why so scared?
So let me be a heretic of sorts here and ask the obvious question. The farmers of Punjab, along with some of their counterparts in northern Haryana, have set fire to their fields, to burn away what is left after harvesting, or crop stubble as it is called. The smoke is making its way across northern India and burning the lungs of Delhi. They do this every year. Why do we let this happen?
The answer is all around us, and it exposes everyone. It shows how a vocal minority can impose its tyranny on the majority, including taking away our right to breathe. It shows the weakness of the political establishment that it cannot stand up to the majority vote bank of farmers in Punjab. It shows the weakness of what has been referred to as the “most powerful court in the world”. And it exposes the hypocrisy of the NGO-activist complex. What do they do when they are not jet setting around the world, raising millions of dollars by making a show of caring about the environment? They tie up with Left-wing parties to undermine governments they do not like. They are political operatives who do hitjobs, not activists.
Sometimes it is good to be partisan, especially when it gives such clarity. Like I said, this ritual of crop stubble burning and choking of Delhi happens every year. You can go back and check the same NASA database for October 2019 and find the same story. All of Punjab covered in red, as well as those parts of Haryana bordering Punjab. Two sister states, but the administration in BJP-ruled Haryana does a much better job of reigning in fires than Congress-ruled Punjab. And why do I mention October 2019? Because Haryana was having an election back then. If there was a time for appeasement in Haryana, that would have been it. And Haryana still did a better job than neighbouring Punjab. This is the report card of Indian liberalism, and you can’t un-see this.
Okay, so what are the poor farmers to do, if not burn away their crop stubble? I am as much of an expert on Indian agriculture as Rihanna, but I do know that crops are grown all across India. In fact, over half of India’s population is employed in agriculture. If the farmers of every other state understand their responsibility towards the environment, why can’t the farmers of Punjab do the same? It is not “anti-farmer” to point out that a vocal minority of rich farmers from one state is burning the lungs of northern India in the name of innocent farmers everywhere.
It is impossible here not to talk about the protests against the three new agricultural laws, because the correlation is so obvious. The protests are coming from the exact same demographic, with the exact same sense of entitlement and in the name of farmers everywhere. They feel entitled to sit on the highways and physically block all paths to Delhi. As if that wasn’t enough, the capital must submit to being choked for three months every year. Again, this isn’t all farmers. Just the richest, most privileged ones, coming from one state, egged on by the most liberal elements in our political and intellectual class.
As with all misguided initiatives, they have the pseudoscience to back them up. If the pollution is coming from crop stubble burning in Punjab, then why is the Air Quality Index (AQI) of cities in Punjab so much better than that in Delhi? Just like this summer when they insisted that there was not a single case of coronavirus at their protest sites. You cannot reason with them by explaining that the wind pattern is such that it concentrates the pollution from neighboring states around Delhi. Just like you cannot win over climate science deniers by showing them the temperature graphs. If the globe is warming, how come winters are still cold? If space is real, why doesn’t the earth fall?
All of us are paying for their ignorance and sense of entitlement. In the short term, we are paying by inhaling deadly black smoke into our lungs.
But there is a long term price as well. By its hypocrisy, the liberal Left is making environmental concerns seem like a joke. Hug trees and cry if a BJP-led government proposes to cut down a few trees in Aarey colony in Mumbai to build a mass transit system that will reduce millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Turn around and write revolutionary poetry in support of farmers in Punjab burning crop stubble that will choke Delhi. When you reduce environmental concerns to a fashion statement or a political tool, people stop taking them seriously. And let me tell you this. Even if us adults are capable of such sophistry, the kids are not. The kids in school today see that environment is just a game that grown-ups play to settle scores with each other. Tomorrow, it will be up to these kids to save the world. Think about what we are teaching them.
Abhishek Banerjee is a mathematician, columnist and author. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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