The air we breathe
Monday evening showers brought respite to the National Capital Territory which has been enduring the scorching summer heat. Mercury dipped and a cool breeze blew past the streets as millions cherished the occasional summer chill. But more than heat, the respite, though not evident, was regarding the air quality. While the statistics still portray the Air Quality Index (AQI) as poor, if not very poor, rains definitely settled the dust which only adds to the problem. AQI has been specifically poor during winters with Delhi experiencing a blanket of smog and health complications in locals. Graded Response Action Plan was constituted to tackle alarming levels of AQI but the city required a cure anyway. Preemptive measures will yield tremendously but less has been done regarding those. While worsening AQI was largely restricted to winters, spiked AQI in summer is a cause of worry. AQI on Monday was "very poor", aggravated by westerly winds bringing dust from neighbouring states, stubble burning in parts of Punjab and Haryana, and forest fires in Uttarakhand. The debate regarding meandering levels of AQI, though between poor and very poor and not average or good, has done its rounds with National Green Tribunal and neighbouring states over their unintended contribution into Delhi's air pollution. Authorities have taken up the issue several times and activists have mentioned how stubble burning and westerly winds are a cause of trouble bringing in dust and smoke in the NCR atmosphere. However, vehicular emission has still not been adequately addressed though it remains to be one of the top air polluters. Even if we put the mark at one crore vehicles, which is an understated figure, the emissions from one crore vehicles are finding its way into the atmosphere, making us breathe poor air while we tend to other imminent events – elections.
General elections have definitely swung the mood of the nation which has 14 of its cities in the list of top 15 most-polluted cities in the world as per a UN survey released in 2018 which also states that Air pollution contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year in India. People do actually die of complications caused due to PM 2.5 particles which enter the respiratory system. It is not a fluke. But it has not been able to reverberate as an alarming issue across masses simply because minimal awareness has not let it. Discourses on nationalism have been more prevalent than Air Quality and that alone shows the mood of the nation. It is because of additional emphasis paid on the entire national security issue since Balakot Air Strike that environment, though present in manifestos of political parties, could not be as vehemently discussed as nationalism and national security were. And, that, is just pitiful. It makes us sad humans with narrow mindsets and depleted humility. It is often said that people's thoughts reverberate across the corners of the nation which are often steered by politicos who run the government on our behalf. They utter what matters to us. And, if they have been uttering a lot of nationalism and national security, then that is only because it matters to us. Only a fool would incessantly speak of an agenda which anyone seldom supports. How, then, can we blame our politicians or leaders for lack of environmental concern when we ourselves are less concerned about the same. Today we have the liberty to discuss air pollution with ease since it has not wreaked havoc yet. Human tendency, somehow, has always been to ignore unless forced to walk the precarious line. Rubbishing reports of deaths due to air pollution is only in line with that mindset as was done by the Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan who argued that "No death certificate has a cause of death as pollution" despite the Lancet Commission's report on Pollution and Health which said that 25 lakh Indians died from pollution-linked ailments in 2015, the highest in any country.
We protest whenever we see the water going above the head. And, why not since protests are very much part of a healthy democracy. Be it for reservations, justice, government support, corruption, et al, the agenda has been clear that masses are capable of influencing government machinery. Why not then have masses reached a consensus to protest regarding the failed attempts in tackling the rising air pollution? It is because worsening AQI has not yet impacted the masses. Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have surely made it to the apex court over environmental concerns but even those have failed to garner grand attention towards this perpetual, and now a perennial problem. IIT Delhi has put in concerted efforts through The Centre of Excellence for Research on Clean Air (CERCA), stressing on the need of data gathering, raising awareness and role of democracy and law to resolve the issues related to air quality. AAP government's odd-even rule for regulating vehicular traffic in the city was also a novel idea towards controlling and curbing air pollution but residents still lie in wait of another run, which, in fact, should be made a norm for NCR.
Pollution is not just a local problem but a global one and cities across the globe have initiated measures and undertaken activities to curb it. London's congestion charge levied on drivers entering the city centre, has been around since 2003. Madrid's selective entry to city areas for cars apart from environmental labels on cars is a method to check the polluting cars and deal appropriately. Paris's norm to make public transport free of cost during peak periods, encouraging people to use public transport and leave their cars at home is a good incentive to bring down vehicular emissions. But classic Indian argument would be whether Delhi can emulate these cities owing to its own logistical challenges amidst a humongous populace. Well, efforts in this direction will yield answers and all we need to do is urge the authorities to act. Waiting for them to wake up might cost us. The city evidently chokes with vehicular emissions. And, with raised metro fares are not helping. A person traversing from the metro and paying 100 rupees might as well take out his bike or car and utilise 100 rupees in petrol. Convenience is always attractive. And, not to forget that it is the convenience of travelling, of slow impact on health through air pollution, of waiting for authorities to do something about pollution and of not being directly responsible
for the rising pollution that has spiked the average AQI to "very poor" quality in the first palace. When UN adamantly advocates for SDGs and environmental activists speak up on environmental degradation, only then it is brought to our notice that our environment is suffering. A budget for the environment would have been a remarkable way to showcase one's concern for the same but Kisan budget suited the current appetite more this election season.
Promises are aplenty but none speak of an issue whose proximity covers every living thing. Maybe someday, some election will see the pollution concerns and bring it up strongly in their manifestos and promises. And, maybe then, some concrete action will be taken to repair what could have been prevented long ago i.e., today!