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Taking greater responsibility

The state of Delhi’s air has been well-documented. Pollution has reached critical levels. Air toxicity levels are 40 times higher than World Health Organisation standards, according to data from pollution monitoring agencies. The Delhi government’s response to the problem has been to shut schools until Wednesday—a decision that it should have taken much earlier, considering how vulnerable young children are to the toxic air. Reports also suggest that the government has also banned construction and demolition activities for the next five days, although enforcement remains a concern. There has also been some talk of inducing artificial rain to help dust particles settle down. Experts have also raised enforcement concerns around the AAP government’s decision to close down power stations around Delhi this week, besides the possible reintroduction of the odd-even experiment.  The Centre, meanwhile, has held a meeting of neighbouring states to address concerns emanating from crop burning in Haryana and Punjab, a major contributor to the pall that hangs over Delhi. With the public losing its patience, the corridors of power have finally woken up from their slumber and the past week has seen authorities tackling the public health emergency with greater urgency. On Sunday, sections of the Indian public protested against the lack of any concrete action taken by those in power. Even within the midst of an emergency situation, politicians have spared no effort to play politics. The Centre, represented by Union Environment Minister Anil Dave, took the time to spare farmers in election-bound Punjab for their role in accentuating the pollution problem in the national capital. He claimed that crop burning contributed just 20 percent to the problem. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, meanwhile, attempted to deflect blame for his government’s inaction by blaming crop burning for the problem.  As argued in yesterday’s editorial, farmers are willing to consider different ways to dispose of the excess straw. But no government has provided them with any affordable options. Farmers burn the stubble because they possess no economical means to remove the crop stumps. Adding further fire to the growing politics surrounding the state of Delhi’s air, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi asked the AAP government to learn from the previous Sheila Dikshit-led administration.  

 Suffice it to say, the arguments presented by all these prominent politicians are filled with holes. The current state of affairs is not down to recent developments. The apathy shown by the political class over environmental concerns through the years is responsible for the toxic smog that engulfs this city. The Dikshit administration did introduce CNG, but that remains a temporary fix. “The Capital's exploding vehicle population which crossed 17 million in 2015 is the direct result of short-term traffic solutions such as flyovers that encourage the use of private vehicles,” according to a recent editorial in Scroll.in. “Despite its efforts to build a metro rail network, Delhi still reels under the alarming levels of exhaust fumes, highlighting the city's failure to create an integrated public transport system.” However, it is citizens that remain at the heart of the problem. Even as the city was choking on the smog during the weekend, residents felt the need to light fireworks to celebrate the Chat Puja festival. Citizens also need to take greater responsibility, and not merely depend on the state.   

In a recent column, Sarath Guttikunda, a leading expert on urban air pollution in India, illustrated some of the long-term policy measures Delhi needs to take. But the crux of his column talked about what it means to take the long view. “Real policy is not short-term emergency measures that are defensive in nature,” writes Guttikunda. “We need a proactive policy spanning multiple years, and we need to act fast, local and through multiple agencies across multiple political parties to take the long view on air pollution in Delhi.” There are various factors responsible for Delhi’s bad air and some of the solutions required to tackle them will involve consistent efforts from government agencies and responsible citizens beyond the current news cycle. Families are already moving out to the city to avoid the pollution. Some have installed expensive air purifiers. Those who cannot move out or afford the latest anti-pollution technology are suffering. One study in 2010 found that the deadly PM (Particulate Matter) 2.5 was linked to between 7350 and 16,200 premature deaths and a stunning six million asthma attacks per year in the national capital. If authorities take note and act on these concerns, we may not have this conversation next year.   
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