You could mistake it for the plot of a Bollywood film that ran out of budget and yet it plays in the theatre of the absurd like clockwork year after year.
As Delhi’s air quality plunges, ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s weapons of destruction — smog guns and water sprinklers make a re-entry as though citizens by breathing poison are compromised in not just health but also thought.
India’s national capital region breathes unhealthy air almost through the year, it experienced its first ‘good’ day only in September while in 2022 there were just three ‘good’ days.
As winter sets in and wind speeds slow down pollutants caused year-round from emissions — vehicular, industrial, biomass burning and from construction dust get trapped in the air causing the inevitable spike. It is also the season when farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana clear their farms by burning crop stubble, these cases though better than previous years are now on the rise.
The plunging air quality coincides with the festival period when fireworks do further damage and it becomes a predictable trek to ‘very poor’ and beyond. In a month from now even the current Air Quality Index (AQI) of 300 will seem relatively bearable.
Failed by its politicians who defiantly refuse to put their house in order, nine Indian cities fall in the list of the ‘world’s top 15 most polluted cities.’ It’s a dubious honour and the pattern repeats ad nauseam every year. Political solutions are either tardy in implementation or involve token tweaks that are almost farcical, a band-aid on a surgical wound.
To tackle pollution cops are now being deployed to ease commuting congestion, anyone who has even passed through Delhi, let alone rule it knows that traffic jams are to the national capital what cricket is to India, they are not an overnight phenomenon.
There are chances of being taken for another ride, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s bona fide quick-fix is to alternate odd-even vehicles on the roads when the going gets tough. The going has only been getting tougher over the years.
In 2021 the Delhi government spent Rs22.9 crore (Dh13 million) of taxpayers’ money to build two 24-meter-tall smog towers. They were to purify 1,000 cubic meters of air per second within a radius of one kilometre. In reality, the impact was no more than a radius of 50 meters, if at all. This does not include crores spent on maintaining the towers, at least one of whom lies defunct, a monstrosity of public waste.
Funds better served for timely realisation of policies like the Graded Response Action Plan and curbing local pollution at source are now up in the toxic air. Kejriwal inaugurated the towers with much fanfare, his silence and lack of accountability over the wastage is no less than a political scam.
The blame game
Instead, a political blame game is on. Incidentally AAP is in government in both Delhi, that bears the toxic brunt and in Punjab which is responsible for the bulk of farm fires. Before March 2022 when the state was ruled by the Congress, Delhi blamed Punjab for most of its pollution woes. Since then, it has been unable to implement an alternate itself.
Air pollution is like the contagion that no political party wants to touch. In the last few weeks, the city of Mumbai overtook Delhi to become the second most polluted nation globally with the lethal PM2.5 particles 14.7 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline.
Poisonous air caused 1.6 million deaths in 2019, shockingly a child dies every three minutes in the country by inhaling toxic pollutants, as per a report by the Global Burden of Disease 2017. Those who survive could see their lifespan shortened by 10 years. India’s tragedy is that even these stark statistics including children breathing poison day after day don’t move the political meter.
When life is cheap promises are made to be broken. Doctors bluntly tell their patients in Delhi to leave town, if possible. Those who can’t, don’t leave home without a nebuliser. Not just non-smokers even children’s lungs resemble smoking chambers.
It is estimated that an AQI of 300 is like smoking 14 cigarettes in a day. For the next few months there is no respite, it is going to get much worse before it gets better. A swathe of haze will bathe cities, there are days when AQI will hit the circuit breaker and will be impossible to monitor.
Several senior officials in Delhi skipped a government meeting this week to assess measures being put in place to tackle pollution. The strategy is simple, wait out for the next few months of outrage till it is back to business. The right to clean air does not make it to any manifesto, fixing India’s poisonous air is not a vote bank, more so, in an election year. Can its citizens make it count?