Delhi’s air quality has become a growing crisis for the last few years, with an alarming 80 people currently dying every day from air pollution-related causes.
Citizen-led movements around the city have sprung up to combat the crisis. They are protesting thermal power plants, the lack of public buses, the lax construction rules, and the agricultural pollution that make Delhi the gas chamber we live in. And in the last two years, the air pollution debate has moved from being a seasonal issue to one for the general public, led by young people, activists and medical professionals.
This year, for the first time, air pollution has become an election issue, and is occupying prime time alongside the usual agenda points of education, sanitation, electricity, and more. How? Over the last few weeks, thousands of Delhi residents have been gathering at town halls across the city to witness a new phenomenon: their local MLAs pledging to work for clean air.
Air pollution has yet to penetrate the framework of Delhi’s policy structure. Delhi has existing policies relating to renewable energy, improved public transport and waste management which would all be viable solutions to the air pollution crisis, and mitigate the effects of climate change, if they were better executed. But they haven’t been, and our pollution action plans are only used in an emergency – an emergency that happens every year!
What’s more, India has a Clean Air Action Plan (the NCAP), but it is more a set of guidelines than an act with any enforcing authority. Not only that, the air quality targets set by the NCAP don’t match the international ones set by the WHO. Even worse, a recent Down to Earth report highlighted the fact that only 312 cities and towns – which is 5% of the 6000 cities and urban areas in India – are covered by AQI monitors! How can we expect to succeed when we don’t even know what the air quality is?
In the recently announced Union Budget, Rs. 4,400 crore has been allocated to deal with air pollution in those cities that have a population larger than one million. While this is an increase from the Rs. 460 crore allocated last year, we are still missing the details on how this money will be spent, especially since the budget allocated to the MoEFCC is only Rs. 3,100 crore. Where will this money come from?
In September 2019, Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal announced that the air pollution levels in Delhi have reduced by 25% from the last few years. While his claim is debatable, it has moved other major political parties to make promises about the ways they will combat air pollution, setting the stage for air pollution to become a key issue in the upcoming elections. The INC manifesto has pledged 25% of the annual budget for tackling Delhi’s air. The BJP has announced a series of air purifier schemes. AAP is aiming for a one-third reduction in air pollution over the next 5 years. Each party is talking about electric vehicles, solar power and waste as solutions to air pollution for the first time.
The upcoming 2020 elections in Delhi present the perfect opportunity to move the air pollution issue beyond political manifestos and establish it as a key party platform agenda. The #DilliDhadakneDo campaign is a citizen movement led by My Right to Breathe that empowers voters to hold their representatives accountable for air pollution solutions.
Our campaign has been working in each constituency in Delhi to collect people’s stories about air pollution, and to ask them if they will ‘give a vote’ for clean air. We have collected 1 lakh votes and counting.
The campaign is going from constituency to constituency, asking local candidates to pledge to vote for clean air. More than 30 have so far, from AAP, BJP and Congress. To ensure they keep to their word, we’re presenting them with a Clean Air Manifesto, created by citizens groups around the city, asking them to sign a pledge to work towards the goals of the Manifesto if they win, and then take a picture.
The manifesto presents solutions focusing on improved public transport, better waste management, increased renewable energy and inter-state cooperation, amongst other solutions. It includes specific goals that residents would like to see in the next five years, such as 15,000 buses on the roads by 2025; 100% doorstep collection of waste, and most critically, a 65% reduction in air pollution by 2025 to meet national standards.
While politicians talking about air pollution is not always the most productive conversation, it is encouraging to see the increasing amount of public debate around the issue.
In one of the coldest winters that Delhi has ever experienced, these residents have suffered bad air quality – made worse by record-low temperatures – and are finally holding their representatives accountable.
Their stories are varied: families switching from an e-rickshaw to a van (ironically a more polluting form of transport) to send their children to school because of the air quality, people moving out of Delhi or wanting to move but being constrained by finances, people feeling the effects of air pollution, but not making the connection with the air quality, and the auto rickshaw drivers who are enthusiastically championing clean air solutions so they don’t have to spend their lives in toxic air: “Jo bhi sarkar banegi uss par mudda rakhna chahiye ke sabse pahele pollution ka control kiya jaye. Hamesha hamara vote jo bhi jaye, swachh Delhi par jaye.”
This article is part of a series on Youth Ki Awaaz, published by the #DilliDhadakneDo campaign. You can be a part of it too. Help us hold leaders to their word on the Clean Air Manifesto by sharing your pollution stories, and the solutions you’d like to see. Publish on Youth Ki Awaaz today, and we’ll take it to your leaders!