Winter has finally come! I welcome you all to the season of some serious yet amusing headlines. “दिल्ली की हवा में घुला ज़हर”, “दिल्ली बना गैस चेंबर”, “प्रदूषण की मार, कहां है सरकार?”, “Breathing is injurious to health”, “AtmosFEAR: Delhi victim of sick choke” and many more.
Come October and the people of Delhi-NCR start prepping for three things” 1) Getting their winter fashion ‘on point’, 2) Checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) every hour, and 3) Trying hard to breathe without choking or feeling nauseous. This has been the story for most of the people living in the capital of India, which has also had the opportunity to top the list of most polluted cities and capitals in the world. What an achievement, sirji!
Every year for the last one decade or so, the citizens of Delhi-NCR have raised their voices against this predicament, and our dearest politicians have tried innovative ways to pass the buck onto each other, our fighter journalists have brainstormed titles for primetime shows and asked people how they feel. But we are still here and the pollution doesn’t seem to be impressed by all this stage-show.
In the 2019 general elections, we voted a party to power which can actually single-handedly bring in laws to curb this recurrent issue of pollution. Similarly, we re-elected a government that boasts of a ‘good governance model’ in Delhi. They have been at the forefront when it comes to condemning the neighbouring states of the capital city. But I guess it’s just a matter of a couple of months after which the new year will be all about new pledges, new excuses, and new ways to dodge the questions.
But I want you to think about this: Who is actually responsible for such a disaster? The Center, the State, the neighbouring states, the citizens, or would it be safe to say it’s an act of God?
The headline of The Times of India on 16 November 2019 read “Meet on pollution put off as 25 out of 29 MPs fail to turn up”. This was enough to show the intent of our democratically elected and hard-working representatives on the issue pertaining to citizen well-being. There are big claims on Twitter talking about the mitigative measures being taken and even bigger PR promotions by all the stakeholders to ensure that they come out ‘clean’. But what I fail to understand is how these claims aren’t even defendable when the winters set in?
Delhi has been on red alert for its deteriorating air quality since 1995 when the suspended particulate matter in Delhi had hit a high of 409 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). To tackle this, the Supreme Court passed a historic judgement forcing all public transport vehicles to switch to a more environment-friendly and cleaner Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Following this, there was a dip in the respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in the city’s air. This also happens to be one of the highlighted events of the then-Chief Minister of NCT Delhi- Sheila Dikshit’s career, spanning fifteen years as Delhi’s CM. But the ghost of pollution returned yet again in 2008, and from then on, the misery of the citizens has continued.
When the COVID-induced lockdown was in effect, the internet went crazy with viral memes where Delhi skies were the subject of humour. Some said they could see the Himalayas, some saw the Taj Mahal and some of them even saw the Statue of Liberty from their balconies and terraces. But at the heart of all this entertainment was people’s relief and grief. Relief that they could breathe cleaner air in such testing times while being home, and the grief that they would have to go through the same plight again once the lockdown would be lifted (and so did it happen). It was unbelievable to see how the Delhi skies became so clear. The Air Quality Index went crashing and stayed within ‘Good’ and ‘Satisfactory’, which is a rare luxury for the people living in Delhi.
All of this points towards one thing- our only limit has been our willingness to act on critical issues. Air pollution has caused severe economic, social, and environmental loss and we are still talking about formulating plans! The popular ‘lollipop’ of freebies to lure the voter has been replaced by a more colourful lollipop of pollution-reduction and world-class education. Therefore, it’s high time for the citizens to understand that it’s neither the state nor the administration that will solve the issue based on its merit.
This argument can be supported with the fact that all the major parties within the state and across the nation in their election manifesto have mentioned that they take air pollution seriously and that they would immediately address this issue. But, it’s hard to find the evidence of any concrete action (a lot of ‘concrete action’ though) implemented on the ground in our cities apart from the likes of the Odd-Even Scheme and building of a couple of smog towers.
The critics would say that it takes time for the state to formulate a strategy and execute it and therefore the work isn’t visible as of yet. But then the question arises: do we have enough time? Citizen-action has to be the way out of such issues— be it rising pollution or the issue of waste management. The first step has to be taken at the household level, I feel.
The conscience of citizen-activism has to take charge to drive our society towards safe and healthy living. This needs to be supported by infrastructural and technological innovation from the state which owes it to the taxpayer. Last but not the least, we are travellers on this planet with a limited time and it’s on us to preserve what we have today for the ones who are yet to arrive.