Unpacking Political Narratives Around Air Pollution In India

(Transcript of my views expressed in a roundtable organized by the Centre for Policy Research.)

I.

If parliamentary questions were to be seen as a proxy for awareness on air pollution, it may be seen that the issue is gaining a lot of importance. How has the air pollution debate evolved as a mainstream political issue?

The graph of parliamentary questions regarding air pollution and air quality shows an upward trend since 2015-16. The same applies for media articles too, with initial attention focused on Delhi. In 2016, the first civil society public movement against air pollution happened in Jantar Mantar, directing a lot of public attention towards the issue. Subsequently, a lot of negative articles on a number of top polluted cities in the world being in India have come up. Any government concerned with such rankings and India’s poor performance would be sensitive towards the issue. Over the years, the impact of air pollution on health has had a good amount of research going into it and much awareness has been generated. The perception of the effects of air pollution has evolved from that of a visually displeasing phenomena of smog and haze to a critical health issue. But over the last year and a half, air pollution is competing with Covid for political priority on the national level. At state levels, air pollution is competing for priority with a host of other health and environmental issues that too deserve the attention of the authorities.

We are where we are now due to three key initiatives:

  1. National Clean Air Programme
  2. 15th Financial Commission
  3. Commission for Air Quality Management

Now that we have these initiatives in place, it is our duty to ask probing questions, and demand transparency and efficient implementation from the government. The Parliamentarians Group for Clean Air, an informal grouping of parliamentarians, is now focusing on the National Clean Air Programme. It is also creating awareness among MPs. Standing Committee chairpersons also need to take initiative to get more data on the initiatives against air pollution.

II.

What are your perspectives on stubble burning being raised as a big contributor to pollution? What is the role of the Central Government in what is a multi-state problem?

Stubble burning is an episodic, geographic issue concentrated around Delhi NCR. Stubble burning cannot be used to explain away the pollution in Maharashtra or West Bengal or Assam. The base of pollution all year round is high and unhealthy. Hence when there are occasional spikes caused by firecrackers and stubble burning, it will rise to severe levels. It needs to be understood that it is the year-long high pollution rate that is taking air quality indices to even higher levels during these occasions. We should not be starting our conversations on solutions to air pollution by bringing up stubble burning first. These conversations must begin by addressing the causes of pollution that keep the indices high throughout the year. These solutions include very simple steps that have been talked about since long but have not been implemented well.

The strategy should be to go by sources. the first source is vehicular emissions with a basic solution of increasing public transport, reduce private vehicles. and focus on renewable energy sources. The second source is industry emissions. CPCB and State PCBs evaluate these emissions, acting more on court judgments. Solutions should focus on making our institutions capable of performing their jobs. The third source is biomass burning. We’ve been talking about municipal waste management, eliminating biofuel from kitchens, etc. Fourthly, power plant emissions can be dealt with by switching to renewable energy and reducing our coal-dependence.

Amidst the discussion on stubble burning, we should not forget any of the base sources.

III.

We need to be thinking of a whole of government approach. Do we have the imagination for a governance structure that can respond in that way, is that part of the discourse at all?

The CPCB and state PCBs are composed in a different way from the CAQM. CAQM has very high-level representatives from different ministries, but does not have a Health Ministry representative. It is also restricted to NCT. I recommend that this should be made a pan-Indian Commission It has got the formula right, but its scope needs to be widened. I’ve moved a Private Members Bill on similar lines which is yet to be introduced. Stubble burning is a very technical issue that has scope for state level interventions, entrepreneurship, innovations, difference in cropping patterns and a whole lot of other measures. But the politics over it are not likely to be resolved in the near future. The debates over stubble burning display the understanding that poor farmers cannot be forced to adopt high-cost alternatives. Most MPs are on the side of the farmers and feel that they need to be incentivized and supported in their transitioning from stubble burning.

IV.

How do you resolve the power tensions likely to come up between a Central agency, like the CAQM if its scope were to be widened, and state agencies? How do we think about new institutions versus strengthening the current ones?

My PMB had these functions which are with the CAQM brought in to the CPCB and SPCBs. A multi-sectoral composition focused on annual reports, transparency and research was envisioned. The Government has constituted a similar institution but with its scope limited to Delhi and the NCR. It will lead to some amount of turf war, but this is the way forward unless the Government brings these functions into the SPCBs through legislation modifying the Air Act. The Government’s thought now is executive-driven. The advantage of legislation is that it will bring about a decentralized approach instead of a large central body. The latter is not very feasible in a country like India with diverse issues and solutions. It is much more logical to vest more powers and functions in the State boards. On a different note, even if one looks at the PDP Bill, the Government has gone for an all-powerful agency in the Centre. As we have seen in various cases, the centralized and decentralized approaches both work and fail too. 

V.

The Finance Commission’s grants to local governments also raise similar questions. Do tying funds in this way undermine the capability of local governments to respond to such complex challenges?

Capacity building of institutions at the local levels – we are yet to find out how to effectively do capacity building. What is working in the current structure, for initiatives like the Swachh Bharat, is a very centralized system often driven from the Prime Minister’s office. We need to elevate air pollution to such a level for heads of States take this up. There is a lot of sensitization among heads of states that needs to be done, especially in the Indo-Gangetic plains. We need to bring out more research on the impact of air pollution on children, health, lifespan, etc. not only on people of Delhi but across the country. Air pollution made it to the manifestoes of all parties in Delhi, but somehow its still remaining in Delhi. Go deep to build capacity of institutions and go up to sensitize heads of States as well.

VI.

When it comes to parliamentary deliberations, one question on the citizens’ minds is – what does that lead to?

Parliament is for ensuring transparency. We are getting information out through our questions. Information housed in a remote Department is brought out to the public domain by the responsible Minister themselves, bringing in a system of accountability.

VII.

What are the steps to be taken to make air pollution a central political issue?

Politicians react to the portrayal of their own jurisdictions/constituencies in the public domain. Hence, more research on the state of affairs needs to be brought out. Not all issues need to be politicized for it to gain national importance.

VIII.

The debates on air pollution often tend to focus on private solutions to a public problem. When issues get so deeply polarized and elitist, how do you think of trade-offs?

All governments, given their commitments to climate change and health will be coerced down the path of having more public solutions. This has to be facilitated with adequate research in the field.

Published by mpgauravgogoi

Member of Parliament, Kaliabor Lok Sabha.

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