Opinion

Diwali hangover: Delhi sets a poor example

Subir Roy | Updated on November 14, 2018 Published on November 14, 2018

Diwali effect The day after   -  PTI

Unless the administrative and political class show the will, the country’s air quality is unlikely to improve

One more Diwali has come and gone and Delhi by all accounts remains the worst among major cities in the world in terms of its air quality. This is despite intervention by the Supreme Court whose orders seem to have been widely flouted.

Not that no progress has been made over the last few years. But the air quality index for Delhi on Diwali has moved at an excruciatingly slow pace during 2015-18 (from 327 to 302, lower meaning better), while all the while remaining in the “very poor” category. (The worst was of course 2016 when the index slipped to 426 and fell into the “severe” category.) But this year the hangover was worse with air quality slipping to “severe” in several areas the day after Diwali and recording “severe” again a few days later.

The 2016 numbers made people approach the Supreme Court which has sought to draw the boundaries of what can be permitted. In 2017 just before Diwali it simply banned the sale of fire crackers in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Thereafter, this year it allowed fire crackers within strict restrictions — a permissible two-hour window and that too only for less noisy and bright “green” fire crackers. But it was as clear as night became nearly day on Diwali that the court’s orders meant little.

A huge city like Delhi is difficult to police intensively but what is critical is what else the Supreme Court has ordered — a phase down strategy as a longer term solution. It calls for increased restriction on chemical standards and, perhaps more important, getting communities to control and reduce the quantity of fire crackers they burn up.

The level of air pollution in Delhi during Diwali attracts the maximum attention as then it becomes unbearable, but air quality in the city as also many others across the country is unacceptably poor round the year. That is the far bigger challenge that needs to be met as otherwise the country will continue to bear a huge cost in terms of quality of health.

To be able to do this, two critical needs have to be met. The administrative attitude to air pollution, as also other kinds of pollution, needs to change. But even more important is the need to have the requisite political will. If political leaders do not believe that air quality must improve rapidly and the administration has to deliver this, people in India cities will continue to imbibe toxic air which will take away good years from their lives.

Weight of tradition

On political will, recall what Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan said before Diwali last year: “Crackers do not alone contribute to pollution. We will light earthen lamps and also burst a few crackers. The environment is important but so are traditions. We will celebrate Diwali traditionally.”

This can only be contrasted with Jawaharlal Nehru’s views where scientific research institutions, steel mills and dams were seen as the new temples of modern India. The point is, traditions are not written in stone. Wise leaders have to lead the nation in giving up outdated traditions and adopting new positive ones. If you are a diabetic, it is no good saying that having sweets during Diwali is a part of tradition.

In July Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that since October last year a lot of measures, short- and medium-term, had been taken to address air pollution in the Capital and there had been an improvement in air quality. But by then his Ministry’s proposed National Clean Air Programme had dropped the time bound targets which it had set earlier.

The Minister also announced closer to Diwali that he would initiate criminal prosecution against agencies or pollutants which do not comply with directives to check air pollution after Central Pollution Control Board teams taking stock of the pre-Diwali situation in Delhi found compliance to be “very poor”.

In the meeting the Minister called of five Northern States to review the preparatory run-up to Diwali, only the Delhi Minister showed up, with rest only deputing their officials.

Of course officials will be more ready with facts and figures but it is the political leaders, who have to take the lead in motivating the public along the right lines.

It is quite clear that the Union Environment Minister is not politically powerful enough to get State leaders to put their heads together to initiate concerted action. But right now that is where the buck seems to stop. This has prompted the Congress to accuse the Prime Minister of remaining silent even as Delhi faced a “pollution emergency”.

Nine Indian cities figure among the 20 cities in the world with the worst air quality, according to the WHO database. But if the national capital Delhi remains almost where it has been for the last few years then what hope for the other cities and the country as a whole?

The writer is a senior journalist

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Published on November 14, 2018
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