Ultimately, the weather gods had to step in to rescue Delhi from choking to death. They sent a sprinkling of rain to disperse the smog that has been smothering the city while Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) bickered with the Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the Delhi liquor scam, ED, CBI and other irritants.
Even the Supreme Court was moved to deliver a rap on the knuckles as pollution levels soared. "This can’t be a political battle all the time,’’ exclaimed Justice Sanjay Kaul during a hearing on Delhi’s polluted air. "This is a complete murder of the health of people.’’
For the time being, the Court has ordered a complete ban on crop burning across North India, said to be a major factor behind the annual November spike in Delhi’s pollution, and put the onus for implementation on Station House Officers (SHOs). The judges said a long-term action plan could follow later.
It remains to be seen whether an order of this nature can be enforced on the ground. There is little to no monitoring mechanism for micro scrutiny at the level of police stations in village clusters.
Lackadaisical Approach Towards Pollution Menace
But there is little doubt that this year, both Kejriwal’s AAP government in Delhi and the Modi government at the centre were caught napping as November approached. They were so engrossed in their unending power games that they took their eyes off the ball. The result is perhaps, the worst pollution Delhi has seen in the recent years.
There are two stages to winning the fight to keep Delhi’s air clean. The first is to swing into action with temporary measures that alleviate the problem to some extent.
Several innovative ideas were mooted and some actually put into motion last year which helped to lessen AQI levels in the winter of 2022-23. One was the regular spraying of roads, trees, and pavements with water guns to settle the dust and small pollutants.
Another was the setting up of a smog tower on the lines of a similar machine in Beijing which has brought pollution levels down considerably in the Chinese capital.
A third was a plan to introduce colour-coded stickers for diesel, petrol, and CNG vehicles so that their movement can be controlled when AQI levels start to rise.
A fourth was an enthusiastic announcement by the AAP government which swept to power in Punjab in 2021 that it would facilitate cheap rentals of machinery so that farmers could clear paddy stubble mechanically without having to resort to burning it.
Now get this. Not a single water gun was sent out on the roads as November approached till the Supreme Court was petitioned about Delhi’s foul air.
Pollution Control a Lesser Priority in Kejriwal’s Action Plan
The smog tower has been non-functional for some months and no one in the government has thought of getting it repaired. When questioned by the Court about this, a representative of the Delhi government said action was being taken against the errant official. The Court slammed the reply as "ludicrous’’.
The colour-coded sticker scheme remains on paper. And nothing has been heard about AAP’s grand plans to help Punjab farmers stop burning paddy stubble.
It is incredulous that a party like AAP which has endeared itself to the people of Delhi because of its focus on issues that affect the well being of citizens (education and health being shining examples) forgot about controlling the quality of air in the city.
It’s a well-established pattern by now that the air deteriorates from the end of October onwards. Surely, short-term measures like water guns could have been rolled out in time.
However, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia was behind bars as an accused in the Delhi excise policy scam, and his boss, Arvind Kejriwal, was too busy politicking to concentrate on the governance issues in the city.
But Realpolitik First!
Look at Kejriwal’s hectic schedule this year. He had to handle the political fallout of Sisodia’s arrest. His other right-hand man, Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh, was also jailed in the same excise case. Another important lieutenant, Raghav Chadha, was busy getting married to film star Parineeti Chopra, which made him less available.
Apart from his party problems and AAP’s brushes with central investigative agencies, Kejriwal was busy with machinations to further his national political ambitions. He had to negotiate with the I.N.D.I.A. bloc for an honourable entry into the anti-Modi Opposition front.
He decided that his party must contest Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh although it has virtually no presence in any of the three states and the Congress pleaded with him not to cut into anti-BJP votes by fielding candidates.
And then, the last straw. He himself was summoned by ED for questioning in the excise case, landing him with another political minefield to negotiate as he dreams big.
To give him his due, there is only so much a chief minister of a half-state like Delhi can do. And since the November pollution menace involves neighbouring states, particularly Haryana and Punjab, the central government has an important role to play as a facilitator, interlocutor, and decision-maker.
This is the second and most critical step to tackling Delhi’s bad air: a long-term action plan involving all the states in the region. The ball for this is in the court of the Modi government. But it has to tear itself away from other preoccupations like monitoring ED and CBI investigations against Opposition leaders and try a consultative approach instead of a confrontationist one.
Maybe then, Delhi can breathe again in winter instead of choking.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)