Every country that has cleaned up its polluted air, has done so after reaching a tipping point. That point has come after pollution has become undeniable, and its health hazards have been acknowledged, after people have realised that existing environmental laws have been de-fanged by industry or lobbies with commercial agendas.
Whether it was Mexico, Los Angeles, London or China, change came after the tipping point was breached. India is at the cusp of that tipping point. With the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) having brought the issue of pollution to the centre stage, and the BJP and Congress joining the debate (with the BJP tweeting a video recently, squarely blaming the AAP), the pollution debate has finally entered the Parliament.
Why Is Air Pollution Still a Subject of ‘Debate’?
For environmentalists and activists fed up of the blame-game, the BJP’s video, blaming a state party while in power at the Centre, and heading many of the state governments in severely-polluted states, was still a welcome video, because for the first time, air pollution made it to the national agenda.
With Tuesday’s debate in Parliament, however poorly-attended, this important topic finally reached the legislature.
For years, dirty air was normalised. Then, it was politicised. Hopefully, next, India’s toxic air will finally be cleaned up.
To be honest, with the amount of science, data and evidence backing the public health emergency India is currently facing caused by the levels of pollutants no human should have to breathe, this issue should not even have to be debated. Any responsible government should have already been at work to find some real solutions to this gigantic problem that is causing more disease, disability and death than war, terror and several communicable and non-communicable diseases put together.
However, until now, it has only been the judiciary which has made any significant attempt at tackling this problem, whether through banning the sale of fireworks or crop-stubble burning.
It is the job of our legislators and our executive. The fact that our judiciary has been forced to step in, points to the absolute paralysis in our executive in handling the problem of pollution. This links back to the complete lack of intention to acknowledge or solve this problem, by our legislators.
Air Pollution Crisis: India’s Tipping Point
We are now at a tipping point – it is now time that our legislature and executive jointly create the structure and mechanisms to solve this crippling problem. Instead of focusing on the politics of air pollution, let’s look at the bigger picture of how such a problem can be solved in a democracy like India.
History shows that once a law, that puts public health squarely in the center of its focus, is passed, industry usually comes around — and in fact, is able to innovate and make profits in the new scenario.
It is only the government at the Centre which can bring together all these entities — corporates, state departments, technologies, industries, sectors and individuals — with conflicting motives and differing agendas to enforce regulation, that can have any significant and measurable impact on air quality.
This is not to lessen the importance of private responsibility – air is a collective resource essential for our very survival, and every citizen and resident at an individual level has a responsibility to keep our air clean – but to emphasise the importance of public accountability.
India’s Current Air Act Doesn’t Mention Public Health
The first thing we need is a new Clean Air Act that puts public health at the center of its existence. At the same time, we need an independent, autonomous, empowered, transparent and accountable entity, headed by a dynamic and decisive leader whose focus is to bring pollution down, first to below national limits and then to below international limits as set by the World Health Organization. A ‘Clean Air Boss’ with Cabinet rank. The boss can help create the act or vice versa.
In other words, we need a sharp weapon (new Clean Air Act) and a bold, decisive wielder of that weapon (Clean Air Boss) to fight air pollution effectively enough to have a positive health impact.
India's current Air Act – all seven chapters and 54 sections of it – never once mentions public health. London's Great Smog had led to its Clean Air Act 62 years ago. But in July 2018, even the UK Parliament introduced it as a Human Rights Bill, even as London's Mayor, an asthma patient himself, renewed attempts at cleaning London air by introducing ultra low emission zones, among other measures. The new Clean Air Act aims to improve existing legislation and enshrine the human right to clean air in UK law.
This is exactly what India’s Air Act should do, taking inspiration from developed countries like the US, with its strong Environment Protection Authority.
Who’ll be the ‘Clean Air Boss’?
Coming to the Clean Air ‘Boss’ — this could be someone like E Sreedharan who managed to give Delhi-NCR an excellent underground metro, or TN Seshan, who managed to empower our Election Commission which ensures fair elections in the world's largest democracy. In fact, the person our prime minister chooses needn't even be from India. We've had enough examples of people of Indian origin taking up positions of high authority as short contracts.
Air is a collective resource and crucial to public health.
Polluted air causes harm not just to our lungs but to every organ of our body. Scientists from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, in two review papers published in the journal Chest, have concluded that air pollution can harm acutely, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body. This has been validated by Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of public and environmental health, who says it represents “very strong science,” and “adds to the very heavy evidence we have already. There are more than 70,000 scientific papers to demonstrate that air pollution is affecting our health,” she has said.
Air knows no geographic boundaries and is not localised to a Delhi problem, or even a north India problem, but affects every part of the country. Not every part of the country monitors its air, which is why the myth that this is a regional problem still exists.
Air Pollution: A Social Inequity
Air pollution is a social inequity as it affects the poor and disenfranchised disproportionately. It is not a rich person's problem, nor has it just been created by the rich. And it is finally being recognised as an all-season problem that is merely worsened to horrific levels in the winters.
We are in a state of national health emergency and need to act with urgency.
There is no time left for setting up committees or waiting for new, indigenous studies. We need systemic change. Air pollution has permeated every sector of the economy, thus every economic and social policy needs to take it into account. This is why we need an independent, autonomous and fully-empowered and resourced entity which will have time-bound goals for an accountable and transparent delivery of one thing only – clean air to a billion Indians suffering from the health harms due to air pollution.
Other countries have done this. Why can’t Delhi?
Beijing lowered its PM 2.5 level by 40 percent in 5 years, Seoul lowered the same to 35 percent in the same time.
There are no short term solutions to this problem. Many sectors have contributed to pollution, thus, we need a bouquet of solutions — no silver bullet will do it. All this has to begin with a strong intent to solve this problem. For all this, we must be ready to pay for our clean air at a collective level.
(Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based columnist and co-founder of Care for Air (careforair.org), an awareness and advocacy platform whose mission is the pursuit of clean air.)
(Care for Air's Governing Board consists of Bhargav Krishna, senior air pollution scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Abhishek Bhartia of the Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, Gopal Sankaranarayan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court, Dr Amrita Bahl, Dr Manjali Khosla, Anita Bhargav, Barun Aggarwal, and Chetan Bhattacharji. Managing Editor NDTV. It is advised by Dr Sarath Guttikunda, co-director, UrbanEmissions, Prof Josh Apte Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas and Dr Pawan Gupta Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center & USRA.)
(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.)