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This weekend, the Air Quality Index (AQI) deteriorated sharply in the National Capital Region (NCR). Enough to grab national eyeballs and setting in motion the annual ritual of blame game.

It is that time of the year again when the Delhi-NCR suffers its worst bout of air pollution as winter sets in. The time when civic consciousness comes alive and assumes its most righteous self. And our politicians, in their bid to evade responsibility, are at their best in either kicking the can down the road, passing the blame or packaging tokenism as solutions.

The thing is that with the covid-19 pandemic, which primarily targets the respiratory system, still around, the impact on our health could be much worse—after all pollution too targets the lungs. It is, therefore, time to not just dust up the playbook. Instead this may be the moment to be brutally honest with ourselves and hit the reset. For starters, let us square up to a few myths.

First and foremost is that pollution is neither a Delhi-NCR centric issue nor is it only a winter phenomenon. It happens throughout the year and is a national problem. Just because it is not overtly visible—like stubble burning—doesn’t mean it does not exist. On Saturday, I randomly logged into The World Air Quality Index maintained by a non-profit body (bit.ly/38rtstB) to check the ambient air quality across Indian cities and towns: Was shocked to find that only Tirumala returned good air quality.

Second, vehicular pollution, while being an important contributor to air pollution, is not the biggest villain. As Chandra Bhushan, an environmentalist who heads up iForest, insightfully points out India annually burns about an estimated 2 billion tonnes of substances to either generate energy or dispose waste. Of this, three-fourths is accounted for by burning coal, lignite (for energy), biomass (mostly for cooking) and agricultural residue (waste disposal); the share of oil is about 10%.

Clearly, as Bhushan points out, we are missing the woods for the trees by focusing all our energies in containing vehicular emissions—a necessary, but not sufficient condition to contain pollution.

Thirdly, there is an assumption that policing can resolve the problem. Accordingly, there is renewed expectation of a solution with the creation of a new body to oversee the fight against air pollution in the NCR. It will be unfair to second guess an institution which is still on the drawing board; but one can question the implicit faith in the principle of policing as a solution.

Undoubtedly, policing is a good threat to showcase as a deterrent, but something extremely difficult to enforce. For instance, take biomass burning—the primary cooking fuel in rural India and one of the biggest contributors to air pollution. Not only is it a political challenge, it is inconceivable to levy individual fines for pollution violations.

Connecting the dots it is clear that it is time to stitch together a new narrative. To begin with, the Delhi-NCR experience should not be the standard for tackling the pollution problem nationally. Shaped like a saucer it has a unique topographic challenge which leaves it vulnerable to air pollution.

Simultaneously, the people need to be co-opted as stakeholders in the fight. The difficult trade-offs (like giving up using biomass as cooking fuel) need to be explained. Most importantly, the fight against air pollution needs to be re-prioritized; move beyond convenient scapegoats like automobiles. Reducing the consumption of coal and lignite can be woven into the strategy to green the Indian economy—the only sustainable blueprint for growth.

In short, recognize that there is no quick-fix to the problem. Battling air pollution is like being at war: you have to know your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. So, will leave you with a thought from the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu on the art of war:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint.Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com


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