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Cleantech startups use satellite data to monitor climate risks such as the Delhi smog or the Amazon fires, which are seen as a danger to people, businesses and investor portfolios.  (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Cleantech startups use satellite data to monitor climate risks such as the Delhi smog or the Amazon fires, which are seen as a danger to people, businesses and investor portfolios. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Opinion | Rulers need to wake up to Delhi’s pollution crisis

Protecting the environment is the most important responsibility of our politicians

The first Sunday of November proved to be ominous for Delhi-NCR. On waking up in the morning, I found that sunlight had failed to pierce through the impenetrable smog that was spread all around. A thick blanket of toxic haze had covered the city, choking its residents as well as sunlight.

It was a feeling of déjà vu. Years ago, on seeing the concentration camps established by the Nazis, I had wondered how the Jews must have suffered helplessly, choking in the poisonous gas within those walls, how they must have felt face to face with untimely death. On the morning of the auspicious Chhath, our suffering was also unprecedented. There, the Nazis choked Jews to death, here we were suffering because of the misdeeds of our rulers.

On Saturday evening too, devotees who fasted, offered water not to the Sun but its faint image. While praying for the well-being of their families, this apprehension must have overpowered their hearts, if the Sun god continued to remain in the clutches of this poisonous smog, which has turned into a sinister ‘Rahu and Ketu’, how would they complete their fast? Who will they offer water to? And as it was feared, the Sunday morning proved to be ominous.

The season of autumn used to bring about a pleasant feeling in north India earlier. These days, it comes ringing a warning bell but our rulers keep sleeping. The Delhi chief minister is anguished that the farmers of neighbouring Haryana and Punjab are not being stopped from burning stubble. As a result, Delhi is forced to bear the brunt every year. On the other hand, the information and environment minister Prakash Javadekar has alleged that the Kejriwal government of Delhi hasn’t done anything in this regard.

Governments keep coming and going, the faces of leaders in power keep changing but this country and the countrymen who elect these leaders to power with hopes and expectations remain the same, at the same place. Our rulers who make big promises and tall claims are immersed in the tug-of-war of another election. How can they forget the fact that the political power comes with duties and responsibilities? Protecting the environment is the most important responsibility among them. Alas! It has not yet been taken seriously.

Anguished by this, the apex court of the country commented that the people of this country have been left to die. The situation is much worse than a “health emergency". We are not safe even in our bedrooms. There too the air quality index crosses 500 points. A bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta summoned the chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in this regard and sought a report from them. On 6 November, the Supreme Court ordered that within seven days, farmers should be given assistance of 100 per quintal, so that they do not burn stubble in the fields. The judges, while tersely commenting on the attitude of the state governments, said that if they do not care for the people, then they do not have the right to remain in power.

Consider it your good fortune if the governments do wake up after the court cracked the whip.

There is no harm in mentioning here that our politicians who like to compare India with China in every other aspect do not even mention China in this regard. The Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, and it was called the most polluted event of the time. On 10 August 2008, PM10 levels in Beijing air reached 604 micrograms per cubic metre. Even in 2014, when the level of PM2.5, a harmful micro-pollutant, exceeded the safe limit by 45 times in Beijing, the Chinese government practically launched a war to combat pollution. In just four years, Beijing ensured a 35% reduction in pollutants, while reducing them to 25% pollution would have sufficed. The government of China earmarked a budget of $120 billion to control and combat pollution. New rules were enacted and enforced strictly. No new power plants running on coal were allowed to be built around the most polluted cities. Those that were already functioning were instructed to reduce their emissions. Also, the coal-based power plants were made to switch to natural gas. The number of vehicles was controlled in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The production of iron ore and steel was reduced.

How did China succeed in doing this commendable job? “Just as we fought with poverty, with the same firmness, we will also confront pollution," the then vice premier of the state council Li Keqiang had said. It is important to mention here that in 2008, when Beijing was struggling with this plight, Delhi was in a better condition, despite being unsafe. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, in those days, the PM10 level in the Delhi air used to reach just up to 209 micro grams per cubic metre.

Needless to say, China with its strong will converted the worst scenario into a good one while the exact opposite happened in Delhi. How long will we keep suffering due to the carelessness of our rulers?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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