What will finally save us from toxic air isn’t democracy

The Chinese government has greatly improved the air quality in Beijing, which is far cleaner than Delhi today. Photo: HT
The Chinese government has greatly improved the air quality in Beijing, which is far cleaner than Delhi today. Photo: HT


  • I can see three ways in which north India can solve winter pollution. None of these requires the inconvenience of human goodness or the practical mechanism of electoral democracy.

It is that time of the year when toxic smog makes it hard to see the faces of the rich and sophisticated in the national capital region, but I can assure you they look like losers for having to live here. Every November, they reconsider buying that Maltese citizenship, or that villa in Goa for the same price; and they secretly or overtly despise their spouses who are stuck here for emotional or professional reasons. Of the millions of rupees they pay every year to live in Delhi, on their home in a fortified enclave, the school of their children, their club, their cars and the restaurants they frequent, a major portion is not for the quality of services, but simply to keep real India out. Yet, it is hard to keep real India out of their citadels, especially when seasonal wind patterns ensure that north India’s vehicular, industrial and agricultural pollution does not blow away and instead fills the lungs of hundreds of millions, damaging many in irreparable ways.

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Winter pollution has been bad the past few years except during the pandemic reprieve when the air was fresh and crisp. India has been unable to solve the problem because Indian politicians do not have an incentive to provide clean air. In fact, every important aspect of Indian politics contributes to the smog, including the Aam Aadmi Party, which through its pampering of polluting farmers implies that its promise was only “a clean government", not clean air. As a result, the way to clean north India’s winter air lies outside the democratic process. But how?

The smog in Delhi is caused by emissions from vehicles, industries and the burning of paddy stubble by farmers in northern states, especially Punjab. Farmers burn the stubble because it is the cheapest way to get rid of it, even though it is the most harmful way. Last year, there was much lament about air quality; committees were set up and the right things were said by politicians and bureaucrats. Evidently, nothing has worked. This year, stubble-burning in Punjab has increased. Farmers, often regarded as sacred beings, especially among people who do not know them, and who are often referred to as “the hands that feed us", have successfully protested against government action against farm fires. They are demanding compensation to adopt cleaner practices. Until then, they will be the hands that choke us.

Devotees of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have made it seem as if stubble-burning is the only reason Delhi is choking. That is not true. It is a joint effort of many aspects of Indian life.

A few years ago, Beijing faced a similar problem. It had become one of the most polluted places on earth. The Chinese government has greatly improved the air quality in Beijing, which is far cleaner than Delhi today. How is it that a Chinese government that is called autocratic, usually in a bad way, is more humane than the Indian government? It is not just that Chinese methods are more efficient than Indian. It is that political incompetence is protected by democracy. As long as politicians can win elections, they need not actually do any good. And the central premise of democracy, that people vote for ethical causes, has turned out to be nonsense. Also, the average Indian voter does not care at all about air quality. In this way, Indian democracy is the revenge of the poor. Equality in India is not improving the lives of the poor, but worsening the lives of the rich.

India is only an electoral democracy; otherwise, it is a plutocracy of elected guys. A silver lining is that unlike corruption and anarchy, politicians don’t stand to gain from pollution. So they do wish the problem did not exist. Maybe some of them even have half a mind to solve it. But they are too inept and callous to find effective solutions. They know that elections in India are not decided by air quality. In any case, it is a seasonal phenomenon, and Indians forget the smog the moment it clears. Also, even the upper classes have low standards for health. Poor air quality, whose consequences for life are not very visible, unlike covid cremations, is certainly not worth antagonizing voters like the oh-so-sacred farmers.

The solution to the toxic winter smog has to come from outside the democratic process. This is not impossible. We often lament how bad our governance is; but a more interesting question is why do good things happen?

I can see three ways in which north India can solve winter pollution. None of these requires the inconvenience of human goodness. Nor does it require the practical mechanism of electoral democracy. But each of them needs the cooperation of politicians.

One, the self-interest of old men. I have a theory that one of the reasons why many nations enforced autocratic lockdowns during the pandemic is that old men were at the greatest risk, and old men either run most of the world or are influential in other ways. Pollution, too, is most likely to kill the older lot first. As awareness around the long effects of smog on weak lungs grows, the fellowship of old Indian politicians may find the will to solve the problem.

Two, a farsighted influential politician who realizes that politicians stand to make many times more money in a liveable prospering country might get aggressive about improving living standards. This is funny only because truth has that quality.

Three, the nationalism of shame. I am a big believer in this. Historically, nationalism begins as pride, but eventually becomes more sophisticated and real, and people who have high stakes in a region will feel strongly ashamed of its flaws. Shame is a form of intelligence, and I wish it upon us.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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