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Smog of democracy — Why air pollution is not a political issue

Air pollution or climate change will not become a political issue by itself, no matter how acute the problem. It has to be made into an issue.

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Why is air pollution not a political issue? If this thought crossed your mind last week, you are not alone. If you happen to live in the National Capital Region, you just had to look at yourself and your neighbours to notice bouts of coughing, breathlessness and eye irritation. Or just look outside the window. Thanks to media headlines over the last few days, a sizeable population is reasonably paranoid, as it should be, about Delhi’s AQI levels. Why, then, are democratically elected governments not equally concerned?

This is not a lazy, naïve or moral question, but a genuine puzzle. This is not a routine indictment of politics and politicians for being corrupt and short-sighted, etc. Everyday quotidian politics is like a market. Just as a business works for profit, a political entrepreneur works for power. Just as we don’t expect a shopkeeper to suffer losses to serve customers, we should not expect run-of-the-mill political leaders and parties to risk losing elections in order to serve the people. Political parties and political leaders do what they get rewarded for and desist from doing what they may be punished for. They don’t act honestly and wisely, since they have little electoral incentive to do so.

Air pollution is different. Or so it would seem. Air quality is not a remote, invisible issue that escapes attention. You do not need the media to see it. It does not take medical knowledge to see that smog affects your health. Air quality is not just a temporary illness, it compromises lifespan. If there is one thing every voter needs desperately, it is clean air. So, political entrepreneurs should rush to meet this need, claim credit and enhance their electoral prospects. At least the logic of political marketing would suggest that.

Yet politics doesn’t follow this logic. What happened in the Supreme Court last week has become an annual ritual: Delhi has pollution emergency, the government wakes up after the redline is crossed, someone rushes to court and the court gives a dressing down. And we wait for next year.

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Inaction of AAP, BJP, MCD

While there can be a debate about the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government’s performance in other areas, not even its friends would accuse the Arvind Kejriwal government of having done a thing about improving air quality. During the last six years, the number of DTC buses has gone down. Metro fares have become prohibitive. Last-mile connectivity continues to be nonexistent. Except for cheap gimmicks like smog towers, the Kejriwal government has not even tried to be seen doing anything against air pollution. It hasn’t bothered to spend the tax collected in the name of environment. In retrospect, Sheila Dixit’s introduction of CNG was the only serious step by an elected government in Delhi to improve the quality of the air that its voters breathe. 

To be fair to the Delhi government, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Narendra Modi government fare no better. The MCD has done almost nothing to control waste burning or construction-related pollution. The Modi government, ever so keen to snatch powers from Kejriwal, is happy to file affidavits in the Supreme Court, and do nothing else.

Here, then, is the question for you: How come governments don’t care for something that routinely affects not just an overwhelming majority but every single voter? How can political parties turn a blind eye to an issue concerning life and death of the largest possible vote bank? This is a puzzle not just for you and me but also for democratic theory.

You cannot resolve this puzzle unless you recognise that there is nothing magical about the mechanism called democracy. There is no reason why democracy will fulfil the real need, even the deepest need, of an overwhelming portion of or the entire population. Democratic politics may respond to the needs of a majority, but only under certain conditions. The glossy advertisement for democracy tends to hide the small print that “conditions apply”.

Also read: Delhi pollution crisis turns into political issue, and it’s not good news for Kejriwal

Awareness, articulation, aggregation — alternative

Babasaheb Ambedkar hinted at these conditions when he exhorted his followers to “educate, organise and agitate” and make use of democratic spaces for the marginalised section. You need to reformulate these somewhat to tackle the air pollution issue.

First of all, competitive politics responds to demand, and not just needs. Except for some visionary political leaders, a politician need not respond to what the voters need, unless their need is articulated in the form of a clear demand. This requires a clear awareness and articulation. Voters must be able to connect the consequences to the cause: The visible fact of pollution to the inaction by the governments. And they must not keep it to themselves, but express it publicly. The first condition is: Voters must speak up on air pollution.

The second condition is aggregation of demands. In politics, demand is necessary but not sufficient. Some or many individuals shouting aloud is not an answer. Someone needs to bring together these demands and mobilise the disparate groups who favour the demand. Except for very smart and sensitive politicians who can anticipate a demand before it is presented to them, ordinary politicians do not move unless threatened by collective action. So the second condition is: Learn to organise. Form mohalla committees, air quality monitors’ groups and collective strategies to name and shame leaders and bureaucrats responsible for this mess. 

Finally, such collective action may take you some distance but that is no guarantee of decisive and effective action. Mere criticism doesn’t move voters unless they see tangible and effective alternatives. Corruption has always existed and has been critiqued, but it becomes a decisive electoral issue only when a leader or a party that is seen to be honest is in the electoral fray. The same holds true for air quality or for environment in general.

Ordinary voters may be sick and tired or even disgusted with the government’s performance, but this issue can become decisive only when another political party takes this up on its agenda and offers a credible alternative plan of action. Here is the third condition: An alternative both in terms of policies and politics.

Air pollution or climate change will not become a political issue by itself, no matter how acute the problem. It has to be made into an issue. You and I have to clear the smog of democracy through awareness-building, public articulation, smart aggregation and presentation of alternatives.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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