In the build-up to the 2020 Delhi assembly election, all the three main political parties – Aam Aadmi Party, Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress – had featured air quality in their manifestos. This was a first. Certainly, the approaches and details were uneven and ill-spelt out. For example, the AAP’s pledge of two-third reduction in pollution did not provide sufficient detail; the BJP promised coordination with the Centre but also mentioned smog towers that have no scientific basis; and, the Congress promised increased spending, particularly on transport. Nonetheless, that all three major combatants highlighted air pollution signalled a maturing of the air quality debate.
Why is this important? Given the scale and scope of air pollution, the multiple sources involved, and the complexity of governance, this problem cannot be addressed without an actively involved executive. So far, the judiciary has played a dominant role in pushing air quality-related policy in India. But, acting alone, the judiciary cannot possibly establish the long-term systems, undertake the monitoring and accountability, and set strategic direction needed to solve the problem. Moreover, the legislature should play a larger role in ensuring accountability. With the increase in political interest on air, the stage is set for building a more effective governance structure to address the problem.
The starting point
The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government has started its tenure with the pledge to reduce pollution levels in Delhi to a third by 2025. Achieving this would allow the capital to meet the national standards in five years — an ambitious goal. It now needs to formulate a plan to this end keeping in mind financial resources, implementation resources and, crucially, the newly found political resources that Delhi’s citizens have provided it with. How best can it do so?
The starting point is to understand the problem and its political and administrative parameters. There are four broad categories of sources that cause air pollution in Delhi: transport, biomass and waste burning, dust, and industries and power plants. These emissions originate both within and outside Delhi: with studies suggesting that the outside contribution could be as high as 70 per cent. Reducing pollution levels to a third would mean tackling each of these major sources in parallel, within the city and at the level of the airshed.
Moreover, even for emissions from within Delhi, only a fraction of these sources is directly under the control of the Delhi government. Waste and dust are more directly controlled by the municipal corporations, currently led by the BJP. While Delhi is especially complicated owing to its overlapping administrative jurisdictions and its location in the middle of the severely polluted Indo-Gangetic plain, inter-state and Centre-state coordination will similarly be required in most parts of India. To fulfil its mandate, Delhi’s AAP government should actively engage with the municipal corporations, the Centre, and neighbouring states; throwing its hands up would amount to reneging on its promise.
What, then, can the Delhi government do to make the most of its mandate and keep the promise made to its voters? First, aggressively pursue those measures that are in its own control and which offer politically attractive co-benefits. Second, to reach its targets, the government will have to impose some costs on some segments of the population. To make this politically possible will require a mix of strategic thinking, effective communication on the public gains of actions, and efforts to compensate possible losers. Third, the AAP will need to tactfully, and over time, forge consensus with other political parties and states to enable regional coordination.
The three pathways
First, the low-hanging fruit: Delhi government should accelerate measures that are directly under its control with clear visible benefits to the electorate, and for whose implementation, they can claim credit. For example, expanding the bus fleet and qualitatively improving public transport services should be a clear priority for the new government; this is long overdue.
Second, to address issues that will bring increased costs and/or inconvenience, the government needs to build support for action through strategic communication, which explains why the action is needed, and how it will help. For example, the AAP government could work with the municipal corporations to ensure universal doorstep collection of garbage, necessitate waste segregation with the threat of fines, and decentralise waste management. It could also build on its electoral support to mobilise and harness community groups and resident welfare associations (RWAs) to help in these tasks. Similarly, a strategy for construction dust built around personnel, public campaigns and a demonstrated will to penalise would help address another slice of emissions.
Third, the Delhi government needs to work with the neighbouring states and lay the groundwork for airshed management. The AAP government could facilitate regional efforts at protecting natural vegetation, and promote common inspection protocols and compliance to emissions norms among power plants and industries in the National Capital Region. With stubble burning, an important episodic regional source, the Delhi government needs to initiate dialogue to find an agreement on the official narrative, on the mix of policy measures needed, the financing of these, and clear roles and timelines for the different agencies concerned. Clearly, developing a lasting solution will take some time, but it is worth investing in.
Air pollution’s complexity offers governments many excuses to shirk responsibility. To fulfil its guarantee, the Delhi government not only needs to accelerate progress on measures directly in its jurisdiction, but also needs to coordinate with other states and parties to provide clean air to its citizens.
Santosh Harish is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Navroz K Dubash is a professor at CPR and coordinator of the Initiative on Climate, Energy, and Environment. Views are personal.
This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. ThePrint.in is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here.