Delhi Smoke House – The Real Tragedy

The pollution emergency faced by National Capital Region (NCR) in general and Delhi in particular, in the past few weeks, has become international news. But why should it have been so? This question – why should it have been so – is not merely rhetorical but at the very root of what is happening with governance in Delhi ever since the government led by Arvind Kejriwal was sworn in Delhi in February, 2015. But more of that later, first let us consider the situation leading to the pollution emergency.

As almost all of Delhi residents would recall, the alarming situation with respect to pollution was faced by Delhi during last winter  – in the months of October to December, 2015, and indeed the year before that as well. So what was done during the last two and half years of present Central Government, and specifically since the Kejriwal government was sworn in, which could have prevented the situation that has arisen in last few week? 

  1. In the last two-and-a-half years, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, has held at least 09 meetings with Officers and Ministers of GNCT of Delhi impressing and insisting upon the compelling requirement to take comprehensive and effective action to mitigate air pollution in Delhi.
  2. Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change held meeting with Ministers of NCR and Punjab on 6-4-2015, 13-4-2015, 24-7-2015, 6-11-2015 and 27-4-2016. Secretary level meetings were held on 10-11-2014, 11-2-2015 and 3-3-2015 and 4-11-2016. The last meeting by Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) was held on 30-9-2016 with officers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi.
  3. A 42-point Action Plan to control pollution covering vehicular emissions, road dust suspension, air pollution from bio-mass burning, industrial pollution, air pollution from construction and demolition activities were finalised by Central Government and accordingly statutory directions were issued to Government of NCT of Delhi by CPCB.
  4. On most of these issues the action taken by the Delhi Government has been well below satisfactory. No additional buses have been procured to augment the public transport in Delhi by the Government of NCT of Delhi for the last two years or so.  In fact the number of buses in Delhi has actually come down.
  5. Large scale open burning of bio-mass and municipal solid waste continued  unabated, contributing significantly to generation of particulate matter and has not at all been contained by GNCTD.
  6. The landfill sites of Delhi are continuously burning and effective steps have not been taken to prevent fire from landfill sites and to control pollution from landfills.
  7. Very little has been done by Government of NCT of Delhi to tighten and strengthen the ‘Pollution Under Control’ system and the action taken against the number of visibly polluting vehicles is insignificantly low compared to the number of vehicles plying on Delhi roads. As per reports only 486 challans were issued in 2015 and only 21 challans issued up to September 2016 against visibly polluting vehicles by the Government of Delhi.
  8. The Supreme Court order banning entry of pre-2005 registered trucks has not been strictly enforced.
  9. No steps have been taken for retrofitting of diesel vehicles with particulate filters.
  10. The action taken to control air pollution from construction and demolition activities to control fugitive emissions has been totally unsatisfactory. Various steps like sprinkling of water, putting of curtains at construction sites etc. have also not been undertaken.
  11. No vacuum cleaner procured or wet/mechanised vacuum sweeping of roads introduced, even on the main roads of Delhi. Sprinkling of water to control dust on roads has also not been started. 
  12. No efforts have been made to control burning of coal tar by road construction agencies.
  13. Nothing has been done to prohibit use of coal in hotels and restaurants in spite of clear directions to that effect.
  14. About Rs.450 crore collected as Environmental Compensation Charge over a period of one year is lying unutilized with GNCT of Delhi and the money has not been used to mitigate pollution in Delhi. No Action Plan for utilization of the same has been prepared so far.

It is not as if only the Central Government and other statutory bodies were advising the Delhi government to gets its act together. Active social media users and other activists were indeed periodically reminding Arvind Kejriwal directly through social media to start acting before its too late. Just as an example, consider what Nikhil Pahwa was doing on Twitter on the issue: 

This is on 27th July: 

This is on 29th August by Nikhil

On 10th September

On 21st September

On 3rd October

On 4th October

Citizens like Nikhil and other activists have raised questions, many valid, against other authorities and governments too, including the central government. But the residents of Delhi elected a government to deliver and should not the buck stop with that government?

It is possible that Arvind Kejriwal may have missed the directions, advice, action-plan and other suggestions from the Central Government and statutory bodies, considering his busy travel schedule in election bound states. But what about advice coming to him directly on Twitter, where he always found time to retweet inane tweets or publish movie reviews? He missed that too? Or what about taking action on his volition? 

A ready excuse that the Kejriwal has, for all his failings, is that the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi does not allow him to execute his plans. This is an excuse that is given further salience by his apologists and propagandist in the media . But consider this – there is not any serious policy decision that Kejriwal government has taken and has processed it in the correct constitutional framework and which has been then blocked by the LG. All that the LG has been asking for, and which the High Court of Delhi has upheld in its ruling, is that the Constitutional Provisions be followed before a government decision becomes policy. To consider an analogy, the Central Government does get a nod from the President of India for any ordinance or law that it gets passed from Parliament. It does not say that since we have been elected with a majority so we no longer need the President’s nod for our decisions. On the other hand, just because the President’s nod is required does not mean the Central Government can abdicate its responsibilities and start blaming the  President of India for its failures. It is still the Central Government that has to take decisions and get them executed. The same is the scheme at Delhi level as well  – between the LG and the elected government. But this is the sum and total of entire shenanigans of Kejriwal and his machinery – rejecting the perfectly working constitutional scheme for personal grandstanding  and then indulging in blame game and name calling when the situation gets in crisis mode. 

However, it does not mean that the Kejriwal government has not done anything at all on the pollution front ! In January of this year and then again a few months later, it inflicted the Odd-Even absurdity on Delhi. As every study has since proved, it had no effect on pollution, since vehicular pollution from cars is not the cause at all for Delhi’s high level of PM 2.5 pollution. But of course, that move was hailed as revolutionary by the propaganda machinery of Kejriwal – after all, it eased the traffic congestion for the cheering classes that had a different chauffeur driven car each day to drive them around. 

Meanwhile the situation is precarious. The crop stubble fires in Punjab present an alarming situation. As can be seen from the various satellite images of burning fires in Punjab, the crisis like situation in Delhi requires a full time Chief Minister, for taking action this year and preparing for the next year. Instead, Delhi has a politician who is in Goa one week, Punjab the next, and Gujarat the third, his party touting him as the possible CM candidate for the upcoming elections in all these three states ! In between, when Mr. Kejriwal gets time, he instigates peaceful protesters to break the law and if nothing else, the Chief Minister of Delhi spends time on Twitter either tweeting himself or retweeting obnoxious tweets about constitutional functionaries. Somewhere in all of this, the citizen of Delhi has been literally left gasping for breath !

Note: This article has been written with inputs from note prepared on the subject by a team of researchers. 

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