India’s Pollution challenge needs to be the Prime Ministers project

Issues flagged by Prime Minister Modi clearly get the attention and focus nothing else does. Witness the encouraging progress with the Swacch Bharat Mission, the Ujjwala Scheme, or even the rural electrification drive, where targets have been routinely achieved before time.  It’s time pollution and the environment made it to the PM’s speech, because things clearly shouldn’t be allowed to get any worse.

May day 2018 confirmed a sobering reality for Indian citizens, with the WHO report for pollution in 2016 listing 14 Indian cities among its 20 most polluted cities in the world based on 2016 data. The data might be a little old, but unfortunately, it’s absolutely safe to say that in the Indian cities, things have not really become better subsequently.

That can be put down to two factors. One is the predictable obsession with the national capital, which comes in at no. 6 in the WHO list.   With nearby city Faridabad coming in at no. 2. The obsession with Delhi is an old disease, and applies for a lot more besides just pollution now. While steps have been taken, including a budgetary provision to support farmers in neighbouring states of Delhi, so that they avoid burning crop residue, the bigger problem is this.

There just isn’t strong political will, or enough citizen pressure to force change. Pollution is a slow, lingering killer, and perhaps that is why we refuse to accept it for the damage it is causing. Add to that the almost national obsession with GDP growth at all costs, and practically every measure today is measured in terms of its impact on local area economy in terms of jobs and growth. It’s an attitude that is as short term as it gets, and guaranteed to lead to an epic blame game in times to come, as we look around for scapegoats.

The tragedy is that even as pollution is slowly moving to Centre stage due to sheer impact in terms of the drop in visibility, spike in respiratory problems and more,  the reality of some of the decisions being made is breathtakingly awful. Thus, even as the deadline for better auto fuels being sold in the national capital was brought forward,   the country’s top pollution watchdog, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)and the ambitiously renamed Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change quietly extended the December 2017 deadline for thermal power plants to meet emission standards to 2022.

In fact, it would be no surprise to view the ministry more like the Ministry for removal of environmental hurdles to large projects, a backhanded compliment they will clearly wear happily.

The decision on thermal plants is, in fact, a classic example of the sense of fait accompli that comes with all such decisions. Even as deadlines approach and it is clear that they will be breached, nothing is done to address the reasons for such delay, until it is simply a formality to accept it and  move on.

Consider the alacrity with which the government took back its resolve to ‘force’ the auto sector to go electric by 2030, for instance. Last heard, we were hearing about a new ‘target’ date of 2040.

While some of these deviations from intentions might be driven by realpolitik or even ground realities, the fact remains  that there just hasn’t been enough pressure from citizenry to make a move on pollution and the environment. Perhaps, as we keep counting on other people to carry on this fight,   we can at least  pray that the Prime Minister talks about a war on pollution next. Or who knows, we might struggle to see him on the podium in August.


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