No more hot air about air pollution

If the government is serious about fighting for clean air, it should ensure that the issue is discussed in the winter session of Parliament

Updated - December 11, 2023 02:00 am IST

Published - December 11, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘The existing and alarming situation of air pollution in the country warrants an urgent proactive plan on the part of the government to protect life expectancy’

‘The existing and alarming situation of air pollution in the country warrants an urgent proactive plan on the part of the government to protect life expectancy’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party must have forgotten what they have said about the menace of air pollution in their manifesto for the 2014 elections. To brush up their memory, here is a quote from page 36 of the said manifesto: “The present generation has to make this world a better place to live. A better place not only for us, but for our future generations as well. We have to nurture the environment, institutions, people, resources and amenities… We will take Climate Change mitigation initiatives with all seriousness and work with the global community and institutions in this regard. We will: (do) Ecological Audit of projects and pollution indexing of cities and townships will be done on a scientific basis. Pollution control mechanisms will be set up on priority basis”.

Only promises

After ruling for five years, in the election in 2019, the BJP proclaimed its pollution control commitment in the following words, in Point 21 of the 2019 manifesto: “We have evolved technologically better strategies and devices to map the level of pollution in cities and rivers and have taken effective steps to reduce the level of pollution in major cities, including the national capital. We will convene the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country. Through concerted action, we will reduce the level of pollution in each of the mission cities by at least 35% over the next years.” Living in Delhi and breathing its polluted air, they should have understood by now that the promises still remain the same — as only promises.

In the million-plus (population) cities where the National Clean Air Programme is supposed to have done miracles, people still experience tortured breathing in the aftermath of profit-motivated growth for which the BJP is full of self-praise. When IQAir released the World Air Quality Report 2022, 39 Indian cities were named in the list of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. The report said that air pollution is the second biggest risk factor for disease in India. In 2019, a Lancet study found that nearly 1.6 million deaths in India could be attributed to air pollution, comprising 18% of the total deaths in the country.

Disease burden

India’s air pollution is solely responsible for the highest number of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (50% of all cases in the world are in India), asthma (13% of global burden is in India) and rising cases of cancer and stroke throughout the country.

The result is that people in these cities have a reduced life expectancy, of nine years, at the present stage. Even the World Economic Forum reports that the cost India pays in terms of air pollution is ₹7.91 lakh crore annually.

While the National Clean Air Programme that BJP promised in its manifesto was officially launched in 2019, comprising 131 most polluted cities, due to the utter negligence of the government, the programme has ended up being a non-starter. When the G-20 was hosted by India with fanfare, the Modi government boasted that India, the ‘Vishwaguru’, was ahead in every developmental yardstick. But the reality is evident to all: the pathetic living conditions of our people. The adapted safety standards of the World Health Organization have said that the annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5 ug/m3. As India is nowhere near the safety zone, the people are helpless victims of the pollution crisis.

Lured by power and guided by corporate greed, the party in power has never cared to revisit the promises made to the people. Let the country have a look at the amendments made by the Modi government in the forest and environment-related legislations. They were all meant for the destruction of forests and environment; not for their protection. The Great Nicobar Development Plan is an assault on the richness of the biodiverse abundance of the islands, with a disastrous impact on the air, water and environment conditions of India as a whole. The Central Vista project of the BJP government, which has been boasted about a lot, has caused unimaginable damage to the air of the capital. The ₹20,000-crore project has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of trees in Lutyens’ Delhi. To ensure the Central Vista Project, the government blatantly disregarded building laws in the country and found shelter in the outdated Government Buildings Act of 1899! Pollution from the indiscriminate demolitions (recently, 80,000 tonnes of debris were heaped in Noida) and carbon dioxide emissions from an ever-growing number of vehicles (over 3.38 million private cars in 2021 in Delhi) cannot be ignored. Yet, discussions on air pollution by the government and the political forces behind it always revolve around stubble burning and ‘irresponsible’ farmers.

This greed of the capital along with its market-controlled path of development at the expense of people, brings to memory what Karl Marx wrote in the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. He characterised the bourgeois government as the “executive committee for managing the general affairs of the capitalists”. That statement remains true in the era of LPG, i.e., Liberalisation, Privatisation, and Globalisation.

Practices worth examining

The existing and alarming situation of air pollution in the country warrants an urgent proactive plan on the part of the government to protect life expectancy. The government should understand that people and their lives are of paramount importance; not the profits of the government cronies. If the government is serious, it should find the time to discuss in the winter session of Parliament the severe crisis caused by the frightening rate of air pollution. There are various worthy practices worth emulating such as “wind path forests” in different countries and India’s own concept of “Social Forestry”. This is the time to act, and to give hope to the people. The Prime Minister should convene an all-party meeting urgently to set the ground for India’s fight for ensuring safe air and environment.

Binoy Viswam, a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, is a member of the CPI National Secretariat. He has been nominated as Secretary of the CPI’s State Committee

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