As Delhi chokes, air pollution at centre of political slugfest

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New Delhi: Even as the threat of air pollution fails to abate, it has become a political flashpoint among the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress—the three parties and otherwise bitter rivals heading governments in the states of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab respectively.

With the seasonal spike in air pollution becoming an annual phenomenon, the question being asked is whether it will, like the promise of development, become part of the electoral lexicon in a metropolis like Delhi.

On Monday, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar in a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal criticized the Delhi government for failing to rise above electoral interests.

“In fact, your reference to the helplessness of farmers in ‘Punjab and Haryana’ in stubble burning betrays an inability to rise above short term electoral interests. Your assertion ‘the Governments have failed to provide them economically viable solutions’ gives away your subconscious awareness of your Government’s inaction in this regard,” he said in his letter.

Last week, Kejriwal had sent letters to the chief ministers of Haryana and Punjab seeking appointments to discuss ways to tackle air pollution. Responding to the letter, Khattar said that he is open to meeting “anytime, anywhere”.

Responding to the allegations levelled by Haryana chief minister, Delhi cabinet minister Gopal Rai alleged that the Haryana state government was playing the blame game instead of taking action.

“In Haryana and other states, the crop is cut from the top using technology, so it leaves a long stubble which needs burning for removal. In Delhi, our farmers cut crops close to the roots. And, have you seen any visual on TV or photos in newspapers of Delhi farmers resorting to stubble burning,” he said.

Last week, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Kejriwal engaged in a row on Twitter over the rising pollution levels. Singh urged the central government to step-in and solve the issue.

While the issue continues to agitate the general public, some intellectuals too are lending their voice to the argument that public policy failure in tackling pollution has brought the public discourse to a tipping point.

In a column published in Times of India, philanthropist Rohini Nilekani argued that pollution was impacting the rich and poor alike, necessitating public intervention.

“Public goods and services are at the heart of the transformation India needs to unleash. People with influence, power and a moral vision for this country must speak up loud and clear. It needs that and more to build strong public pressure on the political class and the executive.”

Some citizen voices echoed as much.

“It is high time that pollution became an election issue. State and central government governments keep bickering while the people continue to suffer. It is a medical emergency. The top doctors in the city are saying the damage caused to our children is irreversible and we have no strong laws in place to curb this problem,” said Ashima Ranade, a resident of Delhi and a mother of two children.

According to Dr. Sandeep Nayar, senior consultant and HOD, respiratory medicine, allergy and sleep disorder, BLK Super Speciality Hospital, the cover of smog and air pollution in the city was causing environmental problems and respiratory diseases.

“Air pollutants, if inhaled have serious impact on human health causing breathlessness, watering of eyes and nose, burning sensation in eyes, excessive cough, chest pain, dizziness, headache.”

However, experts feel that it may take some time for air pollution to become an electoral issue.

“Pollution should be an election issue but don’t think any political party is serious about it. Governments are unable to spend money on it,” said Subrata Mukherjee, a New Delhi-based political analyst and former political science professor at Delhi University.

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