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In the GARP of clearing the air, polluted policy serves elites, political ends

Early October, Delhi. Air Quality Index (AQI) 250. The familiar raspy cough. It is that time of the year. Mid-October, AQI 400+. The raspy cough is now accompanied by a runny nose. Time to take out the inhaler and the air purifier. Familiar noise from government. “We’ve reduced farm fires, Graded Action Response Plan (GARP) in place…blah blah blah”. I giggle. The G-20 gala took place in September, not December. Could the toxic grey sky have been the reason? Early November. AQI 999, and the annual drama begins. Our very own version of the “theatre of the absurd”.

The children had grudgingly sat down to their homework, my little victory, when we got the message – no “physical” school. Too much pollution. They were thrilled; me, not so much (health hazards not withstanding). A week later, we are told winter holidays would be advanced. December holiday plan in jeopardy…aah well. A few days later, much noise in press conferences, and policy colleagues, pollution experts are back on national TV.

The government is as busy as policy wonks. Last minute scramble. Incomprehensible (for the Aam Aadmi) GRAP measures in place. Smog guns, smog machines, sprinklers, bans on all kinds of activity. I had driven to the outskirts of the city and passed the massive mountain of garbage burning away — even as smog guns and sprinklers were spraying water in posh South Delhi. Son calling every five minutes. Worried about the Sri Lanka-Bangladesh cricket match.

A few days later, ban on diesel cars, trucks, odd-even, even-odd, no firecrackers for Diwali…Supreme court is back ordering the government, I’ve now stopped paying attention. It is impossible to find logic, and we know all this will be repeated all over again next year, and the year after…and the year after! Meanwhile, we will continue breathing the noxious air or locking ourselves down in air-purified rooms for those who have the luxury — India has achieved the impossible. Privatised the purest public good of all – clean air. Aah well.

Forgive me this indulgence, dear reader. I needed to vent! It takes a lot of patience to be a resident of the gas chamber between October and November every year. But if I were to put my policy wonk hat on, this annual ritual reveals far more than just botched up policy about air pollution. It tells us a lot about what ails the policymaking culture in India. The policy process, the pulls and pressures it responds to, and the capacity failures that lead to bad decisions when it comes to air pollution management have resonance across sectors. Especially when it comes to wicked policy challenges that need a whole-of-government approach. These need urgent debate. I highlight three key issues here.

First, equity failures, especially when policy failures impact the elites. When it comes to public services – health, education, transport and even security – Indian elites have long given up on the incompetent Indian State and sought these services in the private sector (mea culpa). Yet, they have outsized power over the policymaking process, a consequence of social capital. This is inevitably deployed when they cannot escape government, and policy decisions then become skewed against the poor.

Consider schools and Covid-19. India had amongst the longest school closures in the world. Surveys showed that parents from poor and rural areas favoured schools reopening. Yet, the government dragged its feet because the elites had the luxury to demand online schooling. Consequently, learning costs were born disproportionately by the poor.

Pollution and school closures are no different. The bulk of Delhi’s school-going children don’t have the luxury of locking themselves down in air-purified homes. They may even benefit from being in a classroom — it will stop them from playing outside. But that option isn’t offered. Similarly, elites resist ideas like congestion taxes or using public transport. We’d rather have our private SUVs and school closures! So, the government chooses the odd-even policy rather than the evidence-backed congestion tax.

Second, misplaced prioritisation of elite demands encourages short-termism. There are, as it is, few incentives for strategic, long-term thinking in policy, and when elite demands shape the response, that problem is exacerbated. Pollution is a year-long problem. It needs strategic policy interventions that deal with elite contributions to the problem (transport being central) and episodic events that have deep structural roots (the Green Revolution-led preference for paddy cultivation) that lead to stubble-burning. The annual wake-up in November, starts with elite noises, short-term responses like GARP, and once the visible problem disappears, the issue is forgotten. Policymakers thus have the perfect excuse to avoid the wicked, politically difficult choices they need to make around urban transport, waste management and, crucially, crop diversification. Short-term measures give the appearance of action, even though the reality is complete inaction! Perfect political win.

Lastly, coordination. My colleagues at the Centre for Policy Research have long argued for an airshed approach, because pollution isn’t the making of one state – Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, UP, all contribute to the noxious air that is killing us. Any solution requires coordination between political jurisdictions. Doing this right is “co-operative” federalism at its finest. But whether it is air or fiscal coordination, states and the Centre have systematically failed to build an institutional framework for cooperation. And so, we have the classic blame game – Centre blames states, states blame each other (and no, it doesn’t matter if two states have the same ruling party). It is the old routine. In the meanwhile, Happy Diwali, “cough”, “cough”. I did love the old days when we ignorantly burst firecrackers. Sssshhhhhhh.

(Published 11 November 2023, 18:54 IST)

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