Smog of Democracy – Why Air Pollution is Not a Political Problem

An aerial view of Delhi covered in a thick layer of smog on November 5, 2021 | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | The imprint

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WWhy is air pollution not a political problem? If this thought crossed your mind last week, you are not alone. If you live in the National Capital Region, you only need to look at yourself and your neighbors to notice bouts of coughing, shortness of breath and eye irritation. Or just look out the window. Thanks to media headlines in recent days, a significant population is reasonably paranoid, as it should be, about Delhi’s AQI levels. Why, then, are democratically elected governments not also concerned?

This is not a lazy, naive or moral question, but a real puzzle. This is not a routine accusation against politics and politicians for being corrupt and myopic etc. Daily politics are like a market. Just as a business works for profit, a political entrepreneur works for power. Just as we don’t expect a trader to take losses for serving customers, we shouldn’t expect ordinary political leaders and parties to risk losing elections to serve the people. Political parties and political leaders do what they are rewarded for and refrain from doing what they can be punished for. They do not act honestly and wisely because they have little electoral incentive to do so.

Air pollution is different. Or so it would seem. Air quality is not a distant, invisible issue that escapes attention. You don’t need the media to see it. It doesn’t take medical knowledge to see that smog affects your health. Air quality is not just a temporary illness, it compromises lifespan. If there’s one thing every voter desperately needs, it’s clean air. So, political entrepreneurs should rush to meet this need, take credit for themselves and improve their electoral prospects. At least, it is the logic of political marketing that suggests it.

Yet the policy does not follow this logic. What happened at the Supreme Court last week has become an annual ritual: Delhi has a pollution emergency, the government wakes up after crossing the red line, someone rushes to court, and the court gives a disguise. And we wait for next year.


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Inaction of AAP, BJP, MCD

While there could be some debate about the performance of the Delhi government led by the Aam Aadmi party in other areas, even his friends would not accuse the Arvind Kejriwal government of having done something to improve the quality of the air. Over the past six years, the number of DTCs the buses fell. Metro fares have become prohibitive. Last mile connectivity is still non-existent. With the exception of cheap gadgets like smog towers, the Kejriwal government hasn’t even tried to be seen doing anything about air pollution. He did not bother to spend the tax collected on behalf of the environment. In retrospect, the introduction of CNG by Sheila Dixit was the only serious step taken by an elected government in Delhi to improve the quality of the air its constituents breathe.

To be fair to the Delhi government, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and Narendra Modi’s government are not doing better. MCD has done virtually nothing to control waste combustion or construction pollution. The Modi government, always keen to wrest power away from Kejriwal, is happy to file affidavits in the Supreme Court and do nothing else.

So here’s the question for you: How come governments don’t care about something that regularly affects not only an overwhelming majority, but every voter? How can political parties turn a blind eye to an issue concerning the life or death of the largest possible vote bank? It is a puzzle not only for you and me, but also for democratic theory.

You cannot solve this riddle unless you recognize that there is nothing magical about the mechanism called democracy. There is no reason for democracy to meet the real need, even the deepest, of an overwhelming part or of the whole population. Democratic politics can meet the needs of a majority, but only under certain conditions. Glossy democracy advertising tends to obscure the fine print that says “conditions apply.”


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Awareness, articulation, aggregation – alternative

Babasaheb Ambedkar alluded to these conditions when urging his supporters to “educate, organize and agitate” and use democratic spaces for the marginalized section. You have to rephrase them somewhat to solve the problem of air pollution.

First of all, competition policy responds to demand, not just needs. With the exception of some visionary political leaders, a politician does not need to meet the needs of voters unless their needs are expressed in the form of a clear demand. It requires clear awareness and articulation. Voters must be able to relate the consequences to the cause: The visible fact of pollution to inaction by governments. And they should not keep it to themselves, but express it publicly. The first condition is: voters must speak out on air pollution.

The second condition is the aggregation of requests. In politics, demand is necessary but not sufficient. Some or more individuals shouting out loud is not an answer. Someone needs to bring these demands together and mobilize the disparate groups that are in favor of the demand. With the exception of very intelligent and sensitive politicians who can anticipate a demand before it is presented to them, ordinary politicians do not budge unless threatened by collective action. The second condition is therefore: learn to organize. Form mohalla committees, air quality watch groups and collective strategies to appoint and humiliate the leaders and bureaucrats responsible for this mess.

Finally, such collective action can take a step back but this does not guarantee decisive and effective action. Mere criticism does not move voters unless they see tangible and effective alternatives. Corruption has always existed and has been criticized, but it only becomes a decisive electoral issue when a leader or a party perceived as honest is in the electoral fray. The same goes for air quality or the environment in general.

Ordinary voters may be sick and tired or even disgusted with the performance of government, but this issue can only become decisive when another political party puts it on its agenda and comes up with a credible alternative course of action. Here is the third condition: An alternative both in terms of policy and policy.

Air pollution or climate change will not become a political problem in itself, however severe the problem is. It has to be made a problem. You and I must remove the smog of democracy through outreach, public articulation, intelligent aggregation, and the presentation of alternatives.

Yogendra Yadav is one of the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Opinions are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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