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The Daily Fix: Severe air pollution is a grave violation of the fundamental right to life

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The Big Story: Poison in the air

When law and order deteriorates in a state, a Constitutional process with specific remedial measures immediately kicks in. This includes the powers of the Centre to warn the concerned state government to get its act together. If even the warning fails, the Constitution provides measures to remove the state government through a parliamentary process. The basis for providing such an extreme measure in the Constitution is the recognition that maintenance of law and order is essential to protect the most fundamental of all rights – the right to life.

But maintenance of law and order alone does not guarantee the right to life. One crucial aspect of this right is the health of the population, which depends heavily on the environment. It is for this reason that the Supreme Court in 1991 made it clear that Article 21 of the Constitution, which gives citizens the fundamental right to a dignified life, is inclusive of a right to access a “wholesome environment” that includes clean air and water. If citizens are denied clean air or water, they can enforce this right under Article 32 of the Constitution by approaching the Supreme Court directly.

Seen in this context, what is transpiring in Delhi and surrounding regions of North India is a Constitutional violation of a grave nature that is depriving its residents of healthy living. On Tuesday, a public health emergency was declared in Delhi after pollution levels dipped to the “severe category”. A blanket of smog engulfed the city, with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal calling the national capital a “gas chamber” and asking his education minister to declare a holiday in schools. Train and flight services were affected after visibility deteriorated. According to the non-governmental organisation Greenpeace, levels of Particulate Matter 2.5, considered the most deadly of pollutants with its ability to enter the blood stream, reached 710 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts, which is almost 11 times over the safe limits prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

The Delhi High Court stepped in on Tuesday and asked state governments in the northern region about the measures they had initiated to curb crop burning, considered a significant contributor to the worsening air quality.

But such probing questions from the courts are nothing new. Last year during the same period, pollution levels shot up alarmingly. The governments later assured the courts that they would take all possible measures to curb crop burning and other contributors to pollution. However, it is clear from the air outside that very little has been done in the last one year apart from empty assurances before the judiciary. In the meantime, the Centre has continued to water down environment norms in a number of areas, including in thermal power plants which are considered a significant health hazard.

The argument of constitutional violation does not mean a step towards dismissing state governments for failing to tackle pollution. In the case of environment, it is the shared duty of both the states and the Centre to assure clean air and water. World over, it has now been recognised in certain terms that there are some basic duties that a government should fulfil, foremost of which is protecting the health and wellness of the population by providing quality healthcare and access to food, water and clean air. Despite claims of being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India continues to fail in this most basic of duties towards its citizens. The courts need to remind the government in stronger terms that abdication of such a basic Constitutional responsibility should not become the new normal.

The Big Scroll

  • No city is an island: Lessons from Delhi’s odd-even experiment.
  • Why farmers burn their fields in Punjab despite knowing that it worsens the fog over north India.
  • India allows 16 new thermal power plants that violate stricter air pollution standards to come up.  


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Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.