“Clean air is important but not more than nationalism,” said Manik Chand Singh, 62, an autorickshaw driver in Delhi, which is routinely ranked among the world’s most polluted cites. “There are so many people who do not even know about pollution. It is an important issue, but not for this election.”

According to a 2017 published by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 25 lakh Indians died from pollution-linked ailments in 2015, the highest of any country. After the study was published, Harsh Vardhan, Union environment minister and MP from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, denied the deaths were linked to pollution in any way. “No death certificate has a cause of death as pollution,” he argued.

Still, in the past few years, pollution has become a key subject of public and political discourse in the Capital. Indeed, all of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi Party have promised to address pollution and environmental degradation in their manifestos for the 2019 general election.

“It is an acknowledgement of the problem and a starting point,” said Hem Dholakia, researcher at the think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “We are on the cusp of having a larger conversation on this.”

Yet, the issue has been missing from the campaign. At several rallies, roadshows and public meetings Scroll.in followed in Delhi ahead of the polling on May 12, pollution was barely mentioned in speeches compared to such issues as national security and jobs.

“Pollution is indeed not an election issue,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research. “It is not a driving agenda to seek votes and support.”

Why not? Because the election is being fought on national rather than local issues, argued a senior Delhi BJP leader who would only speak anonymously. “Nobody is talking about even development, so forget about pollution,” he added. “The discourse has now come down to Rajiv Gandhi. Nobody is talking about pollution. It is an issue we will tackle in the Assembly election, not now.”

Jitendar Kochhar, spokesperson for the Delhi Congress, claimed his party is not talking about pollution because “there’s no time for politicians to speak about it much”. “It should anyway be kept out of politics and different parties must come together to find a solution,” he added.

Pollution problem

While the Capital’s air quality is nearly always poor, it dips steeply three times a year, according to officials at the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. First, when farmers in Punjab and Haryana burn crop residue in October and November and cold southward winds push the smoke towards Delhi. This has been a recurring phenomenon since at least the 1980s.

The second dip takes place in December-January when cold winter air, being heavy, prevents pollutants from dispersing, leaving them suspended in Delhi’s atmosphere. The third dip occurs during the summer months, April to June.

Several factors contribute to Delhi’s poor air quality. A 2016 study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur found that vehicular emissions were the largest source of air pollution.

The independent research group Urban Emissions had come to the same conclusion in 2012. “Most vehicles, except for some light duty vehicles, operate on diesel,” it had found.

Delhi’s buses, taxis and autorickshaws switched to the cleaner CNG fuel in the early 2000s, the group noted, but the benefits of this shift were lost “due to an increase in the sales of diesel-based passenger vehicles”.

Making promises

So, what exactly are Delhi’s three main political players promising to do about its pollution?

The ruling AAP’s manifesto promises to “substantially reduce the current levels of air pollution”. It plans to do so by working “towards completely eliminating crop residue burning.”

The BJP’s manifesto highlights the National Clean Air Programme, launched by the Union environment ministry in January 2019 with the aim of reducing by 30% the average levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10 – tiny particles that can enter human lungs and bloodstream, causing a range of ailments – in five years.

“We will convert the National Clean Air Plan into a mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country,” the manifesto states.

The Congress’s manifesto states that the grand old party will recognise air pollution as a “national public health emergency” and constitute a separate environment protection authority to “establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and regulations”. It will also “strengthen the clean air programme”, the manifesto adds, but does not elaborate how it will go about it.

“These are very broad statements” said Dholakia. “The Congress manifesto does not elaborate on the governance capacity of the new environment authority. What will it enforce? Will they give pollution control boards legal mandates? It is about building enforcement capacities across institutions.”

People walk near Delhi's India Gate on a smoggy winter morning. Photo credit: Reuters
People walk near Delhi's India Gate on a smoggy winter morning. Photo credit: Reuters

AAP’s manifesto, on the other hand, is more specific about how the party will tackle air pollution. Its promises, however, are contingent on Delhi getting full statehood. If the Capital becomes a full state, the manifesto states, then AAP will make its bus system 100% electric, undertake vacuum cleaning of all roads and take “strict actions” to comply with construction rules, and promote citizen participation.

“None of the three parties have comprehensive understanding of the issue,” Kohli complained. “The words used are strong but it is still cherrypicking. We need to ask, what are the economic choices that lead us to a situation like this? And what solutions can we come up with?”

Kohli pointed out that air pollution is not an isolated problem. “It is linked to every economic policy that is framed,” she said. “Environment is still not a primary factor that determines how political parties frame their economic agenda.”

Dholakia made a similar point. “Political parties need to look at pollution in a holistic manner,” he said. “For instance, ammonia ions in fertilisers contribute to PM 2.5. So that is a way in which agriculture contributes to toxic air. They need to get more granular about how they will enforce better practices in agriculture and other sectors we don’t think of immediately when we speak of pollution.”

‘Bigger issues’

Several voters Scroll.in spoke with said issues like unemployment are far more important to them than pollution.

“How is pollution even related to elections?” asked Allauddin, 45, a driver in South Delhi. “We just need work and food. It is the government’s job to give us work and they have not done that. Everything is so expensive. I sit among people and talk to them. Everybody has the same problem of not getting work.”

Anil Singh, 28, a computer operator in New Delhi, argued that this election is for choosing the next prime minister and finding a solution to the Capital’s pollution problem “is not in the prime minister’s hands”. “Also, the public needs to be more responsible about pollution,” he said. “We need to use public transport. I have not celebrated Diwali in eight years. Unemployment is a much bigger issue right now than pollution.”

SN Mishra, 42, a salesman, echoed the sentiment. “We need to be more responsible,” he said. “We have got everything from the BJP government that we did not get earlier. We got gas connections, Aadhaar and banking facilities. We also got national security. Pollution is not that important an issue.”

Rajesh Sharma, 53, an entrepreneur in New Delhi, contended that national security and unemployment were more urgent problems to tackle. “Pollution occurs for a short period only,” he said. “We have other issues piled up and waiting to be solved.”

Asked why Delhi’s voters did not consider pollution an important issue, Kohli blamed politicians. “Every voter will give primacy to certain issues,” she said. “It has to be made an issue that voters are interested in. Political parties need to make voters aware about how this problem will affect them.”

Dholakia agreed. “MPs need to make the link between job opportunities and clean energy more explicit,” he said.

Also read: Delhi could blame location, wind flow, Himalayas for its terrible air – or it could blame itself

Tackling air pollution has finally made it to party manifestos – but their promises aren’t enough