On June 23, 2015, Santiagio, the capital of Chile was partially shut down in response to smog. The city government closed hundreds of polluting businesses and ordered three lakh cars off the streets.

Today, as most Indian cities face pollution levels that would make Santiagio look like paradise, India’s authorities have their heads buried so far in the sand far from restricting pollution, there is a pretence that it does not exist.

For example, an India-Bangladesh cricket match is scheduled for Sunday in Delhi – a tie for which the Bangladeshi players were seen practising while wearing pollutions masks. Before that, on Thursday, the Union government organised a run to mark “Nation Unity Day” in which even children were made to exercise in the gas chamber of Delhi even as guidelines told people to avoid all outdoor activity.

Even when some sections of the administration do take action, it is far too little given the scale of the problem. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority has declared a public emergency in Delhi – but in response, all it did was shut down construction activity for five days. In parallel, the Delhi government announced that schools will be shut till Tuesday. From Monday, a scheme to ration the number of cars on Delhi’s roads will also come into force – and will apply for all of 11 days.

Pressing snooze

Between doing nothing and taking baby steps designed to not antagonise any powerful set of citizens, India’s politicians have simply refused to acknowledge the scale of the problem. According to the AirVisual World Quality Report 2018, 12 out of 15 of the most polluted cities in the world are situated in in just five of India’s states: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Haryana.

Satellite imagery shows a thick, malignant pall of pollution spreading across north India, from Bihar to the Punjab.

A swathe of red stretches from Bihar to Punjab, marking a high concentrations of fine particulate matter. | Credit: earth.nullschool.net

Look east

India’s lethargy in combating this grave pollution crisis stands out even more sharply when compared to China’s remarkable efforts at tackling it. In 2014, China embarked on a nation-wide drive to combat pollution. The target: each city had to reduce concentrations of fine particulate matter pollution by at least 10%. Beijing, the capital had an even steeper target: 25%.

China put in strong policies to help implement this target. New coal plants were banned in polluted regions and if existing coal plants didn’t meet emission standards, they were replaced with natural gas. Large cities severely restricted the use of cars with caps on number of private vehicles and a wholesale move to public transport. So wide-ranging was the anti-pollution push that the New York Times reported that “some of the actions went from aggressive to extraordinary”.

Wrong end of the stick

To compare this with India, a modest move to institute a bus rapid transit system in Delhi was shut down in 2016 as car owners expressed displeasure with some part of the road being closed off to them. This was in spite of the fact that the small-scale move had actually been a success, with 70% of users moving faster than before and a 32% increase in bus ridership.

Moreover, rather than restricting private vehicles, Indian cities are actually moving towards incentivising them, prioritising the building of car-friendly infrastructure like flyovers and highways while paying little attention to low-pollution mass transit like trains and buses or no-pollution options like bicycles.

Much in the same vein, Indian authorities have been unable to penalise polluting industries or provide suitable incentives to famers to stop burning their crop stubble – both major sources of pollution in north India.

The great north Indian smog is one of the greatest challenges facing India today. The complete stasis of the Indian state as it faces it is tragically absurd.

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