Last week, the Supreme Court, frustrated that government officials were not treating the air pollution crisis in North India with the seriousness that it merits, threatened the top bureaucrats of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi with contempt unless they took urgent action. Punjab, especially, came under severe criticism for allowing its farmers to continue burning the stubble of their harvested crops, a major contributor of pollution. The state was asked to formulate a policy to contain the fires within a week.
There were two problems with the Supreme Court proceedings. First, the court has meandered into the area of policy formation, which is not its domain. Secondly, the countr’s anger was a function of the fact that it is located in the smoggy National Capital Territory of Delhi. But as has been evident from last week, the hazardous air pollution is no longer confined to the northern parts of India.
A combination of unusual weather conditions resulted in this pollution being carried all the way to the southern tip of the country, leaving people as far as in Chennai gasping for breath. Chennai’s own emissions from vehicles and industries did not help the situation.
Last week, parts of Chennai registered air quality index readings that were higher than 300, a situation deemed to be hazardous. (Levels of less than 50 are good.) The haze that has become a normal feature of the Delhi winter settled over coastal Chennai.
The state government’s response was on predictable lines, reflecting the reactions of the authorities in North India just a few years ago: they denied that the air quality was a cause for alarm. Officials said that a depression that powered Cyclone Bulbul in eastern India had resulted in a cloud descending upon Chennai, blocking the sun and arresting the wind flow in the city. “This has led to suspension of particulate matter in the air, visible as smog,” one minister said.
While the unusual weather conditions did play a part, the variance in air quality levels within Chennai exposed the city’s growing pollution problem. The industrial area of Manali in North Chennai registered far greater pollution levels than the rest of the city, for instance, showing that local factors should not be discounted.
Despite the pollution crisis taking grip of so much of India, the Centre has not shown the kind of urgency essential to tackle the problem. Instead, the state governments and the Centre continued to pass the blame to each other over the week.
It is not as though those managing the Centre are unaffected by the alarming situation. In the three years until 2017, the prime minister’s office and other ministries last year spent $36 lakh of public money to buy air purifiers in the Capital to protect themselves from the toxic air, Reuters reported, even as the larger public was facing the danger of pollution-induced health hazards. On Wednesday, the Delhi government was forced to shut schools again as the air quality further deteriorated.
The Centre should realise that blaming the state governments for the problem won’t make it go away. Given his position in the political scheme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must emerge as the coordinating point to tackle this hazard across the country. The plan has to be long-term and sustainable and not seasonal. At stake are the lives of millions of Indians.