It’s recurring pattern at discussions about air pollution in the National Capital Region. Almost every gathering turns into a free-for-all venting session, with politicians as the target. “They simply do not care!” is a common refrain. Speakers often turn to countries like China and Singapore for inspiration – “Why can’t we be like them?” they ask.

Just last fortnight, I heard an outspoken activist on radio going off on the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme which attempts to control pollution by placing restrictions on vehicles based on the last digit of their registration numbers – vehicles with odd digits are only allowed to ply on odd days, and cars with even numbers on even days .

To be sure, the frustration that drives this litany of citizen complaints is real. Successive Union environment ministers, for instance, have refused to accept the alarming link asserted by peer-reviewed research between high pollution and health problems, which seems a disingenuous gesture, especially during palpable episodes of smog.

However, a complete mistrust of politics and a longing for authoritarian environmentalism is not a substitute for a nuanced understanding of how political decision-making operates in the Indian democratic system. That is something with which we must necessarily engage.

Critical aspects

By and large, two aspects of the Indian polity are critical: first, the relation between popular ideas and policy action, and second, the feasibility of long-term thinking.

In theory, there is a certain linearity to political action in our system. Vanguards raise public awareness, collectivise, become a larger bloc, put pressure on political parties and eventually force the state to act on their concerns. However, environmental issues – barring very few exceptions – have never quite translated into popular movements. Whether tiger conservation or air pollution, campaigns mostly involve a relatively small section of society that is mostly elite or middle-class; hardly a voting bloc that political parties cannot ignore.

So in the main, state action on environmental concerns is as likely to result from the cumulative weight of global discourses, frameworks and protocols as it is due to the local or national discourse.

Credit: PTI

The other attribute of Indian democracy is related to potentially unpopular interventions, given the overarching emphasis on short-term thought. Political parties have to not only be seen work towards public welfare, but also be able to point to concrete outcomes as evidence within an election cycle. Long-run changes, including many environmental interventions, are clearly disincentivised by the system: they may pose a cost in the immediate without the guarantee of popular support.

Weaning vehicles away from fossil fuels or households from plastics, for example, while clearly ecologically favourable, affect thousands of livelihoods and are not actions that an electorally-minded political outfit would be necessarily amenable to. This is also true of stopping construction to curb pollution, since it provides employment to thousands and has strong linkages to many other income-generating activities.

And yet, instances abound of actions, environmental and otherwise, without strong popular movements and despite immediate costs. What explains these? And what can air pollution advocates learn from them?

Political capital

Political capital and political consensus are what explain this dimension of policy intervention. Potentially unpopular actions require and cost political capital. For example, even though demonetisation did not emerge from public pressure and caused much pain, it was accepted by the majority because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accumulated political capital that made people trust his overall intentions.

Similarly, Delhi’s odd-even vehicular rationing of January 2016 was not borne out of wide public consultation and caused discomfort to many, but achieved high degree of buy-in because of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity and trust in his word.

But as their stock of trust and goodwill depletes, leaders are less amenable to such risk-taking. Therefore, to bank on political capital alone is fraught.

Political consensus

The other location from where such policy emanates is the domain of political consensus. This is the situation whence parties that are otherwise opponents temporarily align for the sake of the larger interest. This is usually but not exclusively the case with foreign policy or defense concerns. In this scenario, the Opposition agrees not to take political advantage of the popular displeasure following certain interventions.

In a complex democracy, building consensus across party lines is far from simple. Political leadership in its truest sense is required, and given their decades of experience in messy realities and complicated situations, Indian politicians are more likely to find points of consensus building than activists credit them for. It will take careful manoeuvering, creativity, and a deft touch to bring together warring chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi together to solve the crop residue burning problem.

The work of scientific experts and policy advocates is to identify and present relatively simple entry points to political leaders that can be progressively scaled. Advocates similarly need to bring the spirit of consensus-seeking to their own constituencies, and support experimental initiatives in their own ways.

Given that air pollution, despite activists’ best efforts, is not a mass political issue, railing against politicians or advocating the China-model is hardly productive. We must learn from past consensus-building efforts and support skillful leadership for the sake of cleaner air. That said, our political leaders must be willing to take up the challenge.

Rohit Negi is an Associate Professor, School of Global Affairs at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University.