Last year, the summer sun was high and the skies clear – a virtually translucent firmament. Slivers of white clouds contrasted with the azure backdrop to reveal the gleaming heavens. This was the Beijing after years of a messy battle with air rendered dirty by factories and vehicles spewing venom into the air.
As China pulls no punches in its fight against pollution, Beijing has taken the accolades while its southern neighbor India stews and coughs its lungs out – taking cognizance of a real threat only with fits and starts. Pledges to tackle the problem in the world’s second most populous nation have been punctuated by a deep-seated complacency by the ruling class and the bureaucracy.
The National Capital Region comprising Delhi, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon is one of the most polluted in the world. Tens of thousands of factories and millions of vehicles add to exacerbate the problem – rendering the air quality poorer, symbolized by a thick unsightly haze that often envelops the air.
But in a vaunted parliamentary democracy given to populist measures and where political parties use the establishment to bend rules let alone pull up citizens for flouting them, chances of effective implementation of pollution control measures are as unusual as fossil fuels not contributing to the problem. For decades, clean air and water have been oxymorons for a large part of the population. Political pledges to reduce pollution vanish after elections as politicians become complacent or too occupied.
It’s not that the government has been sitting on the problem. The administration has acted haltingly and many of the measures taken have sputtered to end without achieving results. The Environment Protection Act enacted in 1986, like many other laws, was implemented halfheartedly by different governments.
In November 2017, the quality of air in the capital became so poor that the government ordered all schools to shut down for three days and the Indian Medical Association, the apex body of physicians, said it was a “public health emergency.” It asked the government to suspend outdoor sports and all such activities in schools. Burning of crop stubble in the neighboring provinces of Punjab and Haryana and factory emissions contribute to the problem in a big way.
China, India and the US have been the biggest polluters with an expanding carbon footprint. The two emerging Asian economies have been under pressure at international forums to take drastic steps to cut down emissions. While China has made strides, India has been found lagging.
With a complex administrative structure woven around an intricate division of power between the federal and provincial governments, India needs many times the political will to achieve the same amount of success as China.
Beijing has put its foot down, vowing that development won’t come at the cost of the environment. Even downward pressure on the economy isn’t making its resolve any less strong.
India, amid a boisterous election campaign for parliamentary elections, can be seen grappling with various issues, including populist ones. What is never heard from the lecterns of politicians’ passionately worded speeches is a concern for air quality. Never do television programs on elections call the leaders’ bluff on the subject.
China’s success at cutting across the haze to look into the future often finds mention in Indian media and public discourse. Public opinion in the country of 1.2 billion lauds this achievement of India’s northern neighbor.
Now it is time authorities looked at emulating China in their fight against the scourge of pollution, be it air, soil or rivers.
Replicating the Chinese model would first require an acknowledgement at the institutional level that India can learn from China’s experience. A sustained effort at establishing contacts by sending study groups to China would go a long way in providing a blueprint for tackling the problem in India. Though there can be stark contrasts between the countries’ societies and polities, the urge to learn from an efficient model can do away with any inhibitions on India’s part.
The challenge for India, however, will lie in implementation. It is there that the country will need to strike a balance between the need to maintain business and industrial momentum while coming down on transgressions that hurt its attempts at improving the quality of environment.