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Last winter, precisely on November 4, I had written a piece on Delhi as a city gasping for breath. One year on, the gasps have become heavier and breathing more laborious. The Air Quality Index (AQI) has breached the 500 mark in several parts of the capital. Reporting air quality is a good filler for news channels when something more exciting is not happening, like the Delhi CM evading ED summons or a popular parliamentarian appearing before the Ethics Committee of Parliament, the Chief Minister of some state having a ‘gloves off’ bout with the Governor or Virat Kohli preparing to hit his 49th century in the ICC World Cup. In terms of good governance and ethics, all these pale in front of the obnoxious fact that government after government in Delhi and its adjoining states have denied to their people, the basic human right to breathe clean air.

Reports have rated the PM 2.5 and PM 10 based air quality indices in several parts of the NCR to be ‘hazardous’. Residents of Delhi themselves admit that they have not had it so bad. Schools have been closed so that children do not fall sick breathing toxic air and people have been advised to work from home. If the AQI is indeed alarming, somebody should be alarmed. I don’t see that happening. Other than making life difficult for its citizens, for Delhi and adjoining states, and even for the Central Government, it appears to be business as usual. Nobody has time for citizens in Delhi when elections are due in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan or Mizoram. The Chief Minister of Delhi, having been accused in a liquor scam was summoned by the ED but did not make an appearance as he has, among other duties, election campaigning to perform outside Delhi even as the Delhi voter chokes on foul air. The silence on the part of political parties across the spectrum in Delhi over pollution is deafening compared to the noise made over the alleged liquor scam.

Whenever pollution increases in the NCR, people get down to analysis which means nothing to a common person. What are the hundred and one reasons that cause it, how our organisations are ill-equipped and poorly staffed to handle issues of such mammoth proportions, how well we have done in transition from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, why stubble burning cannot be stopped and farmers lobbies get away with it, how important construction is for development, how big a bane is overcrowding of the city, inaction of agencies empowered to deal with different aspects of pollution, so on and so forth. Very little is done in terms of concrete action to tackle the deteriorating situation. Air quality is bad; so, let us run ‘odd and even’ scheme for vehicles for the next ten days – are we serious? Will air quality miraculously improve or are we just biding time for winters to pass so that we can procrastinate for another year?

The most exasperating feature of this abject negligence and incompetence on part of governments and agencies is the transfer of responsibility to citizens for looking after their health. Advisories range from telling people to mask up, wear eye protection, stay indoors, avoid morning walks, cycle or walk to work, water dusty areas and visit the doctor if all else fails. It is an admission of guilt and ineffectiveness to deal with a situation that is endangering the lives of more than forty million Indians living in the Delhi NCR area.

This is a climate emergency in Delhi and parts of its adjoining states. Declare a climate emergency. Do everything it takes to stop pollution and clean up the environment, however harsh or unpopular that may be. Articulate a plan and ensure its strict compliance. If we could tackle an unprecedented Covid pandemic in the admirable way that we did, tackling this localised pollution should be child’s play. We face similar and gradually deteriorating situations year after year because of the greed prevalent in our society at all levels that drives people to make money at any cost, even at the cost of their own health and that of their families.

I have a suggestion for people who face the brunt of pollution in Delhi NCR or for that matter, in any other part of the country, year after year. Apart from keeping yourselves safe in whatever manner you can, do not vote for people’s representatives who do not have ‘people’ in focus. Why else would they force you to breathe poisonous air and deprive you of the fundamental right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution? And call officials and organisations out who shirk their duty of keeping our environment clean and sustainable. If we, the people, continue to suffer such irresponsible representatives and organisations, we will get leaders and the air quality that we deserve.

Let climate and pollution be your voting plank, notwithstanding whatever political parties peddle as pre-election goodies.

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