A satellite image shows how a poisonous smog envelops north and eastern India during winter. Photo: Courtesy Twitter

India’s northern states resemble a chemical-warfare zone these days. The killer smog, laden with particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) microns are touching levels usually associated with cancer and other diseases, has gripped large parts of north and east India.

But while citizens have resigned themselves to the poisonous air, it is a monumental symbol of India’s governance failure. This is a time when CEOs postpone business meetings to avoid Delhi. Schools are closed and sales of air purifiers spike. These are desperate individual measures that are equal to carrying a knife into a gunfight.

The smog usually starts around the festival of Diwali, when thousands of fireworks are set off. As winter begins to set in, the pollutants are unable to rise in the absence of hot air. The pollutants remain trapped, creating a toxic atmosphere that is off the charts.

Since the beginning of November, the Indian government’s official System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) has been registering an average Air Quality Index over 400. An AQI over 100 is considered above a “moderate” risk and indicates a threat to those with respiratory problems. Anything above 400 is marked as “hazardous.” This is what most of north India has been breathing for nearly two weeks, forcing the federal government’s Central Pollution Control Board to declare a public health emergency on some days, and shut schools across north India on others.

But the fact remains that for nearly a decade, no one in the government has made an effort to tackle the poisonous smog. Ironically, a life-and-death issue does not affect electoral support.

A meme draws on an image from the popular miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ to show Delhi’s air quality. Photo: Twitter

A failure of governance

For years, the dominant debates around pollution were either political or religious.

For many Hindus, the alarm over the pollution being associated with their biggest festival, Diwali, is seen as a deliberate affront to their faith. For politicians, the issue is seen as an opportunity to blame political rivals. Meanwhile, the economy takes a hit, as major business meetings are canceled because of the prevailing smog.

The federal government that is run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has spent its energies blaming the state governments where it is not in power. Its federal minister for the environment, Prakash Javadekar, even prescribed listening to Hindustani classical music as an antidote to the pollution. Ironically, he has now waived mandatory certification that shows that industries in and around Delhi are not emitting toxic pollutants.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, a doctor by profession, suggested eating carrots as the best protection against the off-the-charts smog. Other federal ministers and BJP members of Parliament (MPs) blamed the Delhi state government, run by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, for the mess.

The fact the the Prime Minster’s Office purchased 140 air purifiers last year along with six other departments is eloquent testimony to the disconnect between the government and the masses.

Those in the BJP blaming Kejriwal conveniently miss the fact that the national capital of India is not run by the elected state government. Instead, it is largely run by the federal government through a non-elected official known as the lieutenant governor. In fact, the state and the federal governments have been locked in a dispute that is in the Supreme Court over getting more powers to run the city-state.

But Delhi is only one example, though perhaps the most visible one. The neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are equally trapped by the poisonous smog that descends from the skies every year. Part of the problem is the burning of waste that remains from the cultivation of rice in large parts of Punjab and Haryana. The rice is procured by the federal government through a minimum support price. This attracts farmers to cultivate far more rice than what is actually consumed.

The waste that is left behind, usually saturated with pesticides, is burned off as the least expensive method of disposal. Added to this are the coal-fired thermal power plants, traffic and dust from massive construction projects making north India as a poisonous gas chamber every year.

This leaves citizens either to accept the inevitable, or those with means to take woefully inadequate measures to protect themselves. The sale of of air purifiers skyrocket during this season, as does the sale of personal masks. Those with means, who live in gated colonies with their personal power backups, private security, and at times even a private water supply, hope that these personal air purifiers will offer some protection against the smog.

But what most fail to recognize is the fact that the government they elect to power every five years has given up its mandate to govern, leaving them at the mercy of the smog.

Not an election issue

Gautam Gambhir, a former cricket player, joined the BJP just before the general election in May this year from the East Delhi constituency. He won a handsome majority in the elections that gave Prime Minister Modi a landslide victory. Gambhir was the richest candidate from Delhi to contest the elections.

His personal affidavit filed with the Election Commission of India reveals that his worth is 1.47 billion rupees (US$20.5 million). Soon after he was elected, he was made a member of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Urban Development. Last week the standing committee, with 27 members drawn from the upper and lower houses of Parliament, was scheduled to discuss the pollution issue ahead of the winter session that commenced this Monday, November 18.

Of the 27 members, only four showed up. Even the key officials who were supposed to brief the standing committee on emergency measures that need to be taken to tackle the pollution did not show up. But among those absent, Gambhir stood out. His constituency is one of the most affected. But he was in another city, Indore, where the Indian cricket team was facing Bangladesh in a test match series. Gambhir was contracted as one of the commentators who are paid hefty fees for the job.

One of Gambhir’s colleagues posted pictures of him posing in the city before the match, eating sweets and other savories on a day he should have been in Parliament attending the meeting to discuss pollution. Social media erupted to condemn his behavior. Gambhir immediately blamed the local government for his absence and also pleaded that he needed these commenting contracts to “support” his family. The fact that he was one of the richest candidates, who now draws a hefty salary and a slew of benefits as an MP, added to the angst as people attacked him on Twitter relentlessly for not showing up.

But Gambhir’s absence shows a deeper malaise in India’s parliamentary system and governance.

A prevailing law known as the Anti-Defection Act prevents elected members from taking positions that are contrary to the political parties they belong to. This ensures that what is not a priority for the party is rarely a priority for the individual MP. India’s form of parliamentary governance, borrowed from the departing colonial British, also ensures that the prime minister and his cabinet hold primacy over all policy decisions. The standing committees and the MPs become rubber stamps who rarely reflect the needs of their constituents.

As a result, while spontaneous protests broke out against the pollution, none of the elected MPs showed up, even as a gesture of solidarity with their constituents. Even the prime minister, who is one of the most active politicians on Twitter and hosts a regular radio show, has never made a statement on the public health emergency that large parts of India face from the hazardous air pollution. This, most political parties privately acknowledge, is not an issue that will win them votes.

Indian citizens have been abandoned to deal with the issue on their own.

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