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Diwali: Politics Over Pollution And Cracker Ban In Delhi Fails To Grasp The Larger Environmental Point

Delhi government's strict implementation of a blanket ban on firecrackers have received vitriol from the BJP whose leaders have accused Arvind Kejriwal of being anti-Hindu.

The spectre of air pollution looms large over the festival of lights
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Ahead of Diwali, the politics over pollution seems to have heated up  once again in the national capital. Like every year, Delhiites are expecting a spike in Air Quality Index following the festival of Diwali. Despite widespread social awareness campaigns by the government as well as the social sector, every year Diwali in Delhi sees worsening air quality - in part due to the bursting of harmful and pollution-causing firecrackers and in part due to agrarian practices like stubble burning in nearby states. The onset of winter also acts as a cause for spike in air pollution in the NCR region at this time.  

The Delhi government, however, has deemed firecrackers as a primary source of air air pollution during and post Diwali. In keeping with its measures for regulating Delhi’s air quality, the city government in September re-imposed a complete ban on the production, sale and use of all types of firecrackers till January 1, including on Diwali, a practice it has been following for the last two years.

The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) on October 7 ordered the implementation of Stage 1 of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) after Delhi's 24-hour average AQI was recorded at 211 (poor) at 4 pm on Dussehra.

Bursting firecrackers in the city on Diwali could attract a jail term of up to six months and a fine of Rs 200, Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai said last week. 

However, the politics over firecrackers and pollution has been crackling. 

'Anti-Hindu'

The cracker ban has led to an inevitable political row between Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP with the latter trying to paint the ruling AAP and its chief as well as Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal as anti-Hindu.

BJP leader, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga recently posted a video of AAP workers lighting crackers at the residence of Delhi’s newly appointed minister Raj Kumar Anand. “If Hindus burn crackers on Diwali, there will be pollution. Arvind Kejriwal will send them to jail, but if the firecrackers are burnt in celebration of becoming a minister of Kejriwal, oxygen will come out of it,” Bagga wrote on Twitter while sharing the video.

“Kejriwal, your anti-Hindu face stands exposed again. You have a problem with Diwali, not with the firecracker,” Bagga added.

BJP leader Manoj Tiwari had also filed a petition in court against the firecracker ban, stating that freedom of religion cannot be undermined by right to life. 

The politics over firecrackers is not new just like the problem of pollution. 

From October to December, the national capital chokes under a thick blanket of smog. The festive season, including Dussehra and Diwali, contributes to an uptick in pollution levels due to the burning of effigies and firecrackers. However, it’s not just firecrackers that choke Delhi. Located at the foot hills of mountains and head of the northern plains as well as at the edge of a desert, Delhi’s geopolitical location is unfortunate in terms of air quality. The onset of early winter as well as late autumnal winds add to the problem. 

Stubble trouble 

Stubble burning, the other major cause of air pollution in Delhi’s following its geological disadvantages and cracker-loving citizens, also has a history of politicisation. The growth of paddy as the preferred crop for farmers, especially in states like Punjab and Haryana, has resulted from a series of policies that favoured paddy production dating back to the 1970s. 

However, the problem of stubble burning emerged after paddy production became more expensive following the 2009 Preservation of Subsoil Water Act which forced farmers to delay the planting of paddy by a month, thus driving up production costs. Stubble burning was the cheaper alternative for clearing crops quickly without employing expensive manual labour. Since then, successive governments have offered ‘band-aid’ solutions to the problem of stubble burning by offering farmers more incentives and subsidies to reduce cost of producing of paddy. Critics have instead argued for replacing paddy as the choice of crop. Not only does t lead to stubble burning, it also creates harmful methane emissions that further harm the environment. 

In July, Delhi and Punjab governments, both led AAP, had jointly sent a proposal to the Centre and the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) to help them give Rs 2,500 per acre as cash incentive to farmers in Punjab for not burning stubble. However, the Centre refused to entertain the request. 

Hitting back, Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai on Friday said the Centre's blunt refusal to provide cash incentive to farmers in Punjab for not burning crop residue has impacted the campaign against stubble burning in the agrarian state.

Experts, however, argue that a more long-term solution would be to slowly wean the farmers in these states to other crops.  

AAP a Green Party?

Since coming to power, the AAP government had made concerted efforts to control the ever increasing problem of air pollution in Delhi. 

In March last year, Rai had claimed that Air pollution in the national capital has reduced by 15 per cent over the years due to the efforts if the AAP government. "The Delhi government has consistently shown its administrative will to reduce air pollution in the city, due to which it has reduced by 15 per cent," a statement quoted the minister as saying.

And indeed, the Aam Aadmi Party gas been proactive in its efforts to make Delhi’s air cleaner. With the impact of climate change and global warming catching up with the world faster that was expected, AAP’s impetus on environmentalism reflects a political mindset that has been growing in influence across the world. “Green parties”, referring to political parties with an environmental agenda as their top priority, have grown from being fringe movements to full blown political outfits and parties, contesting elections, and even winning it in places. As per the Global Greens network, there are at present 80 green parties functional across the world.  

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In India, AAP has the support of environmental organisations as well as pan-India green parties like the India Greens Party which had vocally supported support the AAP in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections. Its president, Suresh Nautiyal, had appealed to the voters to exercise their franchise in favour of the AAP candidates for the sake of “continuity, better governance, transparency, efficiency and clean politics and environment.”.

At the moment, Delhi is under the Stage II of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) -- a set of anti-air pollution measures followed in the national capital and its vicinity, according to the severity of the situation. The Stage II plan includes banning the use of coal and firewood in hotels, restaurants and open eateries. The use of diesel generators, except for essential services, is also banned. 

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The government is also set to launch the "Red Light on Gaadi off" campaign again to curb vehicular pollution from October 28, Environment Minister Gopal Rai told the press earlier this week. Under the campaign, first launched on October 16, 2020, to cut down vehicular pollution in the national capital, drivers are encouraged to switch off their vehicles while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. 

In September, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced a 15-point Winter Action Plan to combat air pollution in the winter months. 

Earlier this month, environment minister Rai said that the smog towers installed in the national capital have significantly reduced air pollution levels within a distance of 50 metres, and had a noticeable effect up to 300 metres. Kejriwal also recently told the media that the city’s pollution reduced significantly in 2021-22 as compared to 2017-18, while citing a report by the NCAP [National Clean Air Programme] of the government of India,”

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But the greenness has not come without controversy. 

Last year, the BJP had slammed Kejriwal for his handling of severe pollution in the national capital as it cited figures to allege that the city government spent 4,000 times more on advertising its promotion of a bio-decomposer, which destroys farm stubble without causing air pollution, than it did on purchase of the chemical.

The BJP’s own policy on environmental protection has come in the form of framing environmental laws in a manner that encourages rapid clearances and removal of red tape. Environmentalists have argued that the BJP’s environmental policies are not focused on conservation but rather rooted in the need for safeguarding the commercial interests and speedy clearances of development projects. 

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This year, after a spell of relatively good AQI days due to a few extra days of rain, Delhi experienced the cleanest day before Diwali (Sunday) in seven years. And yet, last year’s experience combined with this year’s pollution predictions do not bode well for Delhiites, especially those with respiratory lung diseases. Only time can tell whether Kejriwal’s efforts will succeed and reducing air pollution in Delhi this year. But the politics over pollution -  a problem that is slowly becoming endemic across several major cities I India - is here to stay.

As columnist Chanakya had pointed out in an editorial in 2020, “Solutions to complex problems such as Delhi’s bad air are always temporally-tiered”. This means that solutions to the pollution problem also need to be multiple-pronged. Some may be short-term, some long term. Some will be scientific, some economic, some behavioural. 

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However, the politics over the firecracker ban often fails to address these major concerns about Delhi’s air pollution problem. 

(With inputs from PTI)

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