Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Air Pollution Crisis Provides India And Pakistan A Golden Chance To ‘Clear The Air’ Between Neighbours

US has air quality cooperation agreements with its neighbouring Canada and Mexico. Similarly, the countries of European Union have an agreement, which sets national limit on emission of air pollutants

Photo: Jitender Gupta

Pollution levels in India’s capital had reached 30 times the World Health Organization’s prescribed limits in the first week of November. Delhi is one of the most polluted capital cities in the world, and in the winter, it gets worse. This happens because, in the month of October, farmers in Punjab and Haryana set their paddy fields on fire after harvesting to burn crop stubble to clear their fields.

The choking smog, which had a few days ago forced doctors to declare a medical emergency in Delhi, not only covers most of the north India but also a large part of Pakistan as well. Pakistan’s Lahore suffers from the ‘apocalyptic’ smog as badly as India’s Delhi. Like India blames Pakistan for cross-border terrorism, Pakistan blames India for the cross-border incursion of smoke and ash.

Stubble burning and seasonal dust in the winter are only additions to existing severe pollution in the region due to uncontrolled industrial and vehicle emission. The emergency like situation in the pre-winter months due to smog brings huge media interest for a few days and with it a sense of official urgency. Governments in both India and Pakistan pretend to take a few half-hearted temporary steps to assuage public anger but refrain from working towards a long-term solution.

In order to address this survival issue effectively, both the countries have to realize that the issue like air pollution is transboundary in nature and it demands a regional solution. India and Pakistan have to cooperate as adopting state-centric approach is not sufficient to resolve the smog crisis. Taking the lead, a few days back the Punjab government in Pakistan had tweeted to Punjab’s Chief Minister in India: “Environmental hazards threaten our people and habitat. Let us act fast to counter it.”

Considering the state of relations between India and Pakistan, it is understandable why Chief Minister Amarinder Singh decided not to respond to the call for cooperation from his counterpart from Pakistan’s side. To get the process moving, the central governments of India and Pakistan have to start talking as there is no other way out rather than work jointly. More than 500,000 Indians and Pakistani die every year due to air pollution.

The relationship between India and Pakistan has remained conflictual for the last seven decades. The severity of air pollution issue and the improbability of finding a country-specific solution should be sufficient to persuade the leadership of India and Pakistan to work together for environmental cooperation. Air pollution issue between India and Pakistan, unlike the Indus water sharing, has not become securitized yet, thus it provides a golden opportunity for both the countries to cooperate and work together.

Countries collaborate to protect their critical environment and these collaborations can have positive spin-offs for peace. There are two possible pathways for peacemaking between two countries over their bilateral cooperation on air quality in particular and environmental issues in general. The first path involves transforming the more immediate problems of mistrust, uncertainty, suspicion, divergent interests, and short-time horizons that typically accompany conflictual situations. A second pathway, consistent with the broader understanding of peace as the unimaginability of violent conflict, focuses less on narrow, short-term interstate dynamics and more on the broader pattern of trans-societal relations. In other words, cooperation would be pursued as an objective in itself, diffusing from air quality across other areas of bilateral interaction.


Such “spill-over” advantages of cooperation over air quality have been witnessed in different parts of the world. The United States has air quality cooperation agreements with its neighbouring Canada and Mexico. Similarly, the countries of European Union have an agreement, which sets a national limit on the emission of air pollutants. Scandinavian countries have developed strong cooperation with East European countries in the areas of air and water quality in the Baltic. The air pollution issue is also being addressed at the regional level in Southeast Asia as well.

Cooperation for cleaner air has the potential to transform the mistrust and suspicion between and among the countries to bring opportunities for shared gains and set up a model of reciprocity. Establishing a bilateral commitment to limit air pollutants can help to overcome the existing mistrust or suspicion between two disputing countries, and create a milieu of reciprocal gains and estimation of national interest on a long-term basis. Cooperation on air quality issues may also bring people together resulting trans-border civil society linkages and build a norm of joint responsibility and bilateral cooperation. The issue of national sovereignty and self-interest maximizing elites in both India and Pakistan are obstacles to the appropriate evolution of cooperation over air quality. However, when the stakes are so high, the logic of cooperation should alter the existing bilateral relations between two countries. Several countries in the world have transformed their bilateral relationship from conflictual to cooperative from the foundation of starting cooperation over critical environmental issues.

The creation of a protected area called the SIAPAZ Park has improved the bilateral relationship considerably between two disputing neighbours, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Similarly, the other peace-promoting protected areas in Central America are La Amistad International Park between Costa Rica and Panama; and a peace park in the disputed Cordillera del Condor between Peru and Ecuador. The cooperation over forest and biodiversity in these cases have re-established centuries-old relationships among the populations living in the area, and improved relationships between the officials of the countries who were needed to work together.

The cooperation over of water sharing has also seen to improve the overall bilateral relationship between the riparian states of Evros River, Greece and Turkey; and between the riparian states of Jordan River, Israel and Jordan. Even India’s relationship with Bangladesh has improved considerably since 1996 after it started to cooperate with Bangladesh over the Ganges water sharing.

While the Ganges Water Treaty has significantly contributed to bilateral peacemaking and has provided the foundation for other forms of cooperation between India and Bangladesh, the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 has failed to do so between India and Pakistan. The basic reason for this failure is the quality of the Indus Water Treaty itself. The Indus Water Treaty is not a water-sharing treaty, rather an extension of the partition between two countries, from land resources in 1947 to water resources in the 1960s.

Thus, the Indus Treaty has failed to provide a space for joint ownership and joint management of critical common property resources. What both the countries have failed to do while dividing the Indus water between themselves, the urgency and danger of smog bring them another opportunity to work towards a comprehensive and cooperative framework to limit air pollutants and with it to improve bilateral relations.

It is true that environmental issues provide opportunities for the countries to build cooperation, but the states have to make use of them. The positive spill-over effect of the environmental cooperation is only possible if the ruling elites of the cooperating states are prepared and interested to take the advantage of it. The ruling elites of both India and Pakistan, need to abandon their narrow political agenda and prioritise survival and well-being of the people, and then both the countries might able to get the other larger benefits of their cooperation over air quality. Time for the rulers to realize, cooperation is essential in the neighbourhood. Smog has just provided them with another opportunity to walk together in that direction.

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden