Why is Indian democracy unable to respond to the problem of pollution?

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The people of Delhi once looked forward to winter. Not anymore. The season is now accompanied by some of the most severe pollution anywhere in the world. The past week saw the Air Quality Index in the capital hit “severe” levels, meaning even healthy people could face breathing problems and all physical activity was dissuaded.

In industrialised nations, this apocalyptic pollution would have seen the government face massive pressure and, hence, seen hectic activity to combat it. China’s capital Beijing, for example, was notorious for its polluted air. To combat it, the city launched a massive five-year action plan in 2013. By 2017, with China spending billions of dollars to clean up its capital, the United Nations Environment Program wrote, “cleaner air was visible”.

Inactive state

In sharp contrast, Indian democracy seems to have produced no such drastic action. This when, not only Delhi, but almost all of North India, is blanketed by killer smog for much of the winter, affecting hundreds of millions of people. The pollution comes like clockwork every winter, with the Indian state putting in little effort to fight it.

What explains this governance paralysis on something as critical as pollution?

First, let us be clear that Indian voters themselves are quite concerned about pollution. According to a Lokniti-CSDS survey published in December, 2019, 45% of Delhiities believe that pollution was the biggest problem facing the capital and 10% said it would be a factor when they vote.

Nevertheless, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party actually swept the elections just a few months later. The answer to this paradox lies in a couple of things. Principally was the fact that the Aam Aadmi Party was rated highly for bread-and-butter issues like lower electric and water bills. Elections in India are multi-issue and it is clear the Aam Aadmi Party’s populist measures earned it huge popularity.

Moreover, only 27% of Delhiities considered the Delhi government to be responsible for pollution, reflecting possibly the attenuated powers of Delhi as a Union territory, with the Union government having vast powers in the city in a way that is not possible in full states.

In effect, while pollution might be an issue, clearly it is being outweighed by other factors when the voter goes to vote in Delhi.

Broken feedback loop

This disconnect between voting and pollution is exacerbated by the fact this is a pan-North Indian problem. Part of this might point to geographical factors and part of this might be due to the generally poor quality of governance in North India. In either case, it is unclear to the voter what effect changing the ruling party might have.

Pollution would only become a voting issue if, say, the voter in Uttar Pradesh is convinced that replacing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with the main opposition party, the Samajwadi Party, would make things better. This is unlikely to happen and the voter risks losing benefits (such as, say, welfare or Hindu nationalism) that made her vote for the ruling party in the first place. In the end, that it is not a major electoral issue is not surprising.

This lack of voting pressure on governments is compounded by the fact that powerful interest groups push back hard against any efforts at curbing pollutants. For the recent festival of Deepawali, for example, while there was a fireworks ban on paper, strong pushback by Hindu nationalists, which saw the curbs as an attack on their religious traditions. This meant that it had no effect on the ground.

A similar effect can be seen with car owners. While vehicles are the biggest polluters in the city, governments are paralysed when it comes to putting restrictions on private cars. In 2008, for example, when the city introduced a trial version of Bus Rapid Transit, putting in a dedicated corridor for buses, car owners, used to driving on the entire road, saw red. Although only one in 20 residents owns a car, this was a powerful group. Soon the English-language media joined the chorus, forcing the Delhi government to fold. In effect, a cheap, tested mass transit system which could have done wonders for pollution had to be junked because of a small, though powerful pressure group.

The corollary to the power of car owners is the lack of power of bus commuters. Even though buses are the main mode of transportation for Delhiities, since bus users are mostly working class with little voice in the media, the government can easily ignore them. As a result, remarkably, Delhi’s bus fleet has actually halved over the past decade even though its population has surged, forcing more and more people to turn to private transport solutions such as motorbikes.

Part of a pattern

The failure of Indian democracy to deal with an endemic problem like pollution is part of an unfortunate pattern. For example, as economist Amartya Sen’s research has pointed out, Indian democracy has been able to tackle famine very well. Famines stopped happening almost immediately after British colonial rule ended. Compared to China, where massive famines kept occurring even after colonial influence had been removed, Indian democracy performed well. However, at the same time, it also failed to tackle the endemic and much less dramatic problem of undernutrition.

Without large numbers of deaths in very short periods, malnutrition does not fire up India’s democratic system the way famine does. But as economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze point out in their 1989 work Hunger and Public Action, its malnutrition might be even more deadly, with India killing as many people every eight years as China did during its massive Great Leap Forward famine from 1958-1961.

Much of the phenomenon of pollution is similar. While its effect might be catastrophic for public health in the medium to long term, in the short term they are rarely visible to voters in the same way as a sharp calamity like famine is. In effect, Indian democracy ends up prioritising immediate factors such as welfare and the needs of interest groups such as car owners over the health effects of pollution.


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