Wanted: clean air and water for Delhi

The Aam Aadmi Party has claimed victory in the Delhi polls with promises of free water, but will the new government clean up the city’s noxious air and rivers, asks Thirdpole journalist Soma Basu.

lotus temple new delhi
A smoggy view of New Delhi's Lotus Temple, India. The levels of PM2.5 particulate matter in Delhi are among the highest in the world. Image: Shutterstock

After the overwhelming victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly polls, when Arvind Kejriwal takes oath as chief minister next Sunday, will he keep coughing as he habitually does? The AAP convenor has a chronic respiratory problem, caused by the poisonous mix that goes by the name of air in India’s capital.

There are days when Delhi competes with Beijing for the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted megacity. A dirty blanket of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot envelops the city and hides the sun for much of the winter. The pollution routinely reaches the “alarming” level by the standards of the India Meteorological Department, though there is no system of issuing public warnings.

Nor was there any talk of air pollution during the poll campaign that occurred under this smog blanket. And this in a city where respiratory ailment numbers are many times the global average.

Reva Bisht, a 36-year-old homemaker who lives in Patparganj, East Delhi, recently shifted to a bigger house to provide her parents an extra room when they come to visit her from Almora, Uttarakhand. For the last two years, her parents have had to come to Delhi once in every two months to get their medical check-up at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

However, on each visit, Reva’s 80-year-old father complains of cough, wheezing and shortness of breath. “They are hill people. They are used to clean air. He suffers from a lot of breathing trouble when he comes to Delhi. They have been thinking of discontinuing their treatment at AIIMS because of this. My father says old age ailments in Almora are less painful than choking every day in a city like Delhi,” says Reva, blaming the polluted air of India’s capital.

“A study (by the World Health Organization) has found that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world when it comes to air quality,” adds Reva to validate her point.

She belongs to the 67 per cent of Delhi’s voters who voted on February 7. Even when the polluted air of the city peeves her the most, she voted over water issues. “Not one political party promised clean air. The next most important issue was water and that’s what I voted for,” clarifies Reva.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), AAP and the Congress ran quite aggressive campaigns before the Delhi assembly elections, but their manifestoes did not have much to offer when it came to environmental problems in the city. Some parties merely did a touch-and-go. BJP stressed clean energy. Congress promised to increase Delhi’s green cover by 25 per cent. The AAP manifesto was more detailed. It promised to check deforestation of the Delhi Ridge, improve public transport to reduce congestion by cars, provide incentives for low emission fuels like CNG and electric vehicles, encourage car-pooling and a crackdown on fuel adulteration to reduce pollution. But, its major plank remained 700 litres of free water to each Delhi household every day.

“Well, who cares if there is deforestation in Delhi ridge? Even if the public transport is improved, I will continue travelling by my car and my car is petrol driven. So, honestly, these promises sound good but will it benefit me?” asks Ankit Jain, a 56-year-old businessman. Jain agrees that pollution level in Delhi should be checked but does not make the link between clean air and public transport or low emission fuels.

However, Jain understands the economics of 700 litres of free water. “Free water means a lower water bill. The political party also promised a lower electricity bill. Of all the promises being made by the political parties, these results are attainable. This affects me directly and so, this is something a person can vote for,” he says.

So is average Delhi resident not concerned about environmental problems?

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), AAP and the Congress ran quite aggressive campaigns before the Delhi assembly elections, but their manifestoes did not have much to offer when it came to environmental problems in the city.

Anumita Roychowdhury, expert on transport and clean air at the think tank Centre for Science and Environment, says there is public concern about these problems which gets reflected in the media. Several newspapers have run campaigns to clean Delhi’s air. Another major intervention in this front has been by the judiciary through Public Interest Litigations (PILs) suits. This shows that people are concerned, says Roychowdhury.

But there are no road shows, rallies or social media campaigns to force the government to take action. One possible reason is the lack of a common platform. Plus, people may be aware of a problem and want to do something about it but they may not be aware of the solution. If a car owner is charged extra parking fees to check rising number of cars, he may not understand the connection. “People have to be made more aware of the solutions,” says Roychowdhury.

What about the water

People are forced to choose from what political parties offer. But when they speak for 700 litres of free water, is it truly a positive change or another delusion?

The AAP promise of 700 litres of free water a day to each household is for homes with water connections provided by the government. But 32 per cent of Delhi’s 2.5 million households are without such connections, according to government estimates. The party has assured that all homes will benefit, but has not said how. Till it finds a way, the poorest will be paying the most for water, since they are the ones without the connections. About 25 per cent of the city area remains uncovered by piped water supply. According to a recent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), 16 per cent of Delhi’s urban households and 30 per cent of its rural ones don’t get sufficient drinking water throughout the year.

India’s Ministry of Urban Development has set a benchmark of providing 135 litres per capita per day (LPCD) of water. The AAP has promised 140 LPCD. Taking leakage into account, this will mean having to supply 175 LPCD.

“Supplying 175 LPCD is too much and against global practice. This can easily be reduced to 110 LPCD with conservation efforts like using mug and bucket in place of flush or shower,” says Manoj Mishra, convener of the conservation NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. He also suggests that instead of providing free water, government should have tariffs and charge as low as 50 paise (less than a cent) per litre for the first 700-litre bracket.

Mishra also points out that none of the manifestoes promised anything about Yamuna, the lifeline of Delhi that has been reduced to a drain due to high pollution and encroachment of the river bed.

He says that the 22 km stretch of Yamuna in Delhi is the most threatened stretch of any river in the country, even after Rs 1,500 crore (US$241 million) has been spent since 1994 in an effort to clean it. The National Green Tribunal recently set a fresh roadmap with a 2017 deadline for its rejuvenation.

R.K. Pachauri, head of The Energy and Resources Institute, recently said that the political class would deliver what the voters demanded of them. “We (the people of Delhi) really don’t have that sense of pride, belonging and connection with the city…Why is it that we don’t articulate the importance of such issues so that the political parties and their candidates can be held accountable for what they are going to do in this particular area? I would expect that the public would be asking questions of the candidates on what they are going to do to clean up Delhi’s air.”

This has not happened during the campaign. It remains to be seen if the new government will do anything about it.

Soma Basu is a journalist at The Thirdpole. This post is republished from thethirdpole.net.

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