Every time I breathe a gulp of air, my mind is consumed with fear. First for myself but then it diverts quickly to my one-year-old son. I am nervous that the air we are breathing is hurting us inside. Delhi is choking as a thick cloud of smog weighs upon each of our minds. Unfortunately, little is being done about it. The city that I take so much pride in and see as the citadel of democracy is now choking in the squabble of ministers and chief ministers passing the buck of responsibility.
As a young Indian and as a lone opposition MP from the National Capital Region, someone who has represented a constituency falling on the periphery of Delhi in Lok-Sabha for the last 13 years, it is clear to me why things have steadily become worse. The present legal and administrative framework of fighting this serious problem has not been able to make the desired impact, forcing the executive and judiciary to undertake ad-hoc emergency measures whenever situation reaches boiling points which may bring some short-term relief but do not help in the long-term. Banning firecrackers or restricting odd or even vehicles are each examples of impromptu thinking as opposed to a comprehensive policy plan. Apart from resorting to these Band-Aid type measures, the other approach by our leaders has been one of ‘passing the buck’ citing lack of jurisdiction and other issues. Delhi CM would blame Haryana CM or Punjab, BJP will blame the AAP, someone will blame the Congress and so on.
In the thick smog of Delhi our structures and systems have lost direction. We are failing each other.
The result is in front of us. India is one of the global hotspots for air pollution and the problem is not confined to Delhi alone. A heavy cloud shrouds the entire North Indian gangetic plane. To put the human cost of pollution (both air and water) in perspective, it killed more people in India than all war, violence, smoking, hunger, natural disasters, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together. Data suggests that one in four premature deaths in India are caused by pollution. As a parent it is painful to know that my one year old is inhaling 50 cigarettes worth of pollution a day. Worst still is the feeling of helplessness one is bound to experience. It’s clear that things can’t go on like this. But no matter how bad things are there is no scope for pessimism.
To those who say India is doomed to stay forever as a gas chamber, I say back that if there is one thing the history of human civilization has taught us, it is this: there is nothing that we humans are incapable of achieving if we set out for it collectively no matter what the odds. On this issue, all what we need is strong collective will, longer-term vision and proper planning with zero politics.
There are many success stories on that we can learn from. For example, in 1992, the United Nations had declared Mexico-city as the most polluted city in the world but they managed to bring down the air pollution after years of work. The AQI for Mexico-city now is in the 50 to 100 range. London too in early 50s faced a similar crisis known as the ‘Great Smog’ that led to a massive loss of lives in the days that followed. The British government brought in the Clean Air Act in 1956 to control the problem. Today, AQI in most parts of greater London is below 50. Bejing is another important city that has been able to turn things around for its citizens.
In our case, we need to begin by first stopping these seasonal blame-games, Band-Aid-only-approach and CM twitter-wars over this issue. We need to ensure all the highest members of our democratic system come together on this matter, rise above partisan politics, and are able to give themselves a statutory mechanism to act together. Our Prime Minister and the warring Chief Ministers need to join hands to lead the fight in clean air. This collaborative working group should be headed by the Prime Minister given the gravity of this matter for all our futures and should have a defined mandate to propose and oversee implementation of long term solutions to fight hazardous levels of air pollution.
With this in mind, I wrote a simple letter to our PM last week requesting him to constitute and lead a statutory high-level committee with CMs of all relevant North Indian States including NCT Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, UP and Others as members. This committee that I am choosing to call ‘National Clean Air Committee’ needs to have a defined mandate to come up with a ‘Model Action Plan for Sustainable Mitigation of Air Pollution’, to monitor its implementation in various affected States and to provide adequate budgetary allocations for its implementation with respect to both short-term and long-term measures. The high-level objective of the Committee should be to charter the country’s course to meet healthy air quality standards within a targeted deadline.
At my end, I have drafted a private member’s bill called ‘Right to Clean Air Bill’ that I plan to introduce in Lok Sabha in the coming winter session. Simply put if we can have detailed legislations to create systems to ensure Right to Food and Right to Education, we should most definitely have one which creates a functional administrative framework that is effective in ensuring our Right to Clean Air.
This proposed draft bill seeks to do two things: Firstly, this bill will seek to constitute the previously-mentioned ‘National Clean Air Committee’ headed by the PM by means of constitutional amendment, thus giving it constitutional status and powers. While right to clean air is implicit in the Article 21 of our constitution that provides for Right to Life but time has come to enshrine it explicitly just like what we did in the case of right to education (Article 21A).
Secondly, the bill also seeks to create an open platform through which every citizen can join the movement and work together to resolve this problem by giving suggestions and possible measures that can be taken up by this ‘National Clean Air Committee’ for budget allocation & implementation. Intention is to reach out to every concerned citizen and expert through social media to ensure that we can also incorporate the wisdom of the crowds in finding the solutions to a problem that concerns us all.
Following the principle of crowd-sourcing ideas myself, I have put the draft bill for all to see, support and give suggestions online and through social media. I am doing my bit, I request you to pitch in with your support and ideas at www.righttocleanair.org. I would ensure that the voice of every concerned citizen is heard in the Parliament.
Having being a mute spectator to the problem, albeit from the front row, I have had an awakening this bumper season. Yes I have taken up the issue as an MP but more importantly and also as a father and a concerned citizen because I believe that clean air is the most fundamental right of every citizen. I’ve had enough! Have you? If you have, it is time we all get together and do our bits. Let’s strengthen systems, build administrative platforms and create the requisite response mechanisms. Let’s clear the air.
Deepender Singh Hooda, Member of Parliament, Rohtak