In the 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a jabbering Peter Parker unties his hands as he distracts Miles Morales with his chatter. Parker then offers Morales one pieces of advice that, as it happens, would apply to fighting air pollution in India: “Don’t watch the mouth, watch the hands!”
Political parties have started to realise that people pay attention to information on how air pollution affects public health, so reducing pollution is becoming, more and more, a political issue. But between each high-pollution episode, the people are caught in the crossfire of blame between sectors and jurisdictions on television, in the newspapers, in academic and policy workshops, and wherever else. Suggestions, counter suggestions, laws and regulations fly thick and fast… but all of this has just been talk.
The Government of India doesn’t actually seem intent on reducing air pollution. The newly released minutes of a budget meeting throw light on the real goal, which is to deflect, distract and avoid dealing with the issue of improving the quality of India’s air.
For the financial year 2020-2021, the Indian government has allocated Rs 3,100 crore to the Union environment ministry – nearly Rs 1,200 crore short of the ministry’s request of Rs 4,295 crore. Given that this is a priority issue, with the Centre itself pushing ambitious schemes like the National Clean Air Plan (NCAP) covering 122 cities, it’s also odd that the budget of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has been pared down to only Rs 460 crore, against an ask of Rs 660 crore.
These shortfalls together portend a bleaker situation for the fight to improve air quality. That the Union budget diverted funds to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) to control air pollution is an important indication.
The government allocated Rs 4,400 crore in the 2020 Union budget to MoHUA for controlling air pollution in 46 cities with a million people or more. The government also suggested that the environment ministry exclude NCAP-related work in these cities and concentrate on the 76 cities with fewer than a million people each. This, in effect, means that the MoHUA now has the same mandate in larger cities that the environment ministry does in smaller ones.
The diversion of funds is clearly meant to help make up for the environment ministry not being given as much as it had asked for. The MoHUA, for its part, is set to allocate funds based on performance linked to measured pollution levels, but this is quite ambiguous. Does this mean the environment ministry is still responsible for air-quality measurements in the 46 cities? And will the MoHUA develop the capacity to implement the air-pollution policy?
To quote from the environment ministry’s mandate,
The primary concerns of the Ministry are implementation of policies and programmes relating to conservation of the country’s natural resources including its lakes and rivers, its biodiversity, forests and wildlife, ensuring the welfare of animals, and the prevention and abatement of pollution. While implementing these policies and programmes, the Ministry is guided by the principle of sustainable development and enhancement of human well-being.
And to quote from the MoHUA’s mandate,
To reduce poverty and vulnerability of the urban poor households by enabling them to access gainful self-employment and skilled wage employment opportunities, resulting in an appreciable improvement in their livelihoods on a sustainable basis, through building strong grassroots level institutions of the poor.
In effect, the government has effectively incapacitated the very institutions originally vested with a mandate to measure and manage air quality. Complimentarily, agencies such as the CPCB and the environment ministry haven’t been given the resources to undertake their basic responsibilities, including specialised efforts to mitigate the health effects of a deteriorating environment. Any assurances henceforth to the people and civil society that air pollution is at all a priority will be entirely insincere.
Few people read about, and even fewer examine, the finer details of a national budget but everyone is familiar with the government’s policy options. What good can conversations – each one important in its own right – about this or that way to reduce pollution, monitoring quality, urban planning, stubble-burning, the odd-even scheme, GST on coal and electric vehicles do when the hands are doing something entirely different?
A reduction in budget and shifting limited accountability of a key agencies signals to other government bodies that the air quality is not a priority. The CPCB already lacks teeth; the new budgetary priorities will completely defang it, leaving it a mere hoarder of data and action plans.
Sarath Guttikunda is the director of Urban Emissions (India), an independent research group on air pollution, issuing three-day air quality forecasts for all Indian districts.