India's Capital Chokes on Its Mistakes

The city's deadly smog is the result of some classic failures of governance.

A firecracker ban won't solve the problem.

Photographer: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

For most Indians, the festival of Diwali is well worth the wait. Houses are brightly lit, boxes of sweets are exchanged -- and accounts for the year are closed. The Hindu festival of lights also heralds the beginning of winter, the few months when the baked northern plains of the subcontinent become marginally more liveable.

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Except in India’s giant capital. Here in Delhi, Diwali ushers in months of unbreathable air. The city boasts, by some measures, the most polluted air in the world. During the summer and the monsoon season, heat and wind tend to keep air pollution -- usually measured by levels of particulate matter, or PM -- low. It’s during the winter months that PM levels can soar to 30 times the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organization.

Last year, conditions were worst in the week after Diwali because, many argue, of the millions of firecrackers set off in celebration. Indian firecrackers are poorly regulated, made under sweatshop conditions or illegally imported from China, and the poisonous residue they emit turns every Delhiite into an asthmatic. Together with a multitude of other factors -- dust from construction, fumes from nearby power plants, the burning of agricultural waste in states to Delhi’s north and, of course, millions of cars -- they turn the capital into a hellish, infernal landscape of haze and sulphurous air.

So why can’t anything be done about it? The Delhi pollution problem shows India at its most intractable. Even a tangible public health crisis that affects every citizen equally can be turned into a political football.

Successive local governments have tried and failed to deal with the capital's air quality problems. The Delhi government, led by the maverick Arvind Kejriwal, tried halving the number of cars on the city's roads for a few weeks a couple of winters ago. The ban certainly helped, but probably wouldn’t work as a permanent solution; canny Delhiites quickly found ways around Kejriwal’s edict. India governance problem number one: Politicians have a bias towards big, flashy policies that aren’t sustainable.

Nor have emissions standards for Indian automobiles been imposed as quickly as they could have been. In fact, following lobbying by carmakers, the central government cancelled the imposition of “Bharat-V” emissions standards for new cars and trucks, instead promising to implement the next generation of standards by 2020. India governance problem number two: Important reform is too easily postponed.                 

Since the executive had proven ineffective, India’s Supreme Court decided to step in. India governance problem number three: judicial overreach. Rather than asking what reasonable regulations the government could impose on fireworks at Diwali time, the Court simply banned all fireworks in Delhi. Small businessmen who had already invested their savings in selling fireworks -- a profitable sideline for many shops and struggling entrepreneurs during the festive season -- saw their investment go up in smoke. Some of them have even been arrested. Diwali this year doesn’t have a particularly festive feel in Delhi.

Then came India governance problem number four: Any policy can intensify religious divisions. The best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, a smart man who too often strives to sound like the least enlightened of his many readers, tweeted out to his 10.5 million followers: “Can I just ask on cracker ban. Why only guts to do this for Hindu festivals? Banning goat sacrifice and Muharram bloodshed soon too?” Bhagat, as usual, had his finger on the racing, angry pulse of millions of young Hindu men convinced their government singles them out for humiliation. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party struggled to respond; one of its leaders tweeted that “those holding candlelight vigils may file a litigation against cremation rites of Hindus on the grounds of causing air pollution.” The federal environment minister initially welcomed the ban on Twitter -- and then had to delete his tweets following an outcry from the party rank and file.

It’s true that firecrackers alone aren’t the cause of Delhi pollution at this time of year. As I flew down from the pristine Kashmir valley across the states of Punjab and Haryana to Delhi a few days ago, I could see, from the plane window, a thousand plumes of smoke curling southward. Farmers in the two agricultural states had harvested their summer crops and then, short of manpower, were simply burning the stalks that remained. Smoke from these nominally illegal fires is a major contributor to Diwali-time pollution in Delhi, but no city administration has ever been able to convince the governments in the states to its north to crack down on farmers who break the law. India governance problem number five: Its federal system makes coordination almost impossible.

And so, as it celebrates Diwali today, Delhi is also girding for yet another record-breaking spell of bad air. This is a profoundly macho city; it may have air quality dozens of times worse than Beijing does, but you won’t see anyone here wearing a mask. And, of course, we’d rather die than fix the governance problems that keep our air murderous.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Mihir Sharma at

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