Sunday, March 3, 2024

Breathless in capital: The political economy of air pollution in Delhi

Air pollution has become a public health calamity for residents of Delhi and is leading to an overall rise in mortality and morbidity amongst its residents. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Shirin Akhter & C Saratchand

Delhi is listed as one of the most polluted cities in the world, the pollution has resulted in shortening the life span of its residents by almost 12 years, on average. There are various contributors to Delhi’s pollution, the biggest contributor being emissions from private vehicles that are still largely powered by fossil fuels.

Other sources of air pollution in Delhi include public vehicles powered by fossil fuels, construction, emissions from productive units in the city huge and rising garbage dumps in the city, and burning of crop stubble in the states sharing borders with Delhi, in addition to the geographical location of Delhi.

Air pollution has become a public health calamity for residents of Delhi and is leading to an overall rise in mortality and morbidity amongst its residents. 

Like many other environmental calamities, Delhi’s air pollution affects the working people and the vulnerable more than others. The working people have been disproportionately affected by air pollution for several reasons; for instance, the elite can choose to relocate away from Delhi, without a detriment to their incomes and those who choose to stay, can install air purifiers at their residences, offices and vehicles, whereas the working people in Delhi cannot choose to migrate out of the city unless they are willing to forego a significant part of their incomes.

Further, the working people, unlike the elite, tend to disproportionately reside in areas of Delhi where emission-intensive production units are based and polluting vehicles transit more frequently and therefore face a higher risk from air pollutants. To top it all, the elite can access high-quality paid healthcare to deal with air pollution-related morbidity, while the needy cannot (since public healthcare facilities have been attenuated through neoliberal policies).

The reluctance of the state to combat air pollution due to emissions from private vehicles could be understood by taking note of the following arguments: to begin with, since the elites are not only largely insulated from the deleterious consequences of air pollution they are also it’s principal beneficiaries since both their production and consumption activities are disproportionately emission intensive. Hence the ruling elites are unable to find any effective willingness to tackle this source of air pollution. Further, the ruling elites have carefully cultivated the aspirational illusion that ownership of private vehicles (especially private cars) is necessary for upward mobility. The absence of any effective resistance to these illusory aspirational processes has resulted in a blunting of popular movements to curb and phase out fossil fuel-based private vehicles. 

In this context, we argue that a transition from fossil fuel-based private vehicles to non-polluting renewable energy-based public transport is imperative, however, the transition would need to go through several phases. We can begin with levying a monthly or annual tax on private (non-commercial) vehicles that supplements the current one-time tax that is levied at the time of purchase of such vehicles. As a result, a part of private (non-commercial) vehicles will cease to operate (reducing air pollution) while the owners of the rest will start paying the tax. This tax revenue could be used to enhance the scope of renewable energy-based public transport or to subsidise the transition of production units producing private vehicles powered by fossil fuels to the production of public transport vehicles based on non-polluting renewable energy or for instance through subsidised loans to further the transition.

Alternatively (or additionally), this tax revenue could also be used to subsidise both the price and infrastructural support for non-polluting renewable energy-based public transport. Transitioning from fossil fuel-based private vehicles to non-polluting renewable energy-based public transport in Delhi is imperative for a substantial reduction in air pollution. Such a shift would involve an initial phase of policy development, incentivising the use of renewable energy in public transport through subsidies and regulations. Secondly, implementing the necessary infrastructure, such as the establishment of an adequate number of charging stations for electric vehicles, would be crucial.

The third phase would focus on public awareness campaigns to encourage the adoption of sustainable transportation options. Lastly, continuous monitoring and adjustments to the transition plan based on environmental feedback and technological advancements would ensure the long-term viability of the proposed policy initiative. 

All public vehicles that are directly deployed by the various governments in Delhi could be transitioned into non-polluting renewable energy-based vehicles in an accelerated manner through the issuing of appropriate policy directions. If these vehicles are powered by electricity then a part of this electric power demand could be met by rooftop solar power installations in both public and private buildings (which would require the overcoming of systemic hurdles). In the interim, it is also possible where appropriate, to further an intermediate transition from petrol and standard diesel to compressed natural gas and ultra-low sulphur diesel as a fuel to power vehicles. However, the fuel standards of new fossil fuel-based vehicles (involving compressed natural gas and ultra-low sulphur diesel) in the interim must be mandated to conform to the emission standards that are in tune with internationally accepted standards.

A policeman moving away from smoke in Delhi

Estimates indicate that 30 per cent of air pollution in Delhi is caused by construction and related activities. Construction-related air pollution could be controlled by adopting construction-related best practices like enforcing strict standards for construction equipment emissions, mandating effective dust control at construction sites, introducing permits requiring adherence to environmental guidelines, encouraging eco-friendly practices and materials in construction, implementing rules to control construction-related noise, enforcing proper disposal and recycling of construction waste, integrating environmental considerations into urban planning, besides adopting longer-term practices like educating the workers and the public about environmental impacts and providing financial incentives for sustainable practices wherever necessary. It will also be imperative to establish robust monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations effectively.

Likewise, air pollution caused by emissions from production units in Delhi could be reduced through an appropriate policy of tax and subsidy that however does not lead to any decrease in employment. For instance, micro, small and medium enterprises could be advanced highly subsidised loans to initiate and complete the green transition in their units. The required tax revenue could be raised through a progressive property tax. This could involve commercial and residential properties whose guideline value (circle rate) exceeds a certain high threshold level paying increasingly higher rates of property tax. These funds could be disbursed to production units (as a subsidy) to gradually transit towards less polluting but non-labour displacing techniques of operation. The gradual nature of the proposed transition is also partially on account of the possible need in some cases for invention and subsequent innovation of less polluting but non-labour displacing operation techniques. If a decline in air pollution results in a rise in property prices then further measures to curb air pollution would be (at least) partially self-financing on account of the proposed progressive property tax.

The air pollution caused by the burning of crop stubble principally transpires during the post-Rabi harvest period. The combined harvesters which are used to harvest the rice crop leave a crop stubble. Rich and poor peasants deal with this issue differently given their differing socio-economic positions. While rich farmers can afford to deploy rotavators which squash the rice crop stubble and deposit the residue into the soil where it ends up as a natural source of fertiliser, peasants who can neither afford to clear the crop stubble with the use of workers nor deploy rotavators are compelled to burn the crop stubble, leading to a sharp rise in air pollution in places such as Delhi for weeks together. This is compounded by the fact that these emissions coincide in time with the large-scale use of firecrackers in and around Delhi. 

The use of firecrackers could be reduced through a combination of at least two policy initiatives that require political intervention. First, producers of firecrackers could be gradually migrated to the production of other commodities through the deployment of transitional subsidies and other public support measures.

Second, the use of firecrackers should be eliminated through the deployment of adequate measures of legal enforcement along with the creation of scientific awareness.

So far as the burning of rice crop residue is concerned, it could be tackled along the following lines; in the short run, the government (of Punjab, Haryana, National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Indian Union) could initiate a variant of the rural employment guarantee programme that employs workers to clear the rice crop stubble through the deployment of rotavators. However, this will require the government to pay at least the minimum wage (that it has set) that usually exceeds the market-determined levels of the wage rate. In other words, the current practice of many governments of paying employment guarantee workers wages that are often below even market levels needs to be discontinued in favour of at least the minimum wages.

Further, the wages paid to workers (and the non-wage costs involved in stubble removal) will increase demand, output and investment and therefore tax revenue. In other words, it will be (at least) partly self-financing. In the long run, agricultural extension work could be initiated under public aegis to try and modify combine harvesters so that no rice crop stubble remains when harvesting of paddy is undertaken.

However, the adoption of such improvements will not be adequate in the absence of public support. We have suggested some policy initiatives to reduce air pollution in Delhi, similar policies have yielded successful results in other cities. However, it is important to note that the successful adoption of such measures requires a process of political mobilisation that encompasses not only the people in Delhi but also those living elsewhere.

Shirin Akhter, Associate Professor, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. C Saratchand, Professor, Department of Economics, Satyawati College, University of Delhi.


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