As the Indian capital continues to choke under a blanket of thick brown smog, an opposition lawmaker wants clean air to be a legal right for all.
In an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, parliament member Deepender Singh Hooda has called for the chief ministers of the National Capital Region, a sprawling area that encompasses Delhi, as well as districts in the neighboring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, to form a committee to tackle the toxic air pollution.
“The way to go about it is to have a highly-empowered federal agency, headed by the prime minister himself, with all the chief ministers of the affected north Indian states and all governments willing to rise above political party lines. Its immediate task should be to present a solid action plan with budgetary allocations,” said Hooda, an MP from Rohtak district in the state of Haryana, told CNN.
“That’s why I compare it to the Right to Food Act or the Right to Education Act. We need an agency that is tasked with the implementation.”
‘No reason to not solve this problem’
Hooda has proposed to table a Private Member’s Bill on the right to clean air during the winter session of Parliament, slated to begin November 17.
Citing the challenges that Mexico and the United Kingdom faced in tackling the issue of air pollution, Hooda highlighted the 1956 Clean Air Act, passed four years after the Great London Smog, that focused on cutting pollutants by confronting the source.
“There is no reason for us to not solve this problem. What’s really needed is a longer-term approach so we can provide a permanent solution for the sake of the next generation.”
According to Hooda, little progress has been made in tackling the smog at a governmental level due to a lack of planning, coupled with an ongoing blame game between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition Congress.
“What I’ve seen over the last few years is an approach of ad-hocism and passing the buck. When we’re close to Diwali, the government says, ‘Let’s ban firecrackers or let’s implement the odd-even driving restrictions.’ Then, when it comes to the crop burning, you’ll see the Delhi government blaming the Haryana government and vice versa,” he said.
According to experts, Delhi’ pollution is made up of a combination of vehicle exhaust, smoke from garbage fires and crop burning in nearby states, and road dust.
The poorest suffer the most
Those living a stone’s throw away from the heart of Delhi’s government are also frustrated.
“It’s all politics. Modi’s done nothing. Yogi’s (Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state) done nothing. Arvind Kejriwal’s (Chief Minister of Delhi) done nothing. They’re even blaming Pakistan. The people at the top, those that are well off aren’t even that affected. It’s the poor. The ones like us in the slums,” said Nimrita Sharma, a teacher at a daycare center in eastern Delhi’s Ravidass Slum.
“No one has come to distribute free masks or give us tips on what we can do to deal with the pollution. Our houses are open plan. Everyone is unwell and coughing all the time.”
Her neighbors tell a similar story.
“It’s so hard just to even take a simple breath sometimes and my eyes feel like someone’s put pepper in them. It’s been difficult for both adults and children,” said Zahida Begum.
“The air belongs to everyone.”
In recent days, air quality readings in New Delhi have reached dangerous levels, at one point topping the 1,000 mark on the US embassy air quality index. The World Health Organization considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.
Readings continue to sit at hazardous levels across the capital.
The measure is based on the concentration of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, per cubic meter. The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks.
Breathing in air with a PM2.5 content of between 950 to 1,000 is considered roughly equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day, according to the independent Berkeley Earth science research group.
While the well-heeled are taking precautionary measures such as wearing anti-pollution masks, it is a luxury that the residents of Ravidass Slum cannot afford.
“One mask sells for more than a 100 rupees ($1.50). Who’s going to buy them? It’s so expensive,” said Shobha Singh.
If Hooda is successful in tabling his Right to Clean Air Bill, millions living in the slums of Delhi will benefit.
“The air belongs to everyone. Has one particular person or group bought it for themselves? People are damaging it by burning (crops) and by polluting. It affects all of us,” said Mohammed Mujeeb, a small-scale farmer who lives in a slum along the banks of the Yamuna River in east Delhi.
Sharma agrees but is skeptical.
“Everyone has the right to clean air but where do we get this clean air from? It’s been like this for the past two, three years. We face the same problems every year but nothing changes.”
Hooda plans to release a draft online this week and has appealed to the public to make suggestions via social media.