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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Arvind Kejriwal is clueless about reducing Delhi's pollution

Arvind Kejriwal is an inexplicable outcome of the rough-and-tumble of Delhi politics. Thrown up by popular disillusionment with the Indian National Congress and the BJP, Kejriwal and his ragtag band were once portrayed as the new vibe in politics.

Alas, that hope disappeared a few days into his first tilt at governance.

We are all familiar with his sanctimonious drama at the time and have now gotten used to his second-inning hypocrisy in which he has repudiated almost everything he claimed to stand for, including brothers-in-arms like Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. Not that Yadav and Bhushan are any less sanctimonious.

The depressing thing about Kejriwal is not his dubious health but the seeming lack of intellectual rigour or administrative skills. Worse is his lack of gravitas. He inspires no confidence.

It is clear from his amateurish handling of the pollution issue that he consults just the deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and, perhaps, a couple of others. The result: ad hoc responses that won't likely have any impact or will confound the situation.

Pollution is a major public health hazard and needs to be tackled in an organised, far-thinking manner. A joint response by central and state governments is the first step. Also, some amount of citizen involvement is critical - maybe only to smooth vehicular traffic and to curb the use of celebratory fireworks throughout the year; both are preventable sources of pollution.

Instead, Kejriwal is locked in mortal combat with the Modi government and its various agencies, especially the Delhi police and the Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. His pronouncement restricting the use of cars was followed by introducing exemptions for women, government and emergency vehicles and also on the enforcement of the restrictions.

In the end, it got so muddled that no one really knows what's going on, especially the shrill television media, whose role in manufacturing a ratings-points crisis out of a serious public health issue, needs to be examined in depth.

Not just television news but print media too created all manner of confusion that left people stumped.

Worldwide, governments have successfully tackled pollution by first creating a legal framework for action. In the US, successive laws were introduced beginning the 1960s with amendments continuing well into the 1990s.

The Clean Air Act and its various iterations facilitated funding of research and enforcement mechanisms to deal with various components of pollution. Three decades in the making, anti-pollution laws were a systematic effort that included identification and categorisation of pollutants, setting up an independent monitoring and enforcement agency and then further refining and redefining measures to control pollution.

On each step of the way, federal, state and local governments and agencies worked in tandem, keeping citizens informed through a strong media outreach program combining education and advocacy.

As such, the US environmental protection and pollution control program has been a huge success.

More than any European country, the US experience is more relevant to India because of its federal structure, huge economy, large population, big cities and massive demand for energy and transportation.

(An edited version of this post will appear in DailyO.in, December 2015.)