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Three Wrong Ways to Talk about ‘Delhi Smog’

Alok Prasanna Kumar ( is senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and is based in Bengaluru.


Ablinding smog settled over large parts of the Indo–Gangetic plain across Northern India in November (Hindu 2017). The annual fog problem has now become a smog problem as the Air Quality Index (AQI) readings went literally off the charts (Feltman 2017). Though the problems faced by those in Delhi and the National Capital Region seemed to receive the most coverage, as satellite pictures showed, it was a problem faced across Northern India (Ashok 2017). AQI was probably even worse in smaller, less heralded cities such as Varanasi, Moradabad, and Ludhiana.

Poor air quality affects everyone, though it does affect children, the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions even more. Comparisons were immediately drawn between the experiences and practices of the administration in China to tackle pollution in Beijing, and other cities such as Mexico City. Questions were asked about why the same could not be done here (Sehgal 2017). Blame was laid at the feet of the Aam Aadmi Party-run Delhi government, which in turn blamed it on the Congress-led Punjab government, which in turn suggested that the fault lay with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government, which then set up a seven-member committee to look for solutions (PTI 2017), even though there does not seem to be any shortage of solutions to the issue (VCLP 2017).

Amid the finger-pointing and hand- wringing, what is lost is that the problem itself is being framed incorrectly, and therefore, the solutions are being looked for in all the wrong places. The present discourse around air pollution, which seems to increase when the pollution is most visible, is flawed and misunderstands several aspects of the problem. Increased density of suspended particulate matter in the air is a year-round problem across North India, and indeed in major Indian cities (Harish 2017), and should be addressed as such and not through ad hoc solutions.

However, this is unlikely to happen as long as our discourse is framed around finding single causes, expecting the courts to do something, and demanding instant solutions.

‘It Is Caused by This One Thing’

In the first few weeks of the problem of pollution being visible, it is not uncommon to see that Diwali firecrackers or farmers burning stubble in their fields as preparation for the next round of farming are blamed. Both are no doubt huge contributing factors and have only increased in recent times for specific reasons (Sharma 2017).

Poor air quality in North India is caused by a range of human activities and climactic conditions working together (Sharma and Dikshit 2016). Relentless discussion over only one thing, especially in the context of Delhi, leads to enormous time and energy being spent on addressing that one thing to the detriment of other efforts. Tackling the air quality problems requires all the sources of pollution, from road dust, to construction dust, emissions from power plants and others to be tackled simultaneously. It cannot also be done piecemeal, jurisdiction-wise. What applies in Delhi must be extended across all the areas in the Indo–Gangetic plain for it to be truly effective.

Why Is Nothing Being Done?

When the smog descends, the first reaction seems to be that the government (central, state or municipal, sometimes all) has been “sleeping” all year and nothing has been done, and therefore something should be done immediately. A responsive, democratic government must respond to the immediate concerns of citizens, and what concern could be greater than such life-threatening air pollution?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it once again ignores the fact that poor air quality is a year-round phenomenon across North India. It is the most “visible” when it mixes with water vapour and turns up as smog, but it cannot be ignored for the rest of the year as well. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens. Demands on the government to do something when the problem is at its worst also means that issues which require serious and sustained engagement over months are no longer a priority. This promotes a short-termism in government thinking. The pressure to show results means that measures to address pollution in the medium- to long-term take a back seat or are completely ignored in a bid to be seen to be doing “something.” Not only does this not address the problem, but risks aggravating it.

There is a further danger in this sort of mass media-driven pressure on the government. “Pollution” is a negative externality that arises out of certain economic activities (Coase 1960). The “cost” of this economic activity is being borne by the society as a whole when the air turns murky and unbreathable. The straightforward solution is to say that the persons who are responsible for the pollution should be made to pay the costs. This seems to be obvious and commonsensical but becomes problematic when probed. If farmers are forced to bear the full costs of burning stubble, would it not risk destroying their livelihoods and food security in India? If factories are forced to bear the full costs of pollution, would their owners not cut jobs and move out, making workers bear the brunt? There are no easy answers to situations such as this and it is the task of a responsible government, at least in a democratic set-up, to try and ensure some modicum of justice in its actions.

‘Courts Should Do Something’

One line of thinking feels that if governments are unable to tackle air pollution, surely courts should step in. Cases concerning air pollution in Delhi are pending in the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court, and the National Green Tribunal, and orders have been passed by these forums to try and mitigate pollution. What is wrong with this approach, one might ask.

For one, all the problems with expecting the government to do something applies equally to court. Short-term, quick fixes such as banning sport utility vehicles (SUVs), banning sales of firecrackers, banning stubble burning take priority over the harder, longer term solutions. What makes court intervention even more problematic is that there is even less thought given to the justice of the remedies. Court-led efforts to mitigate pollution-related problems have resulted in massive job loss, and destruction of homes for the poor. Part of this is because environmental cases in court suffer from a form of “elite capture” where upper middle-class litigants and concerns are more likely to be heard and acted upon. Structurally, the court is not in a position to handle such careful balancing of social and economic consequences of its actions, resulting in the kind of injustices that even well-meaning public interest litigations can sometimes cause (Bhuwania 2016).

What Then?

Pollution has multiple sources spread across a wide spectrum of activities and has arisen because of a range of factors over decades. Any solution will impose costs on certain sections more than others and it requires a balancing of interests that courts are not necessarily capable of. The task, therefore, falls on the government, but the problem remains: which government? Pollution does not recognise neat divisions of territory and jurisdiction and must be tackled at many levels, at the same time. It requires all governments, from the union government to the municipalities to be on the same page with respect to the correct way to address pollution, in a sustainable, long-term manner.

Unfortunately, India’s history of such massive coordination in matters of pollution is not exactly encouraging. The sorry state of intergovernmental efforts to address river-water pollution in inter-state rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna is sufficient evidence of this failure (Reuters 2017). Even the supposedly independent authorities set up under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the state and central pollution control boards are marred by excessive political interference and a lack of professional competence (Menon 2013).

Where does the answer lie? It lies in accepting that there are no “fixes” for the problems of pollution and poor air quality in North India. It lies in accepting instead that there are no shortcuts to building institutions and improving institutional capacity to address this problem. Air quality is going to be an ongoing problem that is not going to get resolved just through court orders, executive directions or laws. It needs all of these and more. It needs accountable and competent institutions, both at the central and state levels, capable of laying down norms and taking tough action to enforce these norms. Building such institutions and vesting them with capacity takes time and effort, but unfortunately the discourse around air quality and pollution continues on all the wrong paths.


Ashok, Sowmiya (2017): “Amid Clamour to Save Delhi, Many Cities with Worse Air Quality Are Forgotten,” Indian Express, 10 November, viewed on 12 November 2017, http://

Bhuwania, Anuj (2016): Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coase, Ronald (1960): “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol 3, No 1, p 1.

Feltman, Rachel (2017): “Air Pollution in New Delhi Is Literally Off the Charts,” Popular Science,
9 November, viewed on 12 November 2017,

Harish, Santosh (2017): “Delhi Air Pollution Hits Hazardous Levels, but It’s Not the Capital’s Problem Alone,” Economic Times, 12 November, viewed on 12 November 2017,

Hindu (2017): “Delhi Chokes on Smog for Second Day,” 8 November, viewed on 12 November 2017, article20005615.ece.

Menon, Meena (2013): “Political Meddling Proves Toxic for Pollution Control Boards,” Hindu,
21 July, viewed on 12 November 2017,

PTI (2017): “Delhi Air Pollution: Environment Ministry Forms High-level Committee,” Press Trust of India, 9 November, viewed on 13 November 2017, https://economictimes.

Reuters (2017): “After Crores Spent in Three Years, Ganga Is Still So Dirty That PM Modi Himself Takes Charge to Clean It,” 6 April, viewed on
13 November 2017, https://www.indiatimes. com/news/india/pm-narendra-modi-himself-gets-involved-after-clean-ganga-project-fails-to-pick-up-275042.html.

Sehgal, Rashme (2017): “Delhi Pollution: Strong Implementation and Regulatory Measures Are Required to End the Calamity,” Firstpost,
11 November, viewed on 13 November 2017,

Sharma, Mukesh and Onkar Dikshit (2016): “Comprehensive Study on Air Pollution and Green House Gases (GHGs) in Delhi (Final Report: Air Pollution Component),” January, viewed on 12 November 2017,

Sharma, Shantanu Nandan (2017): “How Stubble Burning in Haryana and Punjab Is the Biggest Culprit for Poor Air Quality in Delhi,” Economic Times, 12 November, viewed on
12 November 2017,

VCLP (2017): “Cleaning Delhi’s Air: Implementation Action Plan,” Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, viewed on 12 November 2017,

Updated On : 17th Nov, 2017


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