Why is Delhi a Gas Chamber? The Answer Lies in 1980s, Not in Stubble Burning

Delhi’s struggles with pollution can be traced back to the Asiad Games of 1982 when the capital saw large-scale construction and influx of people from other north Indian states.

Delhi has turned into a gas chamber, and not for the first time. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who initially was using public funds taking credit for ‘clean air’ in the national capital, is now blaming the CMs of neighbouring states.

The blame-game script has come as tailor-made for TV channels, who are now contributing to noise pollution with debates on pollution.

Delhi turning into a gas chamber at least twice a year, given the two cropping seasons, is a reflection on governance deficit. This deficit is not just attributable to the present Delhi government or the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, but to almost all governments of the past in Delhi or at Raisina Hills. Frustratingly, however, the present governments have, like the past few years, turned a crisis into an event for political management.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was almost on target when he wrote to the Prime Minister saying, “How can a country be called developed when its capital city has been reduced to a gas chamber, not by any natural disaster but a series of man-made ones?”

If this was not enough, visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Whoever looked at pollution in Delhi would find very good arguments to replace diesel buses with electric buses.”

One doesn’t know if anybody in the government cared to point out to Merkel that buses operating in Delhi were CNG-fuelled and that the problem lies somewhere else.

People have gone to court to arrest this deficit in governance, to which the court had said that it “was aware of serious governance problem faced by Delhi people because of the constant fight between the Centre and Delhi government”. If this was not enough, Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari has gone hammer and tongs against anti-pollution crusader Bhure Lal, who heads the committee constituted by the apex court.

Why is Delhi a gas chamber? Agreed farm fires are, at times, to blame for 40% of the pollution, but what are the other sources of pollution? To find an answer we would have to travel back in time to the 1980s. Between 1947 and 1980, Delhi’s development was mostly propelled by the need to settle the refugees who came from Pakistan after Partition. Thus, the periphery of Delhi was mainly marked by the Ring Road. There existed the concept of rural Delhi lying in the outer areas and the trans-Yamuna.

The organisation of Asian Games in 1982 heralded a new era of construction in the national capital, which had been lying dormant for the past few decades. The building of stadiums and flyovers, the Games village and hotels, saw Delhi expand beyond Ring Road.

The Asiad spurred economic activity which attracted people from all over, especially the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where economic and social decay had set in. The closure of factories in Left-ruled Bengal, saw them shift to the national capital, both in industrial estates and outside them.

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which functions directly under the central government with the Lieutenant Governor as its chairman, did not anticipate such explosion of worker population and was, thus, not prepared to accommodate them in the city. It did not have a plan in place; thus, the people found a way out — unauthorised colonies.

The building of these colonies had, in fact, started earlier but gained in momentum 1980s onward. Today, Delhi has 1,797 such colonies, not to forget that a large number of such settlements have already been legalised in the past, the last being in 1993. The government has now announced regularisation of such colonies.

In midst of this, no one in the government bothered about the deteriorating environment, leading to Supreme Court intervention in the MC Mehta case. The judgment was followed by setting up anti-pollution protocols in the city, but they have seldom been raised in time to meet the challenges of ever increasing pollution.

The rise of these colonies had political, economic, social and, not to forget, environmental issues related to it. First, the political expediency. With such population residing in these colonies, they could not be ignored and they became political meadows for leaders seeking electoral harvest.

Socially, it created a lot of tension between the landowners and tenants/plot buyers, given the exploitation inherent in the relationship. With time the tenants/plot buyers started to assert themselves both politically and socially, and given their numbers, they also had the politicians eating out of their hands.

The urbans planners, who made the Master Plans, and courts, that pressed for its implementation, had their cause woefully defeated when Members of Parliament and MLAs were given local area development funds. This money was largely deployed in these colonies and not in settlements raised by the DDA. Such unplanned and ad hoc development put such pressure on the civic services that Delhi today is bursting at the seams. Just look up the cops-lawyers brawl at Tis Hazari Court over a parking lot.

The Centre is proposing to bring a bill in the winter session of Parliament on regularising colonies. Will this document, which would become an Act subsequently, take note of the environmental hazard which the unplanned development of the city has caused? Or will it just remain a document to allow people to raise loans from banks against their assets in illegal colonies to add more cement and mortar to the dust bowl called Delhi.

The Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee had submitted a report in July 2019 saying regularisation of unauthorised colonies would put a strain on the existing infrastructure. The Narendra Modi government, given the needs of electoral sustenance, has decided to ignore this report.

Similar desires of political returns have made the Arvind Kejriwal government support the move, calling it his own idea. If it were so, why does he then make a song and dance about farm fires leading to pollution?

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