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If you step out, you can smell smoke in the air: Professor Aseem Prakash on Delhi’s pollution crisis

Burning of crops in southeast Punjab – a major driver of northern India’s pollution crisis including in Delhi. Image credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]
India is in the midst of a pollution crisis, with air quality plummeting to emergency levels in the national capital of Delhi. Against this backdrop, Health Issues India interviewed Professor Aseem Prakash – Professor of Political Science, the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Politics – on the crisis, how it intersects with Indian politics, and the importance of action. 

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

  • Delhi has been called the pollution capital of the world. What are the main factors contributing to its air quality crisis?

I think there are several factors and there is a lot of research on what specific factors at different times of the year contribute to Delhi’s pollution. The largest source of pollution in Delhi is construction plus road dust. In Delhi, there’s a construction boom going on as well as mining in neighboring areas. There are also regular sources like burning of biomass and I’ve been talking about the issue of crop burning we’ve been having. In late October to November, there is pollution from the burning of paddy stubble in Punjab and also to some extent in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. We really have to talk about specific months and their link to different contributors to Delhi’s pollution. 

  • How would you rate pollution in terms of the threat it poses to public health in Delhi?

There are several studies by public health professionals and organisations including the WHO [World Health Organization]. The incidence of respiratory disease in Delhi has skyrocketed. They are particularly afflicting children and other sensitive age groups, so it’s really very serious. I am surprised whenever I am in Delhi and talk to people I know and find how many children have asthma and other respiratory problems. This is a very serious health problem. People learn to live with it but it does become a part of the conversation in Delhi, especially when the pollution is really visible. That typically starts in October. Then in December and January there is a huge smog, not because of crop burning but influenced by low temperatures. Delhi becomes very unpleasant in terms of visibility. If you step out, you can smell smoke in the air. 

Delhi's air quality continues to plummet: Article source
Air pollution in Delhi. Image credit: Sumita Roy Dutta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
  • To what extent do you believe pollution to be fuelling India’s NCD crisis, considering mounting scientific evidence for the links of pollution to not only lung disease but other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease?

I’m not a public health person but I’m not certain what proportion of noncommunicable disease is caused by air pollution. Different parts of India have different problems, arsenic, water pollution. Air pollution is a very important source of disease as any public health professional would tell you, also other factors such as obesity due to poor eating habits and lifestyle choices. In some parts of India, there is a huge arsenic problem because the arsenic levels in the soil is very high. So different parts of India have different problems. One thing’s for sure: as public health people tell us, when it comes to respiratory diseases – and to some extent heart diseases – air pollution is a very important source 

  • Is pollution underserved in political discourse in India? 

Absolutely. This is one of the important takeaways of Indian politics. Even when it came to the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, climate change was barely touched. The focus of the people and the focus of the electoral discourse is on jobs – that’s the number one concern. The second is national security. These are the issues that people care about and respond to. Urban pollution and climate change, in general, are not viewed as important issues in electoral politics. Maybe some noise is being made now in metropolitan cities like Delhi because they are seeing very intense pollution: suddenly the political and media salience of air pollution has risen but elections are not fought on pollution. They will be fought on bread and butter issues, on electricity prices, on this cost, on that cost, and so forth. 

  • In your view, how effective has the response of both the Delhi government and the Government of India been to pollution in the National Capital Region?

I think there have been several steps that have been taken over the last thirty years. India does not have an America-type Clean Air Act. In the 1980s, an environmentalist by the name of M.C. Mehta sued the Union Government as a Public Interest Litigant for enforcing pollution laws. The lawsuit dragged on but, eventually, the Supreme Court in the 1990s ordered that diesel buses and trucks had to be phased out in Delhi. Starting in the early 2000s, Delhi buses converted to compressed natural gasoline (CNG). There was a drastic reduction in pollution caused by road transportation. At the same time, Delhi also built a metro system which took some of the load off the road transportation system. But very quickly these gains were eradicated because of India’s economic boom and a lot of people, when they have more money, want to buy a car. If you were to visit Delhi now, you would be absolutely stunned by the traffic jams and the chaos on the roads because road construction has not kept up pace with the number of cars.

The bottom line is given the focus on economic growth, the desire to own cars, the lack of appropriate public transportation, air pollution has become unbearable. Air pollution is only part of the pollution story and a lot of problems including water pollution. Actually, this corresponds to most parts of India. In most middle-class houses, in most restaurants, you don’t drink tap water. You drink bottled water. And this imposes a cost on poor people because when you can turn on a faucet and get water, water is very cheap. Water’s almost free. But when you turn on your faucet, and you don’t get water or you get terrible water so you have to boil it or you need to buy bottled water. This disproportionately affects the poorer sections of society. Clean water and clean air are not elite goods. They are goods the common person and the underprivileged person ought to be given access to, but as I said, in the politics of India and the politics in most of the world, pollution and environmental protection are not on top of the agenda. In India, it is economic growth or development. It is jobs. It is national security. That is the big debate these days. People might talk about pollution here and there, especially in big cities. But apart from that, it’s not an issue. 

Crop burning in the fields of southeast Punjab. Image credit: Neil Palmer (“CIAT) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
  • You have spoken at length about the contribution to pollution by the practice of crop burning in neighbouring states, especially Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. The practice has been the subject of much controversy. Are the state governments in question and the Government of India doing enough to crack down on crop burning and enforce regulations concerning the same?

It is almost impossible to crack down on crop burning, for a variety of reasons. First, crop burning is very widespread in the state of Punjab and to some extent in Haryana and Punjab. It’s almost impossible to send a military to make sure farmers don’t burn it. Second, the Punjab region is predominantly Sikh and India has had separatist problems which were very violent in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t think any politician in India would like to reignite that problem. Given the politics and the political demographics of the area, a strong-armed tactic would not work. What we have said is that incentives can work. Farmers resort to burning because of political and economic compulsion. They have harvested the rice crop and want to plant the wheat crop, but the duration between the two has become shorter because of a law the state of Punjab enacted in 2009 to preserve groundwater because groundwater was falling. What they did is say that you can only start transplanting paddy not in mid-April but only in early June. That is when the monsoon hits so groundwater is less affected. So the harvest date was moved to further in October and they have to clear the fields to plant wheat in November. Ideally speaking, the farmers would use labour or a machine. Labour has become very expensive during the peak season and machines are something they cannot afford, particularly because the majority of the farmers in Punjab are quite small-scale. What they do, thinking economically, is to burn it [the stubble]. 

So what is the solution? The solution is that the Government of India and, we have made the case to industry and a few international organisations as well, that farmers have access to subsidised machines. And the state of Punjab already has a strong corporatist system for the import of fertilisers, pesticides which are distributed. So we can turn to the corporate system and obtain machines which can remove the stubble quickly or not even remove it. There is something called the ‘happy seeder’ which can actually plant the wheat without moving the stubble because it can get through the stubble. We need to give financial incentives and make it economically viable for farmers to use the machines to take care of the stubble problem, as opposed to burning it. The idea is for the governments to get their act together and for this to become a national priority, because this is a national problem, not a regional problem. They [the state and national governments] need to say we will incentivise, we will distribute and we will take care of the stubble problem. Punjab and Haryana are the breadbaskets of India. These are the regions which have allowed India to become a food surplus country, so their contribution to the national economy and to national food security is immense. We have to see the problem and address it in a way that does not cause unnecessary tension. It is a solvable issue. We have the machines. We have the technology. We just have to get the politics and the economics straight. 

  • To return to Delhi, are strategies such as the odd-even scheme imposed by the Delhi government until November 15th an effective means of tackling pollution?

I’ve written on this. Odd-even doesn’t do much and again there is a lot of research suggesting that its contribution to pollution reduction is not much, plus there are a lot of exemptions. The scheme is political propaganda. The Delhi Chief Minister wants to be seen to be doing something about pollution so he resorts to the odd-even scheme, The odd-even rule is making little sustained difference to Delhi’s pollution problem. It’s actually causing hardship.

This is politics of posturing. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is no exception to this rule, everyone does this. But odd-even isn’t getting to the root of Delhi’s problem. Delhi’s problem is transportation infrastructure. So you don’t say you can’t drive. The idea is you supply people with infrastructure. The Chief Minister is spending big, big amounts on advertisements about himself, instead of if that money went into something productive. Resources should go into solving the problem, not propaganda.

Congestion in Delhi.
  • What advice would you give to Delhiites and denizens of other heavily polluted cities in India to safeguard themselves from the effects of pollution?

There are several things that need to be done. The problems of Delhi are not unique to Delhi, they are urban problems seen across Indian cities and across the world. Urban areas have expanded to levels that they are not sustainable. There are few jobs in rural areas, so people flock to urban areas where there are opportunities. As a long-term strategy, the Government should think about counter-magnets which create prosperity in rural areas. Think of Germany. If you see the size of cities in Germany, they are really small. There are a couple of cities with more than one million population but see Frankfurt, the big airline hub, its population is below a million. For cities in India, one million is nothing. My guess is that there are about fifty cities in India with more than one million people as opposed to four or five in Germany. It is important to decentralise economic activity so people do not have to flock to cities. 

Second, we have to make sure that issues that contribute to pollution – transportation, cooking and burning – are taken care of. There has to be a massive investment in public transportation, which the Government is doing. The metro system was initially started in Calcutta and then it came to Delhi. It is now being introduced in several cities in India. But it has to be done on a much larger scale so people don’t feel the need to have a private vehicle and can rely on public transportation. 

A lot of pollution takes place because people have to burn biomass for their cooking needs and even for their heating needs. There has to be a massive process of electrification where people are weaned from using biomass for their daily needs. There has to be a big push for infrastructure development, so that the problems of pollution are countered by giving people alternatives. Strong-arm tactics will not work for a country of India’s size. I think it’s a very massive issue and I don’t think it will be done in a jiffy, but slowly India will need to move towards a path towards a lower reliance on fossil fuel (power plants continue to grow) and increased electrification and availability of public transportation. 

  • What is your message to policymakers and other stakeholders on the importance of acting on pollution?

Pollution is not a technical problem. It is a political and social problem. It reflects a failure of governance. The good news is that it is a problem that we can solve. The technology is there. We have the science. We have the get the politics right. 


Professor Aseem Prakash is a member of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Environmental Change and Society and International Research Fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation, University of Oxford. Among his recent awards include International  Studies Association, International Political Economy Section’s 2019 Distinguished Scholar Award that recognizes “outstanding senior scholars whose influence and path-breaking intellectual work will continue to impact the field for years to come,” International Studies Association’s 2018 James N. Rosenau Award for “scholar who has made the most important contributions to globalization studies” and the European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on Regulatory Governance’s 2018 Regulatory Studies Development Award that recognizes a senior scholar who has made notable “contributions to the field of regulatory governance.”

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