A bonfire of AAP’s vanities

After years of haranguing previous governments in Punjab for creating a public health crisis in Delhi, AAP has not taken credible steps to deal with the stubble burning.

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Thursday, November 10, 2022, 09:41 AM IST
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A bonfire of AAP’s vanities | Representative Photo

In the conflict of interest between the two AAP-ruled states of Punjab and Delhi, the citizens of the capital are at the losing end. The incidence of stubble burning in Punjab has escalated under AAP rule, and the consequent deterioration in Delhi’s air quality has affected public health and disrupted education.

In effect, AAP’s ‘Delhi Model’ of good governance, with an emphasis on health and education, has been undermined by air pollution resulting from farm fires in AAP-ruled Punjab. Keeping the influential farm lobby in mind, the Punjab Government has taken a soft line on stubble-burning. But this may well compromise the party’s excellent achievements in terms of delivering health services and quality education, and put a crimp in Arvind Kejriwal’s ambitious plans.

For the coughing, sneezing, gasping citizens of Delhi,itis a salutary dose of real politik. The onus of dealing with the fallout of stubble burning falls on them. Thus, ‘old’ petrol and diesel cars must be forced off the roads. All construction activity must cease. And children must be confined indoors, in bubbles of purified air.

AAP, the great white hope of the voiceless, is beginning to look like any other party. After years of haranguing previous governments in Punjab for creating a public health crisis in Delhi, it has not taken credible steps to deal withthe problem. In fact, even as AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal took responsibility for stubble-burning in Punjab (and promised to control it next year), he sought to pass the buck to the Centre.

Just how serious are the health implications of a ‘hazardous’ or ‘severe’ AQI (Air Quality Index)? According to the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), air pollution is a ‘silent killer’. He pointed to the increased incidence of heart attacks when pollution levels are high and studies that show retarded lung capacity in Delhi’s children. Chronic respiratory diseases, hypertension, bladder cancer and a host of other ailments have been linked to air pollution. Tragically, the elderly and children are most vulnerable. In 2020 alone, one study attributed 54,000 premature deaths to bad air.

Nor has the AAP Government in Punjab made headway in tackling the state’s financial crisis, or in attracting large-scale investment (and thereby creating jobs). Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann has failed to present a credible blueprint for liberating the state economy from the debt trap. (According to economists, he has added to the state’s subsidy burden, but not to its revenue.) The debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 53%, the worst in the country.

Fears have been articulated that Punjab is headed the Sri Lanka way. Punjab was AAP’s stepping stone to replacing the Congress in major states. But it has proved to be a tough nut to crack. No sooner had Mr Mann taken over the reins from the Congress than the law-and-order situation deteriorated. The murder of rap artiste Sidhu Moosewala, days after his security was downgraded, shook the state. Then came the budget which fell far short of people’s expectations.

Against the Reserve Bank of India’s advice, freebies were introduced and no cutbacks or fresh taxes announced. Instead, Mr Mann turned to the Centre, demanding a bailout package. However, unless AAP demonstrates signs of fiscal prudence, this is unlikely to come through.

As the rabi sowing season approached, farmers began setting fields afire. It might have been expected that AAP, given its commitment to the citizens of Delhi, would have made strenuous efforts to minimize straw burning. Obviously, it had hoped that an awareness campaign, coupled with the distribution of straw-management machinery and microbial cultures to decompose the straw, would dissuade farmers from setting their fields alight. As it turned out, the farmers were not happy with either option. In terms of time and effort, a box of matches is the easier option.

While the state administration has been levying fines and red-listing some of the erring farmers,in many cases the soft approach of the government may have deterred officials from taking action. The farmers have been demanding financial incentives in exchange for not burning their fields.

The AAP Government is insisting that the Centre should bear the cost, or atleast part of it. The best possible solution to straw-burning is crop diversification so that farmers move away from paddy to other crops. It will also have the added advantage of addressing the near-critical depletion of groundwater in several districts of the state.

But again, Mr Mannis looking to the Centre for financial incentives to lure farmers away from paddy. Will the Congress and the BJP be able to leverage AAP’s failures? After ousting the grand old party in Delhi and Punjab (albeit failing to do so in Uttarakhand and Goa), AAP has set its sights on Gujarat, where it is again peddling the ‘Delhi model’ and promising freebies. Its performance in the forthcoming Assembly polls will indicate whether this is a successful strategy.

In the long run, Mr Kejriwal’s ambitious plans are contingent on a credible performance in Punjab and retaining Delhi. On both counts, he would do wellto address the ‘burning’ issue of farm fires. Otherwise,itmight well prove to be the bonfire of AAP’s vanities.

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