Green vote needed to curb pollution

Green vote needed to curb pollution

Given Punjab’s acute financial crisis, which has worsened under the AAP government, it may not be able to emulate Haryana’s carrot-and-stick policy

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Thursday, November 23, 2023, 07:17 PM IST
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Stubble burning is seen in a field of Karnal on October 22, 2023. | ANI

On Delhi’s 32nd consecutive day of ‘poor’ to ‘severe’ air quality, the Punjab government was cornered in the Supreme Court over its failure to control field-burning, which is the single greatest contributor to atmospheric pollution in the National Capital Region. The apex court’s suggestion that Punjab should “take a cue from the state of Haryana” was a bit of a slap in the face for the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Haryana’s success in reducing farm fires (by more than a third) in 2023 has thrown Punjab’s failure into high relief. AAP’s pass-the-buck-to-the-centre approach cut no ice with the apex court, which wanted to know why it couldn’t follow the same approach as Haryana.

AAP doesn’t seem particularly fussed about the air quality issue, although there is an obvious conflict of interest between its governments in Punjab and Delhi in this respect. Punjab farmers set fire to their fields and Delhi chokes. Will this instance of shoddy governance impact AAP’s electoral prospects?

For political parties, environment is a concern only when the judiciary gets involved. Indeed, much of policy around environmental pollution has been driven by the courts and not by the legislatures. Political considerations take priority over environmental ones. As far as politicians are concerned, as long as voters don’t seem to care about the air they breathe, the issue can take a back seat.

However, air pollution can become a political problem for AAP. When an issue arises because of the perceived failure by one political party, other parties are likely to take it up and make it part of their electoral campaigns. That’s exactly what the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are now doing. The apex court’s observations on Punjab have become fodder for its rivals.

It was in 2020, ahead of the Delhi assembly elections, that air pollution made it to electoral manifestoes for the first time. Every party promised to tackle the NCR’s persistent pollution problem. The Congress, which was in power in Punjab, said it would coordinate with Delhi and Haryana to curb field-burning. AAP, too, promised to address the issue and squarely put the blame on Punjab and Haryana.

Now that it is in power in Punjab and has shown far less progress in curbing farm fires than Haryana, it needs another scapegoat. So, it has shifted the onus to Uttar Pradesh and held Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath to account for construction activities throwing up dust on the UP side of the border!

Given Punjab’s acute financial crisis, which has worsened under the AAP government, it may not be able to emulate Haryana’s carrot-and-stick policy. Haryana gives cash incentives to farmers for using crop residue management machines and environment-friendly farming methods. It has also done better in terms of enforcement measures. But then Haryana, although it is much smaller, collects four times the GST that Punjab does. Cash-strapped Punjab wants the Centre to fund incentives to farmers and dare not adopt strict enforcement measures for fear of annoying its votebase among the farmers.

The fact is that ‘aaj ka AQI’ and ‘kal ka SPM level’ have entered the aam aadmi’s vocabulary. Granted, it is currently a localised problem and therefore does not figure in national elections. But in the last two years, several cities including Mumbai have had their share of air quality problems. And it can only get worse.

According to a study by a German think-tank, the IZA Institute of Labour Economics, air quality may have a direct impact on voting behaviour. A 2021 research paper titled ‘Air Pollution Affects Decision-Making: Evidence from the Ballot Box’ co-relates air pollution to electoral outcomes and suggests that poor air quality on voting day negatively impacted the incumbent party and benefited the opposition. It found that an increase in SPM 10 reduced the ruling party’s voteshare by 2 per cent and boosted that of the opposition by 2.8 per cent.

Air pollution does have psychological effects, a slew of studies show. These include impaired cognitive functioning, higher levels of anxiety, anger and aggressive behaviour as well as poor information-processing and decision-making. But the link between environmental factors and electoral politics is poorly understood.

Even so, AAP would do well to consider the apex court’s suggestions to curb rice cultivation, deny minimum support price (MSP) to farmers who burn crop residue and provide straw management facilities to poor farmers free of cost. These proposals have been reiterated time and time again, and ignored.

The Supreme Court also said that the ‘state and the union’ have to set aside political differences and work together to find a solution. A first step might be a massive awareness drive, not just among farmers, but among citizens. Environmental problems have to be framed in more personal terms. Few citizens know that when the air quality index turns ‘severe’, the health of even the fittest is at serious risk. Ultimately, only a ‘green vote’ will force political parties to sit up and take notice, and induce governments to act.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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