Written by Kavita N. Soreide.

In November this year, Delhi earned the unenviable position of having the most polluted air on earth. This put the city’s 19 million plus population at a direct health hazard, bringing massive national and international attention to the issue. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal likened the situation to living in a ‘gas chamber’ and his government declared a health emergency. The National Human Rights Commission critiqued the inadequacy of authorities to take preventive measures throughout the years as an impingement on people’s right to life and health.

The desperate struggle of ‘Delhi’s right to breathe’ is a short-term problem as the weather phenomenon of fog during winters mixes with pre-existing smoke and pollution to envelop the city in a blanket of deadly smog. While the acute problem lasts only for a few days or weeks, it is symptomatic of long standing challenges of environmental governance in India. These challenges emanate from policy-governance, geographical-climatic and economic-political trajectories in India’s task of managing her environment.

The problem of air pollution in Delhi is symbolic of the nightmares of an urban-centric notion of environmental catastrophe. With no fresh air left to breathe, the divide between the city’s rich and poor has shrunk. The ‘buy-out’ solutions possible in cases of other natural resources such as water and land, are not present in any effective way in case of air.

First of all, it is a weather condition with a larger geographical spread over the entire north Indian subcontinent. This makes the task of policy legislation and implementation short termed, ad-hoc as well as multi-layered in geographical terms. Second, it is a problem which points to a gap in the country’s management of its common resources such as air and water – entrenched in Indian political dynamics. Third, it is an issue of how a developmental state manages its natural resources while dialoguing with the judicial interventions around the environmental challenges. Delhi’s problem with its natural resource of air is an atypical example of upturned equations between the usual economic benefactors and environmental losers on the course of development. Fourth, this is also part of a larger challenge of urban city planning and management. Possible solutions lie in governmental action but also at the cusp of cooperation between the state and the civil society.

One would expect the authorities to be better prepared to handle what has now become an annual weather crisis for Delhi. Unfortunately, environmental governance with its focus on ‘regulation and enforcement mechanisms’ is ad hoc and fragmented. There is no country-wide uniformity in environmental legislation due to the lack of constitutional provisions of such nature. Broadly speaking, the Union (federal) state legally owns the natural resources of the country on behalf of its people, and the task of environmental management is divided between different layers of the Union and Provincial governments. Therefore, jurisdictional clashes between provinces as well as between provincial and federal governments exacerbate the problems. Delhi’s poor air quality is caused by the city’s traffic exhaust, construction activities and wood burning. But at this time of the year, it gets worse as the neighbouring agriculture states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh burn crop stubble to prepare for next season of sowing. The multiplicity of governance jurisdictions complicates policy coherence.

There is also a backdrop of political equations and electoral politics. The ruling political party in Delhi, the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) rise to power was rooted in a popular, largely urban, anti-corruption movement. It symbolised a middle class urban uprising of sorts in the capital that defeated the long-standing national parties in Delhi – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress. The failure of this government’s mandate for ‘clean governance’ is a symbolic contrast to the electorate’s ethos of a pollution free, clean-green governance.  Federal alignments further exacerbate the governance problems. The BJP federal government is headquartered in New Delhi and is ruling Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, yet the ‘air quality troubles’ of Delhi seem to be a political headache exclusively for Delhi government. The BJP may hope to turn this into an Achilles heel for the AAP in the forthcoming Delhi elections. In the surrounding states, farmers constitute the core vote bank for all major parties, hence a reluctance by the political parties that run these governments to implement punitive measures. Despite being a governance issue, the crisis is highly politicised and is being fought out between the chief ministers on Twitter.

There is a certain ‘hierarchy of rights’ which exists in the discourse on judicial interventions when it comes to environmental challenges to the goals of development.  The judicial interventions through the National Green Tribunal or Supreme Court are more pro-active when it comes to city-centric environmental rights such as in the case of Delhi’s air pollution. The National Green Tribunal banned construction and industrial activities and entry of diesel trucks in Delhi, urged state governments to cease crop stubble burning and re-approved an odd-even formula for automobiles to control traffic. In order to pre-empt the pollution problem, the Supreme Court banned the sale of fire crackers during Diwali. Though such interventions have been criticised for the inconveniences they cause given their marginal results; we see that relatively speaking, the environmental rights of ‘peripheral communities’ such as the Adivasis are not prioritised over the prerogatives of development as city populations are.

The problem of air pollution in Delhi is symbolic of the nightmares of an urban-centric notion of environmental catastrophe. With no fresh air left to breathe, the divide between the city’s rich and poor has shrunk. The ‘buy-out’ solutions possible in cases of other natural resources such as water and land, are not present in any effective way in the case of air. At the same time, Delhi’s example encapsulates the problems of urban centres of the rising South in the world’s imagery. The scale of the problem calls for innovative methods of cooperation between the state and civil society. For example, the technology for pelletizing crop stubble to be used for power generation is one possible solution whose minimal extra cost could be partly borne by the private sector as part of their corporate social responsibility paradigm.

To conclude, the problem of air pollution in Delhi highlights the disputes between administrative levels, political and economic interests and the urban-rural, centre-state sensibilities. Unfortunately, the national and regional politics in India has so far not yielded a comprehensive environmental paradigm — unlike neighbouring China’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ – and remains deeply divided along populistic electoral lines. Though the problem has brought divides to the fore, its pervasive effects suggest potential to unite factions across the political spectrum.

Kavita N. Soreide is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre on Law and Social Transformation at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. Her current research focuses on environmental law and land rights in India’s asymmetric federal system. Dr. Soreide holds a PhD in Federal Coalition Politics of India from the University of Delhi. She previously worked as a private consultant for UNICEF Pulse Polio India Program and for Path Finder International’s Sexual Health of Adolescent in the Urban Slums of Delhi project. Dr. Soreide can be reached at knavlani@gmail.com. Image credit: CC by Ville Miettinen/Flickr.


  1. Well researched and delivered. Some solutions to be worked out. Some practical, daily solutions and other policy intensive. Hope the message goes to the listening ears.

  2. A well researched article which covers all related aspects. The suggestion for civil and state cooperation is practical as well as desirable.

  3. A very crisp and clear article on Delhi pollution. All key points aptly covered. Contained sound and practical advice. Looking forward to reading your next informative work.

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