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Indian government confronts toxic smog by investing in air pollution public relations


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NEW DELHI — In late 2020, the leader of Delhi’s government unveiled a new tool developed by university researchers to fight the Indian capital’s notorious air pollution.

Standing before a horde of cameras, New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal held a hose and squirted a chemical spray that he said could decompose the residue of harvested crops, thus eliminating the need for farmers to burn this stubble every winter and spew toxic emissions into the air.

“This should be the last year we have to suffer this smoke,” Kejriwal declared, as the government released a slew of Facebook and YouTube videos trumpeting the spray.

More than two years on, the Delhi government, led by Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has spent about $4,300 manufacturing the spray — and $2.8 million publicizing it — according to official documents released in the city’s assembly. Meanwhile, air pollution continues to plague the Indian capital, with pollutant levels this month almost 30 times higher than the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

The spray is an example of how Indian officials have grappled with one of the most pressing problems facing northern India by introducing new pollution-fighting efforts with highly visible marketing campaigns and barely visible results.

“The bio-decomposer is not a silver bullet, [and] you don’t need a mass public awareness campaign on this,” said Aarti Khosla, director of a climate consultancy, Climate Trends. “We are living in a marketing era.”

Last year, the AAP publicized an 80-foot-tall smog tower in the center of Delhi that cost $2.3 million to build and $700,000 to advertise, according to official documents released in the city’s assembly. The tower, which consists of 40 large fans blowing air through filters, has a looming presence in central Delhi but a limited effect on air quality, according to scientific research. Nonetheless, a second one was installed in the city.

Officials in the capital have also touted other new tools to tackle air pollution, including more than 350 anti-smog guns and 521 water sprinklers, that likewise have limited efficacy, climate experts say.

With Delhi’s poor winter air giving rise to an epidemic of hacking coughs, wheezing and other respiratory ailments, political parties are under mounting pressure to take action and are resorting to superficial fixes that often fail to bring about actual change, environmentalists and political observers say.

Siddharth Singh, a policy analyst and the author of the book “The Great Smog of India,” said he began seeing advertisements about anti-air-pollution measures about three years ago, with bio-decomposers among the first examples. He saw the AAP, which has governed Delhi since 2015, start placing pollution at the center of its election manifestos in 2019, he said. While Singh said the bio-decomposer is theoretically useful, he doesn’t anticipate a substantial impact on air quality.

“It’s like trying to sell a drop of water to someone in the desert,” said Singh, who also criticized the massive smog towers as wasteful. “They are forced to do these gimmicks because there is no overarching effort to address the problem. They need to seem to be doing something because clearly people are angry.”

Reena Gupta, an adviser to New Delhi’s environment minister and the AAP’s think tank, said the government has not been responding to voter pressure, which she called minimal. In the case of the bio-decomposer, she argued, the government needed to spend money to educate farmers about the usefulness of the new spray.

“We are trying to create that awareness in our constituencies that we are environmentally conscious and we are working for you,” Gupta said in an interview. “Advertising is the only way to tell the people what we are doing.”

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The AAP is not alone. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls the national government and has competed against the AAP in recent elections, has also sought to embellish its pollution-fighting credentials with dubious methods, according to examples provided by experts and consultants who have worked with the government in various capacities.

In one instance last year, officials in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state, governed by the BJP, ordered maintenance companies to relocate two air pollution monitoring devices to less-polluted parts of its cities, said two people knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging relationships with the government.

“Moving sensors and not being able to target the really large sources [of pollution] — you are just doing cosmetic stuff,” said one of the people, a consultant whose team worked on Uttar Pradesh’s pollution strategy.

Local officers with the state’s pollution control boards confirmed that monitors were moved in 2022 but gave differing explanations. Vijay, a regional officer in Baghpat district who only goes by a first name, said the move was because of insufficient electricity. Vikas Mishra, the regional officer for Moradabad district, said a monitor was moved because a new development in that area had its own monitors.

Experts say the country’s air pollution can only be addressed effectively if it is tackled across a vast area of ​​northern India known as the Gangetic plain, but it is governed by different parties and governments that do not cooperate. Every year, BJP leaders criticize the AAP for failing to bring down skyrocketing air particle readings, while the AAP has countered that national officials have blocked its measures and provided no solutions in the states that the BJP controls.

After the AAP banned Delhi residents from celebrating the Diwali holiday with firecrackers, the BJP accused the AAP last year of being “anti-Hindu.” The AAP retorted that it was focused on saving lives.

Policy experts say the appearance of action, rather than action itself, is often what gets votes.

In 2016, India’s Health Ministry introduced a program to distribute free gas cylinders to the poor in an effort to phase out open-air stoves, which release noxious fumes. But officials in charge didn’t ensure that the users could afford refills, according to a researcher who worked with the program and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging relationships with the government.

“For those of us in this field, that was the single biggest air pollution mitigation and health improvement scheme that had been launched till date,” the researcher said. “But the performative aspect of it came out. … And for votes, it worked. But you have all these empty cylinders lying there.”

The Petroleum Ministry disputed the claim at the time, saying there was a high volume of refill purchases. Since then, the government has announced a subsidy.

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Bhargav Krishna, an air quality expert in Delhi, said the problem may be the government’s capacity to carry out programs rather than malicious intent. He applauded the significant funds that are now being allocated to tackle air pollution.

Ultimately, researchers say, any discussion about the air crisis is better than no discussion at all. “If an issue is not politicized, it will die a slow death,” said Singh, the policy analyst and author. “If you want something to remain in public consciousness, you want politicians to be saying stupid things about it, which includes frivolous ads.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.


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