Airing Differences? Reading the Political Narrative on Air Quality Management in India

Airing Differences? Reading the Political Narrative on Air Quality Management in India

By Santosh Harish, Mandakini Chandra, and Sahithi Uppalapati
Centre for Policy Research
26 November 2021

Air pollution exposure is a year-round, nation-wide public health crisis in India. This paper presents a careful reading of nearly eleven hours of discussions on air pollution that took place in the upper and lower Houses of Parliament in November 2019. The discussions provide unique insight into the emerging political narrative around air quality governance in India. The parliamentarians constructed an overly peak-oriented and Delhi-centric view of the problem. Contrary to the long-held scepticism of the environment ministry, parliamentarians across political parties cited global evidence on the adverse health impacts of air pollution exposure, especially on children. In addition, they drew on themes like intergenerational responsibility, equity, and Indian cultural heritage while signaling the need to act with urgency.

As the discussions were dominated by crop residue burning, the Delhi government received significant criticism for blaming farmers, and parliamentarians across the board expressed solidarity with farmers as they proposed various alternative interventions to penalties. Legislators highlighted a variety of institutional, legal, and financial opportunities to strengthen Indian air quality governance, but demonstrated relatively limited engagement with the nuances of sectoral mitigation measures. Reflecting on an issue of growing political salience in India, this paper also offers insight into significant developments and gaps in the political discourse on air pollution in the two years since these discussions, and into the present day.