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Delhi’s air pollution is a failure of democratic governance

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A farmer burns paddy waste stubble in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, 6 November 6 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave).

In Brief

The world is becoming increasingly urbanised, with half its population now residing in urban areas. Agglomeration economies incentivise firms to locate in urban areas while the urban–rural wealth gap, coupled with the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas, leads villagers to flock to cities.


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There is much to celebrate about urbanisation but the continued and almost unchecked pace of urbanisation poses serious policy challenges. One major challenge is air pollution. Urban living is energy-intensive, with vehicular pollution generally the key contributing factor to poor urban air quality.

Air pollution problems are a governance failure, reflecting the inability of a city’s transportation infrastructure to keep pace with its growing population. But winds also carry air pollution from sources outside a city’s administrative control. So, urban air pollution not only reflects a city-level governance failure, but also failure at the national and international levels.

India hosts nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world, with its capital Delhi ranking sixth. Delhi’s air pollution reflects both internal and regional governance failures. The major sources of PM2.5 air pollution in Delhi are vehicles and industry, open waste burning and road dust. Authorities have sought to curb vehicular pollution with the development of the Delhi Metro and the adoption of fuel standards on par with Euro VI emission standards.

Yet vehicular pollution is worsening due to the increasing population that relies on personal vehicles. Delhi’s government has discouraged vehicle use by introducing the odd–even road rationing scheme where cars are designated certain days to drive depending on license plate. But such policies have been ineffective against pollution. One reason is that the rule exempts female drivers and two-wheelers, with the latter accounting for the majority of vehicles. These symbolic half-steps reflect an absence of political will to address pollution issues seriously.

Delhi is also experiencing a construction boom that has increased air pollution as the government seldom enforces dust control regulations. 

Landfill fires also contribute to the pollution problem because the build-up of methane generates toxic fumes.

Transboundary pollution also deteriorates Delhi’s air quality. One of the biggest sources of air pollution is paddy stubble burning in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Punjab and Haryana are India’s breadbaskets and have played key roles in India’s Green Revolution.

From the 1970s, Indian farmers adopted Green Revolution technologies, transforming India’s chronic food shortage into a food surplus. Farmers’ methods are geared towards generating high returns from their land. It is economically disadvantageous for farmers to keep their land fallow to regenerate so Punjab farmers plant both a monsoon and winter crop.

This two-crop strategy worked well for some time. But the Green Revolution created a strong farming lobby that complained about the high cost of production, demanding the government subsidise electricity to operate water pumps.

The provision of cheap electricity incentivised farmers to use high-powered water pumps to extract groundwater for irrigation — a highly unsustainable practice. In 2009, the Punjab government enacted the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act with the objective of ensuring that farmers use the monsoon rains for irrigation by restricting the time of sowing and transplanting saplings.

There is some evidence that the law has generated positive effects, but there was also an unintended effect. After harvesting the paddy crop, farmers needed to prepare the same fields to plant the winter crop. But the law considerably reduced the time available for this preparation. Stubble clearing is challenging because farmers cannot afford to purchase harvesting machines or employ seasonal labour. To clear the post-harvest stubble quickly, farmers rely on a quick and inexpensive method: burning. Paddy harvesting in October–November means that post-monsoon winds carry soot and smoke from Punjab to Delhi, causing Delhi’s air quality to deteriorate severely.

India is generally a well-functioning democracy where citizens can be expected to demand clean air. It is confounding that Delhi’s air pollution problem persists despite its democratic institutions and affluence. India has laws against stubble burning and the Supreme Court has summoned the top administrators of various states to devise an action plan. But even then, the government is unwilling to enforce anti-burning laws.

In Punjab and Haryana, a vibrant democracy leads to intense political competition. But this means that no political party is willing to support the crop burning ban because it will antagonise the farming lobby.

Religion also complicates politics. The majority of farmers in Punjab are Sikh and between the 1980s–90s, this region experienced massive violence against Sikhs following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard. Governments realise that enforcing a burning ban could quickly turn into a sectarian issue.

Most groups agree that stubble burning should stop and that the central government should subsidise farming machinery that present farmers with alternatives to burning. Although farmers can’t afford to buy machines individually, they can buy them collectively through farmer cooperatives. Policy should be focussed on the provision of government funds so that cooperatives can purchase machinery. The private sector could also contribute by using companies’ mandated corporate social responsibility funds to ‘adopt’ villages to support cooperatives in their purchase of machinery.

Financial incentives are probably the most politically viable way to solve India’s stubble burning problem. More investment in public transportation is required so that urban residents reduce their reliance on personal vehicles. Governments must also ensure that cities do not become islands of prosperity, creating conflict with the less prosperous rural areas. If regional problems require cooperative solutions, a large wealth gap undermines such efforts.

Aseem Prakash is Walker Family Professor and the Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Politics, the University of Washington, Seattle. Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor of Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, the University of Washington, Seattle. This article is drawn from a longer piece that originally appeared here on Global Asia.

One response to “Delhi’s air pollution is a failure of democratic governance”

  1. The author needs to refresh his school maths.

    A car with 1500 CC engine uses the air required by over a thousand people for one hour. Cars create non-exhaust PM 2.5 equivalent to tailpipe exhaust due to the high weight. The same for the two wheelers are less than one tenth. This, apart from the thermal load. Even at signals, car windows are rolled up to run the AC.

    Even after smoking ban was imposed in Delhi over five years ago, non-smokers form 50 per cent of lung cancer patients.

    Now with Covid, cars with their enclosed spaces, will help spread infections faster. No car driver can know or ask if the person boarding has Covid. The next person to board the vehicle will get infected.

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