24 FEBRUARY 2016
Budget Session 2016: Keeping it parliamentary
Parliament’s Budget session opened on Tuesday against a turbulent backdrop of unrest on university campuses, the Jat agitation in Haryana, an agrarian crisis, terrorist strikes and attacks on freedoms. In a bid, therefore, to blunt an anticipated attack by the Opposition, the Modi government has adopted a strategy to confront its critics directly by making the JNU “sedition” controversy the centrepiece of this session. MPs from the Bharatiya Janata Party, rather than those from the Opposition, have already given notice for a discussion on the subject ahead of the presentation of the Union Budget. By presenting itself as the flag-bearer of nationalism, the BJP believes it will be able to seize the advantage from the Opposition while detracting attention from economic and governance issues. Already, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are building public opinion for the “nationalist” cause through various programmes, including vigilante activity by RSS sympathisers. In presenting the majority community as being under siege, the BJP and the Parivar have shifted the discourse to anxiety about the country being threatened by “anti-national” elements.
President Pranab Mukherjee’s customary address to Parliament has, in fact, set the tone. It ended with a reference to Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the many heroes of the freedom struggle whom the BJP has appropriated as an icon, and quoted him as saying, “Nationalism is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race.” The President also impressed on MPs that the “democratic temper calls for debate and discussion, and not disruption or obstruction”. For his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed the hope that Parliament would be utilised for “constructive debates”. The opening days of the Budget session traditionally leave little space for the Opposition. The sittings in the session’s first half, in any case, will be dominated by the President’s Address and the debate on it, the introduction of and discussion on the Union and Railway budgets and private members’ business. The government has also prioritised the passage of the Enemy Property (Amendment & Validation) Bill to replace an ordinance, and the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill that provides for delimitation of constituencies in West Bengal following the exchange of territories with Bangladesh. By proposing a discussion on Rohith Vemula and the JNU crisis, the BJP has further eroded space for the Opposition to seize the initiative. With elections to five Assemblies expected to be notified soon, the debate will obviously be framed in a surcharged context and political parties will be especially keen to play to the gallery. Indeed, given that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is not bound by lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha in getting money bills passed, the government may be tempted to resist the parliamentary etiquette of letting the Opposition shape the session. This would be a mistake. The government has not yet completed its second year in office, but Parliament is already stuck in deadlock. Unyielding postures during this session on either side could stall all forward movement.
Clean air agenda for the cities
Air quality has a strong bearing on India’s ability to sustain high economic growth, but national policy has treated the issue with scant importance. This is evident even from the meagre data on pollution for a handful of cities generated by the ambient air quality measurement programme. A new report from Greenpeace, based on NASA’s satellite data, indicates that people living in some parts of India are at greater risk for health problems linked to deteriorating air quality than those living in China. The measurements for Aerosol Optical Depth, which have been used to assess the level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that gets lodged deep in the lungs, point to a worsening of air quality in India in the 10-year period from 2005, particularly for States along the Punjab to West Bengal corridor, compared to China’s eastern industrial belt. This finding matches the Air Quality Index data for cities monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board. Quite simply, pursuing business as usual is not tenable, and the Centre has to act to enforce control mechanisms that will make the air safe to breathe. This has to begin with a more comprehensive system of real-time data collection, expanding the coverage from the present 23 cities (not all of which provide full or regular information) to all agglomerations with a significant population and economic activity, and within a given time frame. Putting the data in the public domain in an open format will enable multiple channels of dissemination, including apps created by the community for mobile devices, and build pressure on both policymakers and polluters.
High levels of particulate matter in cities arise from construction and demolition activity, burning of coal in thermal plants, as also biomass, and from the widespread use of diesel vehicles, among other sources. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has six-year-old data that attribute about 23 per cent of particulates to construction activity in six cities studied, and another 20 per cent to diesel vehicles. The onus of curbing pollution from these sources is on the States, and evidently they are not taking their responsibility seriously. Greater transparency in data dissemination and public awareness hold the key to change. Technological solutions to contain construction dust are equally critical, as is the low-cost solution of covering all urban surfaces with either greenery or paving. Widespread burning of biomass for cooking can be avoided if the government encourages innovation in solar cookers. Cheap, clean-burning stoves can have a dramatic effect as well. The transformation of cities through good public transport and incentives for the use of cycles and electric vehicles — which India is committed to achieve under the Paris Agreement on climate change — will reduce not merely particulate matter but also nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. There is little doubt that the worsening air quality in Indian cities is already affecting the lives of the very young and the elderly, and reducing labour productivity. India needs a time-bound action plan.