Indian and Californian Politics Are Both Playing With Fire

Environmental crisis has become caught up in petty struggles.

Firefighters set a backfire to protect homes in California
Firefighters set a backfire to protect homes and try to contain the Blue Ridge Fire in Chino Hills, California, on Oct. 27. David McNew/Getty Images

In November 2019, thousands of campaign fliers appeared overnight in New Delhi, announcing the success of the city’s government in bringing about a 25 percent reduction in air pollution. Anticipating residents’ incredulity—concentrations of fine particles known as PM 2.5 had the day before risen to more than 100 times World Health Organization guidelines—the posters offered an explanation for the apparent mismatch: Though pollution had fallen, smoke from burning crops in neighboring states had only just arrived.

A world away in San Francisco, November usually marks the end of fire season, rather than its start. Just like their counterparts in Delhi, San Franciscans spend large chunks of the year in a haze of smoke that pours in from nearby fires.

The two cities couldn’t be more different, but the political determinants of their escalating air pollution problems are similar. National leaders in both India and the United States see opportunity in the ashes of annual fires, a chance to use crisis to paint their political rivals as incompetent. For them, a practiced indifference to fires and air pollution makes a perverse kind of sense.

Crop smoke is familiar for the New Delhi area’s 26 million inhabitants. Every year, farmers in the neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh set fire to millions of tons of crop stubble, the inedible portion of the plant that remains when wheat or rice is harvested. Farmers resort to burning as they race to comply with mandated planting deadlines from the government, imposed a decade ago to slow the region’s rapidly diminishing groundwater supplies. Absent outside assistance, burning is the only way cash-strapped farmers can clear and replant their fields in time to avoid harsh financial penalties.

Though fires occur outside New Delhi, cold, dry Himalayan air transports the smoke from its origin in the countryside to the city itself, where it settles in mostly undisturbed from November to February. This outside source of pollution coincides with an uptick in sources within city limits. Residents light dirty fuels for warmth as temperatures drop. Celebrators light smoke-producing firecrackers for the festival of Diwali. Public health officials have likened the resulting pollution cocktail to smoking 50 cigarettes a day.

As citizens choke, politicians trade blame. Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has pointed the finger at the city’s neighbors. In October 2019, the chief minister faulted stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana for turning Delhi into a “gas chamber.” The same day, he requested Delhi’s schoolchildren to write letters to the two states’ chief ministers, imploring them to consider the smoke’s grievous effects on children’s health.

Returning the volley, Punjab’s chief minister, Amarinder Singh, attributed Delhi’s pollution problem to the Kejriwal government’s incompetence. Calling the Delhi premier “dumb,” a “liar,” and a master of “political gimmickry,” he attributed the crisis to “rampant construction activity, widespread industrialization, and total mismanagement of the city traffic.”

The truth is somewhere in between. The complexities of the climate system make it difficult to attribute precise shares of pollution to different activities. It is clear that cars, construction, industrial activity, and waste incineration within city limits produce a huge amount of pollution. But anyone who has been in Punjab, Haryana, or Uttar Pradesh during winter has witnessed the shroud of burnt fog that covers the region. Satellite images show visible clouds of smoke rising from the states traveling downwind to the capital.

On the stubble-burning component of the pollution crisis, reaching a solution requires the central government to coordinate action between uncooperative regional actors. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have thus far declined to do so.

The central government’s principal action on the issue, a 2018 subsidy for machines that till crop waste back into the soil, seems to have been implemented as a handout to the agricultural machinery lobby rather than as a good faith effort to curb pollution. In two years, more than 48,000 machines had been distributed to Punjabi farmers, and yet in 2020 the number of stubble fires in the state was higher than ever. Even with large subsidies, the cost of machinery—equipment that lies idle for nearly the entire year—is prohibitively high for Punjab’s many poor farmers. Unable to afford the machines, they light fires just as they always have.

For years, state government officials have pleaded with the federal government for funds to buy stubble back from farmers, hoping to turn a waste product into useful biofuel. In October 2019, however, a senior Ministry of Agriculture official admitted that the central government had not even considered funding such a program. The 30 billion rupees (around $400 million) required to pay for such a program is dwarfed by the cost of existing price support programs and fuel and fertilizer subsidies.

It took Supreme Court intervention to make up for the lack of action by parliament or the bureaucracy. In November 2019—after 90 percent of crops had been harvested and the lion’s share of damage to air quality had already been done—it ordered the relevant states to use their own funds to compensate farmers for crop waste. It’s unclear if the order will be reissued to prevent the blaze this fall.

India’s capital city is governed under a power-sharing arrangement between the national government and a locally elected Legislative Assembly. When the same party controls both, this arrangement works relatively well. But, ever since Kejriwal led his upstart anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to power in the 2013 Assembly elections, the two have been at odds. Since the AAP took office in 2013, the BJP has done everything it can to hamstring the party’s attempts to implement its agenda for the aam aadmi, or “common man.” In 2019, sabotage by the city’s BJP-appointed lieutenant governor grew so fierce that the Supreme Court intervened, paring back much of the authority claimed by the nationally governing party.

Modi would like to have control over his capital for the obvious reasons—as the seat of the national government, Delhi plays an important role in the BJP’s plan to cast India as an ascendant superpower. But the AAP bulwark to Modi’s control of the city represents a more fundamental challenge than the denial of a stage for nationalist pageantry. In an India currently dominated by the BJP, the AAP represents a nascent threat to the ruling party’s power. The formerly hegemonic Indian National Congress party is now moribund. The vacuum it has left behind waits to be filled. AAP’s lack of communal, caste, or subnational affiliation, paired with a clean governance ethos, makes it a viable successor to a now feeble opposition.

Modi’s stunning parliamentary successes belie a more tenuous grip on power in the states. Voters in states like Rajasthan have denied the BJP control of their state assemblies even as they send BJP members to parliament en masse. Kejriwal’s brand of vernacular, anti-corruption populism sits in a lineage of credible threats to seemingly unassailable national leaders. If India begins to tire of Modi’s development agenda—a GDP-focused alliance between government and business that has largely passed over the least well-off—the Aam Aadmi alternative may prove compelling.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the national government has been of such little help as Delhi attempts to control its pollution problem. If blame for the toxic smog can be pegged on Delhi’s AAP rulers, then the BJP can undermine that party’s claims to a superior governing strategy. Delhiites increasingly say that air pollution is the most significant challenge the city faces. If that sentiment can be channeled into votes against the ruling party, the BJP can destroy a future national rival before it expands from its power base in the capital.

On America’s West Coast, similar fiery political games play out. For more than a month, huge swaths of the region have been ablaze, wreaking the same havoc on air quality in San Francisco as stubble fires in Delhi. In September, cities on the West Coast had the poorest urban air quality on earth. The Pacific states were cast in apocalyptic hues as sunlight struggled to penetrate dense clouds of smoke.

In the United States, it’s not desperate farmers but scorching temperatures and poor land management that bring about the yearly conflagration. Brush that has accumulated for decades catches flame when a spark or a bolt of lightning strikes the wrong place. Hot, dry winds fan the flames and increase their devastation. The first causes differ from India, but the outcomes are the same: exacerbated fires and smothered cities.

America’s lack of a strong response to the climate crisis underlies the rise in temperatures that makes much of the West Coast a tinderbox. Federal funding of the Forest Service has not kept pace with the demands that climate-induced wildfires place on the agency. As the number and intensity of fires increase and budgets remain flat, funds are redirected from prevention efforts to fighting fires that already exist. The resulting positive feedback loop consumes more territory and pumps more smoke into the skies every year.

As in India, the willingness of the Trump administration to sit back as fires run rampant arises from a set of perverse incentives laid bare in today’s acrimonious partisan environment.

Republican officials in Washington stand to gain very little by pouring money into policies that prevent wildfires in deep-blue California, Oregon, and Washington. At the same time, American politics have become so polarized that letting crises go unchecked can be a kind of rational political calculation. As with the coronavirus pandemic or protests against systemic racism in large cities, issues brought about or exacerbated by federal failures can be cast as the exclusive product of poor Democratic governance.

Unlike Delhi, where the aim behind such a strategy is to wrest control of the city’s government from an electoral rival, national Republicans’ intended audience is mostly outside of the affected areas themselves. When the number of undecided voters is exceedingly small, stoking fears of bad governance is aimed at driving already committed partisans to the polls. As crisis follows crisis, simply ignoring problems can be the most effective way to translate them into favorable electoral outcomes.

In both cases leaders are willing to see parts of their countries go up in smoke to achieve their electoral goals. That willingness is the result of incentives produced by federal systems operating in fractured societies. When the norms holding such unstable polities together begin to disintegrate—when an investment in long-term national viability gives way to the pursuit of short-term gains—such cruelties are likely to result. Norms that encourage a president to weigh the interests of states the same, regardless of which way they vote, do not automatically come with a federal system. Until those norms are built or restored—or until politicians embrace altruism over cold-blooded political calculus—citizens of both India and the United States cannot hope to breathe easy.

Ian Miller is a Stanford graduate and a former Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola