Dying Breath

The inability to address Delhi’s air crisis is a sign of a failing democracy

A man crosses a pedestrian bridge amid another season of smog in Delhi. For the middle class, in the Modi years, cultural boosterism and ethnonationalism have taken precedence over physical and economic well-being. Adnan Abidi / Reuters
14 January, 2022

As winter descended, and Delhi embarked on what has become its regular season of poisonous air—a malaise exacerbated by open violations of the ban on firecrackers during Diwali—sections of the press and the liberal elite enacted their annual ritual of outrage and helplessness. Environmentalists lamented the government’s fitful and ineffective action; pulmonologists saw their wards filling up; citizens of the national capital wheezed and choked as the Air Quality Index shot up to hazardous levels.

The air crisis in Delhi, and large parts of north India, has come to be framed predominantly as a failure of environmental and public-health management. The intriguing puzzle, though, is not the repetitive nature of the crisis but the collective inability to fix—or even substantially mitigate—the problem. This is yet another sign of India’s failing democracy.

In March 2021, Freedom House, a US think tank that evaluates democracies across the world, downgraded India’s status from “free” to “partly free” in its annual report. “Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims,” the report noted. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.” That same month, the V-Dem Institute, an independent research organisation based in Sweden, also reclassified India, observing that “the world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy.” Many other global monitors have arrived at a similar conclusion. The Economist Intelligence Unit—a sister organisation of The Economist, which once pinned great hope on Modi as a free-market reformer—has bracketed India as a “flawed democracy.”

While such reports accurately summarise Modi’s assault on democratic institutions, minority rights and free expression, lesser attention is usually given to the decline of routine accountability as one of the consequences of India’s democratic backsliding. In failing democracies, even pressing subjects of all-encompassing import such as the air crisis are unable to become the focus of public conversation and thus unable to be addressed.

Vaibhav Vats is an independent writer and journalist. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Al Jazeera, among other publications. He is working on a book on Hindu nationalism and the making of India’s Second Republic.