Small Group of Indian Politicians Show Rare Bipartisan Unity to Fight a Common Enemy – Air Pollution
Sunita Duggal and Gaurav Gogoi (center) with fellow MPs at a meeting of Parliamentarians’ Group for Clean Air.

NEW DELHI – In the bitterly divided politics of India there’s an unusual ray of hope. Heading into a major election next year, the national parliament hardly functions, sitting for fewer days and working fewer hours than in years before. Yet a bipartisan group of Members (MPs) has joined hands to tackle one of the country’s biggest crises – air pollution – which harms health, the economy and the country’s international image.

The group, Parliamentarians for Clean Air (PCGA), is led jointly by MPs from the  governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party – two parties whose rivalry dominates India’s political  discourse today. 

The bipartisan collaboration offers a hopeful signal amidst the rough and tumble of Indian politics that air pollution is slowly getting the attention of more politicians. This, as the nation heads into the peak autumn air pollution season and yet another damning report on the state of India´s air is published. 

A report by the University of Chicago is yet another startling reminder of just how bad the crisis is – all of India breathes air which is worse than the WHO’s safe limit. 

Potential gain in life expectancy from permanently reducing PM 2.5 from 2021 concentration to the WHO guideline.

For over half a billion people in the most heavily polluted band of northern India, which extends 2,000 km from Pakistan to Bangladesh along the Indo-Gangetic plain and the foothills of the Himalayas – average life expectancy is reduced by as much as eight years. In Delhi, widely regarded as the most polluted capital city in the world, this goes up to a staggering 11.9 years compared to the global average of 2.3. Conversely, permanent reductions in air pollution would lead to gains of six years or more in these regions, which consistently rank as India’s most polluted. 

Meanwhile, recent flooding seen by Delhi due to weather extremes is yet another reminder of the inextricable link between the sources of air pollution and the drivers of climate change. Climate, if not pollution, is expected to be high on the agenda as the city plays host to the 2023 G-20 Summit, this weekend (9-10 September).

Bipartisan, But…

In uniting to face the air pollution crisis, the leaders of the PCGA  say they are resolutely bipartisan.

 “Right from the start, we were clear this is not a talking shop to score political points,” said Congress MP, Gaurav Gogoi, a member of the opposition party who is the convenor of the group.

Both he and co-convenor Sunita Duggal, from the governing BJP party, admit the group is not without its problems – but the obstacles faced are more bureaucratic and systemic than political or technical, they said, in separate interviews with Health Policy Watch

Duggal, who was elected from Haryana state, an agricultural region area that surrounds neighboring Delhi on three sides, and has contributed to the capital’s seasonal air pollution problems from crop stubble burning, describes such obstacles and the group’s impact. “In Haryana, the pollution control board didn’t display air quality data. So I wrote to them and they started posting this on the website. So there are some people who may not be doing their duty. So this (PGCA) is a dynamic forum and encourages such officials,” she said, describing the group’s progress as “slow and steady.”

They were candid about the group’s relatively modest achievements especially against the backdrop of studies demonstrating that air pollution remains chronically high. Gains cited by government authorities remain few and far between, as reported recently by Health Policy Watch

From 8 to 37 members of parliament  

Even so, Duggal points to the growth of the group as proof that the idea is catching on. “When we started we were only 8-9 MPs, now there are 37. This shows how dynamic the forum is.”

One central theme of the group is to make  health concerns more central to informing policy action on air pollution. That’s crucial because this linkage lacks sufficient statutory teeth; India’s Clean Air Act of 1981, which spells out how air pollution is to be controlled, doesn’t mention health at all, in contrast to, for example, the US Clean Air Act. The fact that in the four decades since the law was enacted, India now has the world’s largest air pollution crisis suggests the Act needs urgent amendments. 

Despite its bipartisan nature the PGCA remains tiny in comparison to the 543 members of the Parliament’s lower house, which like in the United Kingdom is the key legislative and governing body.  And so far, the group has not been able to push any amendments to existing air pollution policies and laws. 

Missing: Representation from Punjab and Delhi State

Punjab, India – Crop burning reduces crop yield and worsens air pollution

The PGCA was formalized in 2021 with a secretariat provided by Swaniti Initiative, a not-for-profit NGO. Its CEO, Rwitwika Bhattacharya, explains how the program works at two levels, constituency and global south, the latter being a focus of India’s G20 presidency. The “idea (is) to drive convergence at the constituency level…. We are committed to the cause of clean air and are actively working to build a consortium of legislators across the global south to support this transition.”

But the PGCA started as an informal gathering of MPs in 2019 in Delhi, the year the city gained worldwide notoriety for being the world’s most polluted capital

Ironically, there are no MPs from Delhi to date.  This, despite the fact that Delhi´s municipal and state governments are both led by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has for several years promised vigorous action to reduce air pollution. Delhi also has seven MPs in the national parliament from the BJP. 

The reasons behind the notable absence of any representation from Delhi in the group is one of the few points of disagreement between the top co-convenors.

Delhi, India’s iconic pollution hotspot, has no representation on the PCGA. Pollution peaks in late autumn when drifting emissions from rural crop burning combine with household, traffic and industrial sources.

Gogoi maintains “the absence is striking” and puts this down to the “result of outside dynamics. For me, the milestone I want is that at least within the forum we are able to discuss Delhi. I feel that is a major absence in our discussions right now. Not just Delhi civil society but even parents are better organized in terms of lobbying for better measures in schools. I feel we’re unable to join that conversation as of now.”

Duggal, however, says that the absence of Delhi MPs doesn’t need to hamper dialogue on the severe pollution found here. While she cannot account for the AAP, she says her BJP political colleagues are “maybe busy or part of other forums,” and she foresees some of them joining – if asked. “Clean air is clean air, it is across states and districts i.e. airsheds. This has no boundary. We’re not doing this for any particular state.”

There is also no representation from Punjab, the state where widespread stubble burning by farmers sends pollution in Delhi soaring every October and November.

Eight of Punjab´s  13 MPs are from the Congress Party. On a more positive note, neighboring Haryana is represented in the group and coincidentally or not, the number of crop stubble fires there, historically a fraction of Punjab´s, have been falling in recent years. In 2022, less than 4,000 fires were recorded in Haryana, a fall of almost 50% over 2021; while Punjab too saw a decline, the absolute number of fires there was almost 50,000.

Political Science of Air Pollution-Linked Deaths

The new compendium produced by the bipartisan group.

Regardless of the patchy representation, the group is becoming an increasingly important platform for raising political awareness about some of the most critical health links to air pollution – such as  the link not only to premature deaths in adults, but to childhood  mortality. A compendium by the PGCA released earlier in 2023 acknowledges this, including a statistic that shows how in 2017 a child in India died every three minutes due to air pollution. 

In reflecting on such data, Ms Duggal echoes the stand often taken by the governing BJP party  in Parliament: “There are so many other factors as well, like genetics or other reasons. But there’s no doubt that if there’s no clean air, health is impacted. So, we can’t say in case of a death that that’s only because of air pollution. But this is one of the factors.”

Mr Gogoi, on the other hand asserts that the group needs to do much more to establish the linkages between air pollution and health in the political discourse. “I’m not that happy with our performance as a group on that. We can be more urgent and emphatic on this, and hammer this point home.”

Tree-planting not a Panacea

Excerpt from the new PCGA Compendium: A bold statement from a small group of Indian politicians.

But Ms Duggal and Mr Gogoi agree that such nuances of emphasis have not weakened the PGCA. Four years on, they see this as a nascent group and point out their achievements. Along with growing significantly, in terms of their size, the group has been able to ‘grow’ the discourse around air quality mitigation – from proposals for more tree-planting to more evolved concepts of airshed management and the importance of data. Gogoi says, “For so many years we’ve got into this habit that planting trees will solve everything from deforestation to air pollution”

Both mention the importance of installing air quality monitors especially in rural India, and the role MPs can play in setting one up in each district if not smaller jurisdictions. Administratively, India is divided into 28  states and 8 union territories, which hold significant powers to control pollution and over 750 districts whereas there are only about 500 official air quality monitors, most of which are concentrated in a few cities. That means there are large gaps in air quality data in most of the country. 

From Fighting Pollution to Fighting at the Polls 

As millions brace for the next peak pollution season starting October, many MPs in the group are also looking ahead to general elections in summer 2024 for the parliament’s Lower House, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party are up for re-election. 

In this context, it is noteworthy that about 30 of the 37 MPs in the PCGA are from the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha), whose members are facing elections next year. There’s perhaps a degree of uncertainty. Ms Duggal says, “Some MPs may be elected, some may lose, some may not get a ticket (party nomination.)” 

Regardless of the results, neither she nor Gogoi believe that what they started will stop after the next elections. “Clean air is a topic close to the heart of the MPs. I don’t think there’ll be a stoppage or reluctance (of future MPs),” she says. Gogoi puts this down to the unique political and functioning nature of PGCA. “For us it’s clear that if any government is doing good work, whether it’s the Union (ie BJP-led) government or any state govt of any political colour, everybody’s free to showcase it as a best achievement. So that itself made it a more inclusive space.”


Elections aside, there’s another challenge the group is yet to fully address and that is public outreach. 

For what is a global headline-grabbing crisis, the group’s work has remained comparatively low-profile. Even its well-produced compendium on air pollution doesn’t show up in a Google search.  [The actual document is here.]

The research and logistical support team received a grant over two years from a philanthropic funder in August, 2022, which means after the new Parliament has been elected. 

Engagement between Indian MPs and stakeholders, such as doctors, scientists and civil society leaders over air pollution remains rare. The PGCA has to its credit managed to foster a number of such encounters, usually when MPs congregate in Delhi to attend Parliament. But it’s infrequent outside the capital so engagement is limited even though a third of MPs are from the highly polluted northern belt.


Not only will the group continue but it will attract more MPs, the co-convenor believes, given the growing interest in the issue. Says Gogoi, “I’m not worried about the future of the group. We’ve built in certain practices which will ensure that when the new Parliament comes in we’ll pick up from where we left off. The next phase would be working a lot more with states, doing pilot projects, linking industry with local administrations and municipalities.” 

PGCA 2, then, has its work cut out. Question is, will it be able to use its considerable clout in the Indian Parliament and  push for more meaingful changes, after the country gets past the June 2024 election date. 

Image Credits: Swaniti Initiative, Air Quality Life Index, University of Chicago, Neil Palmer, Flickr, PGCA Compendium on Air Pollution , PCGA Compendium.

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