Indian security personnel stand guard at the Rajghat memorial amid heavy smog in New Delhi on November 7, 2017. New Delhi woke up to a choking blanket of smog on November 7 as air quality in the world’s most polluted capital city reached hazardous levels. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

This week India’s capital city, Delhi has been hit with extreme air pollution – so extreme that the city’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described it as a gas chamber.  The city’s Air Quality Index has been in the range of 700 to 1,000; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers anything over 300 to be hazardous. The index measures the concentration of particulate matter, microscopic particles that can harm the lungs, causing cancer, exacerbating asthma, and damaging organs.

In response, the city is taking extreme measures. On Tuesday, the Delhi government closed schools for the week. The National Green Tribunal has banned construction, one source of particulate pollution, in the region through November 14; truck and car travel has also been limited.

Why this spike in pollution? There are two answers. The simplest is the physical answer: Farmers in the neighboring states are burning straw from their last rice crop to clear fields for planting the wheat crop. The more complicated is the political answer: Politicians are wary of trying to prevent crop burning lest they antagonize the powerful farm lobby, lose electoral support and set off political turmoil among regional and ethnic interests.

What’s causing the smog?

It’s true that construction and vehicle use degrade the National Capital Region’s air quality. But the real problem  comes from beyond  its territory. In the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana, and to some extent Western Uttar Pradesh, farmers have about three weeks to  clear their fields of paddy straw in the fall so that they can plant wheat, their winter crop. The state of Punjab alone produces about 20 million tons of paddy straw. Roughly 85 to 90 percent of that is burnt in the field.

There are alternatives. For instance, farmers could convert straw into such economically useful resources as bio pellets. But farmers still find it more cost effective to burn it. Just now, northern India is enduring a temperature inversion, which has trapped air in the region – and concentrated all that particulate smoke in Delhi’s atmosphere.

Shouldn’t democracy, affluence, or social norms make it easier to fix this?

Scholars have suggested that democracies tend to have less pollution, because citizens seek a clean environment and governments are responsive to citizens’  wishes in well-functioning democracies. But India is a well-functioning democracy, and Delhi elections are competitive. Scholars also note that rich and affluent areas of countries experience less pollution. But Delhi has the highest per capita income in the country. Scholars also suggest that countries’ environmental policies reflect international norms and agreements. India vocally supports the Paris Agreement and has outlined aggressive targets for renewable energy in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.

Clearly democracy, affluence, and global norms are not helping Delhi get rid of its air pollution. So what’s the problem?

Rural versus urban demands

Crop burning takes place in rural areas, where the agricultural lobby is powerful but its pollution effects are felt in urban Delhi.  Since 2013, in response a ruling by the National Green Tribunal, to the states of Haryana and Punjab have enacted laws banning crop burning. So why are the laws not being enforced?

Farmers see a ban on crop burning as an additional cost imposed on them to appease urban Delhi. They are protesting angrily, demanding the federal government subsidize their shift to the more expensive alternatives to burning. And state governments of any political party don’t want to risk cracking down when farmers violate those laws. The Aam Aadmi Party runs Delhi – and yet that party’s Punjabi representatives  are vocally opposed to even the Punjab government’s token measures against stubble burning.

Ethnic and religious divisions

India’s ethnic divisions heighten these conflicts. Sikhs are the landed gentry of Punjab. In the 1980s, Sikh separatism and terrorism against the central government left a heavy death toll, including the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by a Sikh security guard. Any crackdown on Punjabi farmers, the mainstay of the separatist Khalistani movement, has the potential to revive this conflict. What’s more, Punjab and Haryana are electorally competitive states; if unhappy farmers were to shift toward voting against the government, it could tilt the balance of power among parties.

So how is India handling air pollution?

With India’s emphasis on jobs and economic growth, citizens have for the most part accepted the environmental costs. Delhi citizens have grown used to acute pollution during the winter months. They adapt by covering their faces when on the road. Although extreme forms of air pollution impose health costs, many of these costs tend to accrue over the long term, and are not likely to motivate strong demand for clean air.

However, there have been some attempts to respond to deteriorating air quality. In the 1990s, in response to air pollution, the Indian courts ordered Delhi’s diesel bus fleet to convert to natural gas – even though that order was opposed by every political party. In 2016, Delhi’s government tried dealing with locally generated pollution by instituting the “odd-even rule” which allows private cars with odd registration numbers to ply on the road on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and cars with even numbers are allowed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The Delhi government wants to reinstate this rule next week. Moreover, in 2017, the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers during the Hindu festival of Diwali, specifically to prevent the resulting pollution. For all these measures, while residents of Delhi had to bear the costs in inconvenience, they also reaped benefits in reduced pollution.

However, the effect of these modest measures has been, predictably, modest. The real spike in the pre-winter months comes from stubble burning in neighboring states. But imposing costs on farmers so that Delhi gets the environmental and public health benefits is more far politically complicated – and extremely difficult to tackle.

In other words, the Delhi smog reveals that even in a well-functioning democracy, local or regional pollution problems can be very difficult to solve. Democracy and competitive elections combined with federal politics may even make things worse. Perhaps only institutions like the courts, which are insulated from political pressure, could save Delhi citizens from extreme pollution.

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington.

Nives Dolšak is professor and associate director in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.

Thomas Bernauer is a professor of political science, at ETH Zurich

Liam F. McGrath is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zürich.