GENEVA, Switzerland — Senior ministers and government representatives were conspicuous by their absence as experts and leaders gathered at the World Health Organisation (WHO) on air pollution solutions, as India's ministers for health, environment, and petroleum, chose to participate in festivities marking the unveiling of the Sardar Patel Unity statue instead.
India hosts 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and the WHO estimates that air pollution led to the premature deaths of over 1,00,000 Indian children below the age of 5 in 2016.
The WHO had extended invitations to three Union Ministers — Minister for health and family welfare JP Nadda, environment minister Harsh Vardhan and petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan — to attend the first ever conference on the health impacts of air pollution in Geneva.
On Wednesday, as the toxic air over Delhi worsened, Harsh Vardhan was in the national capital to flag off "Run for Unity" to mark the unveiling of the Sardar Patel "Unity" Statue, Nadda was in Guwahati to flag off an identical event, while Pradhan was at in Bhubaneswar to flag the Odisha leg of the unity run.
Meanwhile in Geneva, scholars and experts discussed various aspects of the multi-dimensional nature of air pollution. Thursday includes a high-level session where national leaders are expected to participate and announce voluntary commitments.
There was speculation that Nikunja K Sundaray, a joint secretary at the ministry of environment, would represent India on the last day. However, ministry officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Satyendra Kumar, a deputy secretary, a relatively junior position at the ministry, would be attending.
Kumar is expected to present the National Clean Air Programme prepared by the environment ministry to tackle air pollution in 100 most polluted Indian cities. However, activists pointed out that the NCAP was still in a draft form and not even released in India.
"India has lots of good policies, but the implementation always remains a question. We have a draft National Clean Air Programme, but it doesn't have any time-bound targets," Sunil Dahiya, a senior Greenpeace campaigner working on air pollution, said.
Aakash Shrivastava, a joint director from the National Centre for Disease Control was the only Indian official who was present for all three days of the conference. The NCDC is a research organisation under the ministry for health and family welfare.
"It is already a well-recognized problem, now there is a conference at the headquarters so that is a signal," Shrivastava said. "The UN is like an international government that passes directives and India has always been in compliance."
WHO officials were unwilling to talk to the media about the poor participation from the Indian government, but privately expressed their displeasure. The UN's health agency and the Indian government does not see eye-to-eye on the issue of air pollution impacts, especially premature deaths. The Indian government contests the view that air pollution causes deaths, while the WHO regularly publishes reports that link air pollution to over a million deaths a year.
Gurjeet Singh Aujla, an MP from Amritsar, who is representing the city, is attending the conference as part of Global Urban Air Pollution Observatory program that supports collaborations between cities." I am here to talk about the problems that Amritsar is facing, it is a very polluted city. We are trying to form partnerships with another city to fund projects to curb air pollution," Aujla said.
The MP's participation is being sponsored by AirQualityAsia, an advocacy group.
"It is disappointing that the two countries facing the gravest air pollution challenge- India and Pakistan do not have their ministers participating in the first Global Air Pollution conference" Shazia. Z. Rafi, president of AirQualityAsia, said.
The environment minister's office did not respond to questions about his non-attendance. Officials at the ministry of petroleum, who did wish to be named, said that Pradhan was expected to attend but cancelled. The WHO declined to share the reasons why the leaders had decided not to come. The agency however said that it had made a special outreach to countries like India, where air pollution is a pressing problem.