Reena Gupta is a politician and the National Spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party. She is also a member of the State-Level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority in Delhi (SEIAA). She writes regular columns on air pollution, the environment, and social justice in Indian newspapers such as the Hindustan Times, The Times of India, and The Indian Express.
Reena Gupta left her notable career at the World Bank to join the 2011 Indian anti-corruption movement in Delhi as an activist and then as a volunteer with the Aam Aadmi Party.
In a conversation with FII, Reena discusses the problems with the current central government, the significance of the Women’s Reservation Bill, and women’s political participation. She also emphasises on the growing number of environmental issues and the need to address them.
FII: You have worked with major organisations like Oxfam and World Bank, how and why did you switch the career path entirely?
Reena Gupta: Most of my life, my work has always been about trying to make a positive impact in the country. One of the reasons why I moved back from the US was also because I wanted to be in India. I have always felt that a lot of people like me, who come from privileged backgrounds, have had the good fortune to be born into educated families, and have access to resources, need to work towards making a positive impact in the lives of those who don’t have such access to these resources.
I started my career with working for a small group on issues of agriculture, farming and natural resources where I lived in a village. After that, I went abroad for further studies because I wanted to understand policymaking. I wanted to see what are other countries doing and what is it that we can learn from them. That is how I ended up at the World Bank. Even though I had a good life and was liking what I was doing, I always kept feeling that I was not doing enough. Institutions like the World Bank were advising the government but at the end of the day, it was up to the governments to take that advice based on what they thought was right. This made me realize that one of the best ways to make a difference in the country would be to actually get into politics.
I had a brief stint with Congress in the beginning but I didn’t agree with their ideology and the way they functioned. Thus, I actively got involved in the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement and when we decided to form a party as an alternative to traditional Indian politics, which was seen as corrupt and dominated by powerful elites, that is when I resigned from the World Bank.
Hon. CM Kejriwal’s journey in this regard has been very inspiring too. He was also in this position where he could have remained a bureaucrat all his life. If he wanted, he could have made a lot of money as well but he gave all that up.
Also Read: Why Are Women Under-Represented In Politics?
We always keep feeling that politics is very dirty and messy and that we shouldn’t get into it, but then we are also really giving that space away. That is why we only have people with vested interests in politics. If such people dominate political spaces, then how will we ever clean up? This has been the journey where I felt that I have to do it, and I have to get in, get my hands dirty and see how it is.
FII: You mentioned that you were working briefly for Congress. What made you decide to join AAP, what was so striking about AAP that you left Congress?
Reena Gupta: AAP was a small and very proactive group. A group that really believed in action, implementing programs and projects and taking decisions keeping in mind the last person in the queue. At that point, I felt that even though Congress was in power, Congress was behaving like an opposition. It was not taking decisions that it should have taken quickly. It was just like wheels inside wheels, where you convince one person that this is what the country needs, and then again, there was somebody else that needs to be convinced.
Hence, I thought that it had just become a very big party, and had lost connection to grassroots realities. Whereas in Aam Aadmi Party, I felt that it was very connected to the ground. It was very connected to people’s voices and focused on delivering what people needed.
FII: So as you mentioned that AAP started as this small party with the agenda of fighting against corruption. So referring to the present scenario, many AAP leaders are questioned in corruption cases, for instance, Manish Sisodia, why do you think that the party is being targeted right now?
Reena Gupta: Bhartiya Janta Party has learned how to manage a lot of parties, especially Congress. We see that in the last 7 to 8 years, a lot of people from Congress joined the Bhartiya Janta Party and BJP knows how to manage Congress, but they have not learned how to manage AAP so far. A lot of media professionals have told me in private conversations that both Mr. Amit Shah and senior leaders say that we are not able to decipher Aam Aadmi Party. They are not able to understand how they have managed to come together and create a volunteer base that is so huge and passionate while having little money and resources.
BJP’s whole RSS machinery and Hindutva ideology holds a lot of the BJP workers together but we don’t have any such machinery. If you look at our election campaigns, they are managed with very few resources and by a team of volunteers. Because BJP is not able to decipher this model of people coming together because they are passionate about issues and to take action, they attack leaders like Manish Sisodia who are appreciated across the country for their work.
You will see people flying in from all over the country and even from across the world to afford these election campaigns and helping us at their own expense. Our volunteers manage our social media, campaigns, come up with innovative ideas and even work on the songs that we have for all of our campaigns. Bhartiya Janta Party is thus scared of the fact that AAP cannot be broken or bought.
This is the reason why you will see that they are going to target our leaders even more. This has been their strategy from the beginning and there are around 200 cases against our MLAs none of which have ever stood the court of law. In the same way, you will now see that every second person who is associated with CM Kejriwal is being called for questioning. They make people sit the whole day, harass them, and all it does is that it takes a big personal toll.
My family also keeps on telling me to take a break because of this reason. I’m very sure that this harassment will only increase as the party has become bigger with our governments in two states and now that we have become a national party in such a short span of time.
Neither Congress nor BJP has answers to it. It’s not like we have a lack of resources or we don’t have enough capable people in this country. Still, such a large population of the country still doesn’t have access to basic rights. And when we have a model of development which delivers on the promises we make keeping in mind people’s voices and needs, the BJP doesn’t know how to deal with it. So, I just see more attacks on us as we move forward.
FII: You have been an environmental activist before you joined politics, do you think AAP’s politics align with your environmental activism?
Reena Gupta: I feel that we are the only party who are talking about the environment. We’re the only party who’s taking steps to actually solve some of these very deep problems. For example, you talk about the air pollution issue in Delhi, it’s an issue that is cross-sectional, it impacts you whether you are rich or poor.
But again, cleaning Delhi’s air is easier said than done, because it is also an issue, which is an airshed issue. So, unless the central government and the government of the neighboring states come together and I know that every time I say it, it sounds like an excuse that, “you can’t do it yourself, you are blaming others”, but the airshed of Delhi is a 300-kilometer radius of Delhi. Thus, unless we have all the actors in that airshed working together, it will be very difficult for us to work on our own, and despite that, we have done a lot of work.
This year, Delhi’s air has been the cleanest in 6 years, but we still have a very long way to go. We are hoping that as we do good work, states around us, and citizens in those states start holding their governments accountable. To give you a small example, we did a big crackdown on the polluting industry in Delhi and the industry has now moved to Gurgaon and Haryana, and some to Rajasthan and UP. Delhi thus lost on the revenue that we would have received from these industries, but they continue to pollute our airshed.
Unless we have an economic model where we make sure that environment and ecology go hand in hand, and one doesn’t suffer because of the other, to make better progress that model will have to be implemented country-wide. Otherwise, there will be very little incremental progress, which of course, AAP will continue to push. If Delhi can do a crackdown on polluting industries, why can’t the ruling party do a crackdown on a polluting industry. That is how I see the needle shifting.
FII: So, apart from calling out to all the stakeholders in Delhi’s pollution contribution, what other measures and policies are the Delhi government thinking of taking this year?
Reena Gupta: Delhi has a complex governance structure, there is Delhi MCD, the Delhi government and the central government. Now, because Delhi MCD and Delhi government are both being governed by the Aam Aadmi party, there will be better coordination between at least these two. Garbage management and landfill management are areas that we are hoping to work on because a lot of garbage in Delhi gets burned and adds to air pollution.
We are also working on the idea of making decentralized hyperlocal environment plans. At the ward level, communities can get together, to identify what is causing air pollution and how we can solve it. Of course, planting more trees will go on. The Green Delhi App, which was launched 2 years ago is another tool where we ask citizens to hold us accountable. If there is any issue, you can report it on the Green Delhi App, and it gets solved in a time-bound manner.
We are hoping that we will have more and more public transport so that people switch from private cars and private two-wheelers to public transport. We have also sent proposals to the central government to make Delhi Metro more affordable so that more people are able to move to public transport. All over the world, we are seeing that many cities are making their public transport free and in Delhi we wanted to extend this approach and have made buses free for women. We are hoping that we’ll be able to make Metro free too for at least women but its work in progress.
FII: It is quite abominable how there are these mountains of waste in Delhi. Those were actually landfills and now they are like mountains. There are people living around those areas. So now that AAP has government in both MCD and Delhi, what are the measures that you will be taking to tackle this big issue?
Reena Gupta: We want to get rid of the garbage mountains. This is all legacy waste, which has been accumulating for decades now. When it burns it pollutes the air and the leachate from it pollutes the groundwater. It is also harmful for neighbouring areas and people should not be living there. There are plans to move people from surrounding areas to some of the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) shelters or to safer neighbourhoods, and then get rid of this legacy waste. This will become like a beautiful public park, once we get rid of the waste which is the long-term solution.
Additionally, we’re working on the concept of zero waste so that we don’t continue to add more waste to the mountains. We’ll have to work a lot with Delhiites as we are all culprits because we produce a lot and will have to start reducing it. We’re also working on a decentralized composting model where we will have composting areas where people like you and I segregate our waste and then we throw the organic waste in the compostable area so that it doesn’t get added to the landfills.
We are also working on training a lot of the waste pickers and ragpickers by providing them with space where they can safely recycle some of this material. There’s going to be an E-waste Park coming up in Delhi, where all of these informal sector ragpickers will be given a space where they can bring the waste and it can be recycled in a scientific manner. You will therefore see a lot of changes to the waste economy of Delhi
Also Read: The Politicisation Of Air Pollution Warnings
FII: What do you have to say to the women who are averse to joining politics? And also, when you look at the political model and the current regime, there is very little room for criticism or dissent. Did you face any challenges as a woman while entering politics?
Reena Gupta: I think the reason we are in such a mess in this country, is because there are not enough women in politics. I actually feel that we have allowed men to govern our lives and take all our decisions for way too long. It’s really high time that we need more and more women in politics and I feel that our country would have been in a much better shape had women been allowed in politics.
In some ways, it’s a chicken and egg situation. We can’t keep waiting on the sidelines and for things to get cleaner. We have to realise that they will not get cleaner unless we get in and get our hands dirty. I sometimes do feel odd in a lot of meetings that I would participate in, that there will be just 1 or 2 women.
But that is slowly changing. I can speak about Aam Aadmi Party which is a very safe space for women. All the leaders are very conscious about how they conduct themselves and how they speak. We’re all given the space to voice our opinions and to take decisions. Unless women get in, it’ll always be a male-dominated society, and for how long can we allow men to keep taking our decisions?
FII: What do you think about Women’s Reservation Bill and why is it still pending?
Reena Gupta: If you look at some of the BJP’s old manifestos, they’ve spoken about the Women’s Reservation Bill and they’ve said they want to support it.
I hope that women in other parties and BJP leaders will realise that it is the need of the hour to have women in leadership positions. Women will have to cut across party lines and we would need men’s allyship. We will have to come together and really demand it.
FII: Gender-based violence and crimes against women are on the rise in Delhi. The present situation resembles that of a decade ago. What steps is AAP taking to address this?
Reena Gupta: The first thing that we plan to fix is that there should be no dark spots anywhere in Delhi. Some of the roads are Delhi government roads, some are central government and many are MCD roads. There will be more CCTV cameras in Delhi so that women feel more secure.
Again, more reliable public transport, because there have been studies which have proven all over the world that if you have more women in public spaces, then the space also becomes safer for them. We are hoping that with better lights, CCTV cameras, and better public transport, there will be more women in public spaces, and they will be able to move about more freely, and that itself will make things safer for women.
I just hope that the central government does something about policing and that policing gets better. But again, that’s an issue that is not in our hands and we have to keep going back to the LG and the central government who do not cooperate with us. We need police presence in areas that are notorious, and areas that are not safe because most of Delhi Police’s time actually gets spent protecting the VVIPs. We will again send a proposal to the central government to have police for Lutyens Delhi, but there has to be separate police that protects the rest of us citizens. We are hoping that the central government will help us in this particular area, however, we will take care of the rest.
The interview has been paraphrased and condensed for clarity, at the interviewer’s discretion.