The chief minister of what is today the most polluted city in the world suffers from a notorious asthmatic cough. While Arvind Kejriwal’s cough is widely discussed, what is not, and what should be, is the cause of his chronic ailment.
The data suggests that Delhi’s air has been 45% more polluted than that of Beijing for the past few years. Today, air pollution is one of the leading causes of deaths in India.
A study released last month by Michael Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago, revealed disturbing numbers — the 660 million people who live in India’s most polluted cities will lose an average of 3.2 years of life because of toxic air; put together, that is 2.1 billion lost years because of India’s pollution problem.
Over the last four decades, air pollution, degraded lands, depleted forests and declining biodiversity have cut agricultural yields in India by almost half. According to the World Bank, each year environmental degradation costs India $80 billion, or 5.7% of GDP.
Air pollution is an invisible problem and did not even figure on the election manifesto of any political party during the recently concluded Delhi elections. That, when the leader of the ruling party himself so acutely, and visibly, suffers from the symptoms of the problem.
As India embarks on its ambitious mission to transform itself into a global manufacturing hub, we must remember what a wise man once said: “The foes that are unseen are often stronger than those that are seen.” Take the example of Vapi, an industrial city in Gujarat — today it is the most polluted city in the world due to industrial and chemical waste. The scary question then arises — is Vapi the future of the industrialised Indian city?
Many economies have gone through severe pollution and then effectively taken systematic steps to fix the damage, including parts of Europe after the industrial revolution, Japan after World War II and, most recently China as it strove to become the manufacturing hub of the world. India’s late entry into the manufacturing sector in some ways can be seen as a blessing in disguise for we can learn from the mistakes of those who walked before us.
So what can India do to solve her suffocating problem?
India needs to focus on making her fast-growing cities green. Building reliable public transportation systems and introducing mandatory vehicular fuel efficiency standards are two important steps toward reducing toxic air.
Currently, India has one of the worst emission standards for power plants in the world. Shockingly, the country does not even have emission standards for hazardous pollutants like mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide. India needs to set firm targets to reduce emissions. Reducing hazardous particulate matter by 30% would cut average annual GDP growth by 0.04%, but it would also cut CO2 emissions by 30-60% and save $47–105 billion from reduced damage to human health.
The Supreme Court has played a key role in reining in air pollution. For example, mandating the use of compressed natural gas in public-service vehicles in Delhi, or taking vehicles older than 10 years off the road, have led to an improvement in air quality. The court must persevere as the national watchdog of pollution.
I haven’t seen a starry sky in any major Tier 1 or Tier 2 city in the past few years. The harsh reality is India’s problems are likely to get worse before they get better. But even the stars can’t shine without some darkness, so we must focus on correcting the problem while we can, and before it gets too late.