India’s Air Pollution Crisis
Almost every major city in Northern India consistently shows AQI Levels that make Beijing look like a park. Indian Government’s standard response is ‘No death certificate says ‘death due to air pollution’. Hence it’s not a problem.
(Also read my letter to Haryana’s Chief Minister)
In any other country, Delhi’s toxic air would have prompted a national emergency. One as serious, if not more, than the Covid lockdown.
Why Delhi (and India, at large), have not declared such an emergency is what this post will discuss.
Some of the typical excuses made by the Central, State and City Governments (as well as by industrialists), will be discussed.
Let us look at two of the largest contributors to India’s toxic air:
- Vehicular pollutants and
- Industrial pollutants
Surprisingly, the thing in common with both these leading polluters is dirty diesel.
Industries rely on this diesel to fire up multiple generators as backup power supplies, often citing power cuts that hamper their production capabilities.
Before we get to the solution (should be evident by now), let us talk about the daily inaction by the powers that be.
The Central Government —2 Common Excuses
- We are a growing economy — and growing economies pollute (as did the U.S., the U.K and every other economy).
- Pollution, though real, has no real adverse effects — no one has a death certificate marked ‘Death by Pollution’
PM Modi handed over responsibility for India’s environments to possibly two of the the worst human beings in the country. One of these two characters is a pollution denier, and refuses to acknowledge the problem. The second character encourages Indians to listen to calming music instead of letting their tempers rage as their kids choke to death.
In addition, PM Modi chose to leave the country on an ill-timed foreign trip, as Delhi’s school children pleaded for their lungs.
These measures by Prime Minister Modi are disheartening.
Before anyone jumps at me for being anti-Modi, I have supported the majority of PM Modi’s bold decisions, including his Make in India initiative, Demonetization of largely black money rupee notes, Goods and Services Tax (GST) and several tough military stances towards India’s neighbors.
Rather than being anti-Modi, I am anti pollution.
Any decision by any leader (including the Prime Minister) that adversely impacts India’s air, is what I will continue to be ‘anti’.
Coal Based Power Generation
India still largely (80% by some estimates!) relies on polluting coal for it’s power needs. This, in spite of several promises by P.M. Modi to move towards renewables. The promises will make your heart melt and almost sound like India is transforming into Denmark. In reality, the dependence on coal is only growing.
Excuse # 1 — India is a growing economy — and growing economies pollute
The standard excuse given by the Indian government is that we are a growing economy, and growing economies WILL continue to pollute (as a direct byproduct of their industrial growth).
This is patently untrue.
For starters, it is entirely possible for industries to switch to green energy. Capital expenditure is involved, but companies end up saving more than they spend on the one time capital cost.
For another, a crackdown on the the afore-mentioned culprit (diesel), is all that is needed to get India’s air cleaner…
Excuse #2 — No one has a death certificate marked ‘Death by Pollution’
The Environmental and Health Ministers of India
As recently as December 2022, India’s new health minister, Bharati Pravin Pawar, re-stated the standard, not-my-problem response. No one has a death certificate that says ’cause of death, pollution’.
India’s previous health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, and it’s current health minister, Bharati Pawar, are a manifestation of everything that is wrong with India’s leadership on Air Quality.
Consider these illuminating highlights from his 5 years as India’s Health Minister
We don’t need to single out Dr. Harsh Vardhan, who single handedly handed Delhi kids their death certificate.
Prakash Javadekar, the current, sitting minister of the environment (2022), when asked about the toxic air levels, suggested that one should “start your day with calming music”, adding a link to a “scintillating thematic composition”.
Who appointed these people into these positions? This isn’t just their failure — this is the failure of a Government that appointed them. Callous is the word that comes to mind, when one thinks of these so called health and environment ministers.
The role of the public — A delight in breaking the rules
It is easy to blame a single authority like the Central Government.
However, the breaking of rules by almost all strata of Indians is also visible in plain sight.
Firecrackers exploding for minutes on end are a way for the rich to display their wealth at weddings. This, in spite of a ban by the Supreme Court on any kind of firecrackers!
A vast majority of diesel vehicles and diesel generators are owned by wealthy industrialists.
While I know some businessmen who are taking proactive measures to get off diesel, the majority will not budge until they are forced to.
What is the Indian Government to do?
- Take enforcement seriously. In spite of existing laws (that are constantly broken due to lack of enforcement) and harsh rebukes from the Supreme Court, the Central Government is largely unresponsive to the state of affairs.
- Unleash India’s Entrepreneurial energy (with the backing of the Government)
With over 80 unicorns out of India’s brain pool (in 2021) alone, India is experiencing the mother of all entrepreneurial surges.
India’s entrepreneurs are largely young, pro-risk (as opposed to the previous generation) — and willing to gamble a secure job for a start up challenge. They can be thought of primed racehorses waiting for challenges to be thrown their way (horses waiting for the gates to open).
A simple challenge from the Central Government — ‘Mandating 25% EVs in all cities, for example’ — will unleash Indian entrepreneurs to make this a reality in record time.
Industrial grade pollution cleaning towers, can be another challenge that can become a reality, given the right incentives.
Just like India’s air, India’s land is not spared from sheer negligence (by the authorities) and abuse (by the public, at large). It is commonplace to see miles and miles of trash by famous roadsides, including right in front of five star hotels and multinational offices.
The idea that the entire country is ‘their personal trash bin’ is seen
New Delhi is home to not one — but two infamous trash mountains. Mostly, plastic waste is at the root of these mountains of trash.
Simply outlawing plastic bags will be a good start. All these bags make their way down India’s rivers into the world’s oceans.
What is the Indian Public to do?
One of Sholay’s less famous dialogues is about the village men wearing bangles (hathon mein chudiya) — a reference to the cowardice shown by the men of the village in not standing up to the tyrant ‘Gabbar Singh’.
The time for sitting quietly and breathing toxic fumes is over.
Politicians who joke about the issue, should be made to stand in Delhi’s most polluted road crossing. Politicians who insist that Indians ignore the problem, should be placed face to face with the problem.
This is a very fixable crisis.
For someone with healthy lungs, a few days in Delhi’s air will turn those very same lungs into a chain smoker’s lungs.
For someone who has existing bronchitis or asthma or any respiratory condition, less than 5 minutes of exposure can land you in the hospital.
Steroid shots — along with oxygen cylinders will be needed to get you back to normal (my own 3 hospital visits are testament to this…but one doesn’t have to look far to find similar cases).
If kids filling hospital beds is not a strong enough incentive, perhaps economic incentives (think of the lost adult productivity from constantly struggling for air).
This is a fixable crisis — it just needs regulation (banning diesel, mandating EVs) from the center and swift enforcement at the state and local levels.