India: Less “Payback” For Pollution

By John Richardson

DelhijamIF you are convinced of the accuracy of Indian government air-quality readings, then air pollution in Delhi is nowhere near as bad as that in Beijing – despite a New York Times report to the contrary.

Government measurements, published in response to the NYT article, show that the concentration of harmful particulates less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM 2.5) never crossed 250 per cubic metre during the first three weeks of this year. This compares with the estimate published in the NYT of 473 micrograms per cubic metre, which was based on analysis by other experts.

Respectfully, we think that that this might miss the point. The point should be “how do we tackle this problem?” as, even by the official measurements, the air quality in Delhi was still TEN times above the World Health Organisation’s safe limit.

We hope we are being unfair here and that there are already effective Indian government policies in place to tackle this issue – not just n Delhi, but also across the whole country.

The NYT report is backed up by the latest global Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

The EPI is produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, and covers environmental problems in general.

It shows that:

  • India is ranked 155th worldwide and is the worst performer in the G20 group. India is behind Russia (73), Brazil (77)  and China (118).
  • India’s environmental performance has been exceptionally bad in terms of air quality. The report says that India’s scores in this category have declined by 100% over the last decade.
  • It goes on to note that the stress of urbanisation and insufficient investment in environmental protection are reasons why India’s air-quality scores have declined by so much.
  • The report also points out that while the media spotlight has been on China, and in particular Beijing’s air quality, India ranks the worst in the EPI’s air quality category.

Asthma and other respiratory ailments affect two in five Delhi residents, according to the International Harvard Review.

Air pollution is the sixth-biggest killer across India,  said the latest Lancet Global Health Burden of Disease report.

We suspect that something could be amiss with Indian government policies because, according to the NYT article:

  • Delhi’s newly-elected regional government did not mention air pollution among its 18 priorities, and India’s environment minister quit in December amid widespread criticism that she was delaying crucial industrial projects. Her replacement, the government’s petroleum minister, almost immediately approved several projects that could add to pollution.
  • In 1998, India’s Supreme Court ordered that Delhi’s taxis, three-wheelers and buses be converted to compressed natural gas, but the resulting improvements in air quality were short-lived as cars flooded the roads. In the 1970s, Delhi had about 800,000 vehicles; now it has 7.5 million, with 1,400 more added daily.

In China, the “sandwich generation” is exerting enormous pressure on the government to clean-up the environment. The government seems to be responding, as this generation cannot be allowed to vote with its feet by leaving China. It has to be persuaded to stay if China is to escape the middle-income trap.

The problem for India is that, unlike China, it hasn’t received the same “payback” for environmental degradation. China has many more millions of jobs in manufacturing.

And so the $64,000 question question has to be:  How does India unlock its growth potential in a sustainable way,  given that the “old fashioned” approach to industrialisation would surely make pollution a lot worse?

We would like to hear your answers.

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