Air is the ultimate democratiser, affecting each one of us, rich or poor, old or young, Indian or from any other nationality. Unlike water, we cannot carry bottles of purified air. The air we breathe has many components. The harmful components include gaseous pollutants like ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulphur and nitrous oxide, microbiological pollutants like bacteria and viruses, and, the worst, particulate matter (PM) — mostly tiny carbon particles and dust. The most deadly among these are PM2.5 particles, which are invisible to the naked eye. Studies have been conducted on the effects of PM2.5 and on how inhaling these micro-particles can affect our lungs and overall health. Once we breathe in these micro particles, they never leave our body, increasing the chances of stroke, seizure, cardiovascular disease, cancer and impaired brain function.
So, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is serious about inviting foreign investment and his ‘Make in India’ initiative, then his government needs to get equally serious about cleaning the country’s air. No foreign investor in his right mind is going to follow his money to live in a polluted city that can affect his family’s lungs the minute they step on Indian soil. And even if such investors decide to give work out on contract, they will have to pay higher salaries and compensations to their executives to come, live and execute their projects in India.
Many international companies and organisations have already begun to realise the intangible and increasingly heavy costs of sending their workers and staff to India.
Few have been bold enough to state their reservations openly. Multilateral agencies and multinationals are talking about this in hushed tones in an attempt to find a solution — because it is not diplomatic to criticise your host country’s flaws. Gradually, these conversations are growing louder.
One large multilateral organisation is sending a fact-finding team to India to research and implement interim measures to limit toxic effects from Delhi air pollution on their roughly 300 staff posted here. Smaller and less affluent multinationals are looking for other creative solutions. Even if we go a step further and say, well, give us your money, and hire our people to execute and manage your projects, it still comes back to breathing polluted air. There is really no getting away from this. There is an economic cost to pushing mindless industrialisation and growth. It manifests itself not just through lost productivity caused by ill-health, but also through rising medical costs, which often go unmeasured. While Delhi holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city (according to the World Health Organisation), 13 of the 20 most polluted cities worldwide are Indian. Calling it the problem of India’s capital is not enough, this is a national crisis.
If Modi wants to welcome foreign investors and stop local investors from leaving, he needs to enforce and implement bold and concrete steps to arrest this menace.
Otherwise, not just expatriates and foreign agencies, even many who do not want to move out, who moved to India from cleaner climes, made difficult choices or those of us who never had a choice will begin to look for options.
But by not taking this issue seriously enough, India is creating a cohort of environmental migrants fleeing our cities, even the country as a result of an early recognition that rapid economic growth will come at the cost of declining health, a gigantic, invisible and intangible cost.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based columnist and co-founder of Care for Air (careforair.org), an awareness and advocacy platform whose mission is the pursuit of clean air
The views expressed are personal