When a toxic haze descended on Delhi even before the sparkle of Diwali’s fireworks faded last November, it sparked off a flurry of long-delayed government activity. Daily meetings were convened, power stations shut down and road sweeping ordered. The smog lifted after a week, and with it, the semblance of official concern vanished about a chronic problem that is not only killing thousands but also shaving crores off India’s economy.
A recent Greenpeace study reported that air pollution killed 1.2 million Indians annually and none of the 168 cities surveyed complied with global air quality norms. About 3% of the country’s GDP is lost because of air pollution, the study added. This might be an understatement. An OECD report last year said the macroeconomic effects of pollution – loss in labour productivity, slowing agriculture, mounting health costs, and welfare costs of illness and morbidity – tend to multiply over time and hurt the economy. Additionally, people don’t want to move to places with toxic air and businesses suffer because the poor quality of life deters investors.
The World Bank said in September that about 8.5% of the country’s GDP in 2013 was lost to air pollution – indicating bad air was enough to offset the growth rate. An Economist article said lower air pollution in Los Angeles, for example, would have seen a service sector productivity boost by an astonishing $374 million. Imagine, then, the impact of cleaner air on a national economy. Warning signs of this magnitude should have triggered a nationwide alarm, the kind that saw the UK Clean Air Act passed in 1956 after the great London smog killed 12,000 people.
But the response has either been nationalist – remember the outrage when New York Times’ Gardiner Harris left Delhi blaming the air quality – or disdainful, as evidenced by the government’s frequent dismissal of reports.
Whenever there has been any action, it has been sporadic and focused on big cities. But such an approach neglects the fact that air cannot be cleaned piecemeal and needs deep policy intervention. In Delhi, the odd-even scheme failed to make an impact because the city’s transport system remained inadequate, the bus network broken and last-mile connectivity missing. This encouraged people to purchase more vehicles, driving up emissions. Industrial pollution cannot be tackled without national standards, strict implementation and monitoring agencies with teeth. Garbage burning cannot stop without a radical overhaul of how cities generate and segregate waste and pollution from mines will continue in the absence of a new policy.
A problem such as multi-state stubble burning – which causes pollution in Delhi – can be stopped with concerted policy efforts by the national and state governments, not by “emergency meetings” on a few days every winter.
The focus also needs to shift away from Delhi and big metros to smaller cities, where near-absent monitoring, lax oversight and poor awareness propel pollution. Nine of the 10 most-polluted cities on the Greenpeace list aren’t metros and will probably not get any attention. The time for quick fixes is over.