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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Review: Air-Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice Between Policy and Pretence by Dean Spears

Air pollution results in babies born with low height and also leads to higher infant mortality rates. Despite this, few in India acknowledge that it is a serious problem.

books Updated: Sep 07, 2019 12:48 IST
Sudhirendar Sharma
Sudhirendar Sharma
Hindustan Times
UP sheet street: Going to school in smog caused by crop burning.
UP sheet street: Going to school in smog caused by crop burning. (AFP)
         
258pp, Rs250; HarperCollins
258pp, Rs250; HarperCollins

In a country where corruption continues to coexist with progress, indifference to pollution as a fatal fallout of development is bound to remain at the periphery of social discourse. Four decades since the enactment of the legislative provision to control and prevent air pollution, and despite an estimated million people dying as a result of it, few in India acknowledge air pollution as a serious problem. Why would they when the government has continued to deny that many deaths are caused exclusively due to it? Ignorance and denial has transformed the problem of air pollution from a meek cat into an assertive tiger.

Dean Spears confronts this tiger head-on in his socio-anthropological analysis of air pollution as it registers its presence in the country’s sprawling urban jungles and degrading rural landscapes. The impact of stubble burning in rural fields on ambient air quality across urban centres has shown that no one can escape. The author believes India’s air pollution is not one problem but a multilayered manifestation of governance and market failure. Since it does not respect the rural-urban divide, fixing it poses a formidable public policy challenge. This, he stresses, is a collective problem that needs to be addressed through a policy directive on structural reforms.

Air pollution comes from several sources, many of which are nondescript in an informal economy. Keeping a tab on its nature and extent is as challenging as designing incentives to put a cap on it. The book takes the health route to raise concerns. Through carefully curated data, Spears provides evidence on how exposure to air pollution not only results in babies born with low height but also, shockingly, leads to higher infant mortality rates. While life expectancy has caught up with the developed world, India continues to have one-quarter of the world’s neonatal deaths. There are definite social and economic reasons to fight air pollution. It is also clear that the polluter cannot keep a safe distance from the impact of pollution, and should play a proactive role in tackling the problem.

Author Dean Spears in Kanpur.
Author Dean Spears in Kanpur. ( Courtesy the author )

Air provides a nuanced understanding on air pollution and the country’s deep vulnerability to it in an era of impending climate change. Since policymakers have not invested in monitoring pollution and experts have not developed tools to curb it, this book is directed at enlightened voters who are concerned about the health of our society.

The state has an obligation towards its people. If a not-so-free China can cut its particle pollution in Beijing, India with its better democratic credentials should be able to effectively tackle pollution both in urban and rural areas. Spears wonders if the government will pursue a carrot and stick approach of right incentives along with punitive punishment to inculcate responsive behaviour among municipal managers and law enforcers.

A handy and easy-to-read book that provides a social science perspective on the political economy of development (read pollution), Air doesn’t point out which boiler at a coal-based power plant can reduce pollution but instead shows that coal is not the appropriate source of energy for the country. It adds more dangerous particles to the air than any other source and cutting down on it offers the co-benefits of reducing air pollution and carbon emissions. The book leaves the reader with a set of open-ended recommendations.

Spears has lived in India for a while and is aware of the sociocultural aspects of both rural and urban life. This lends credence to his writing. Politics is a difficult way to improve policies, the book asserts, but independent citizens can contribute to democratic accountability by influencing politics. Air pollution is too important to ignore and informed citizens need to track it and influence the state to act for the greater good.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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First Published: Sep 06, 2019 21:15 IST