The discourse on air pollution is enveloped by dense smog. The narrative is riveted by breathless confusion, and conflation —of seasonal, spatial and systemic issues.
Air pollution is not a seasonal event, which arrives and departs with the winter. The inversion effect makes apparent that which invisibly chokes lungs through the year. It is not only Delhi that is polluted—30 Indian cities are on the world’s 100 most polluted cities’ list. At the systemic level, the state of the environment really depends on what other ministries do or, more pertinently, fail to do.
The consequences of inaction are not unknown. In 1995, a World Bank study, aptly titled ‘The cost of inaction’, revealed that air pollution was causing over 40,000 premature deaths and cost the economy nearly $8 billion. Inaction is propped by a psychosis of denial. Hypothetically, the loss of lives should propel action, but successive regimes—United Front, NDA, UPA I and II, and NDA II—codified denial. Consider the government’s response on pollution-related deaths since two decades.
1998: “There is no conclusive scientific data to confirm these figures.”
2002: “It is very difficult to accept that these deaths are only due to pollution and not other factors”.
2006: “No conclusive data is available to establish co-relationship between the mortality and air pollution.”
2013: “No statistical data is available regarding the number of persons suffering from respiratory disorders caused due to pollution.”
2016: “No conclusive data available to establish direct co-relationship of death exclusively due to air pollution.
This week, Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, a practising doctor, said there is no need to spread panic over the present air pollution situation in Delhi, adding it is not like the Bhopal Gas tragedy, which was an ‘emergency’. The characterisation of disaster as emergency represents a new normal of semantics in politics. Mind you, just last month, a Lancet study stated that air pollution caused over half a million premature deaths in India in 2015. This week, the Burden of Disease report (where government is a partner) listed air pollution as second biggest cause of deaths and disabilities.
Annually, and typically, high decibel outrage attracts attention and promise of action. On December 30, 2015, as decibels rose with the smog, Prakash Javadekar, then the Minister of Environment, announced 39 steps under Section 18 of the Air Act. These dealt with garbage burning, managing construction waste, public transport, curbing emissions and agri waste disposal. The smog of 2017 validates that little has changed.
The quality of air is the manifestation of policies on the ground. Pollution is largely the consequence of gaps in infrastructural capacity, of warped policies and distortionary dogmas. Misconceived public policies have a systematic multiplier effect. Every villain in the pollution saga is a creation of systemic and structural failures.
Track the trail of consequence and cause. Automobile emission surges with growth in vehicles on the road. The need for personal transport is compelled by the inadequacy of mass transport systems. Why are people forced to spend a quarter of their waking hours in metal containers burning expensive fuel? Because misconceived land use policies defining how much can be built over how much land have shrunk access to housing, distorted pricing, and resulted in sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.
The political economy question is who benefits from lower FSIs? Ideally, cities, especially topographically-challenged metros, must grow vertically before expanding horizontally. It would be worth the while for government to direct the Niti Aayog to simulate higher FAR/FSI on the existing grid of metros to compute the price imposed on the economy—from loss of productive time to fuel and healthcare costs.
Take pollution caused by emissions from power back-up systems. The need for back-up systems, for businesses or apartment complexes, is a cost imposed by an ecosystem where access is stifled and 24x7 supply unreliable. It stems from economically unviable but electorally profitable policies—free power sops and politically patronised theft that have left state electricity boards bankrupt and powerless to fulfil a critical need.
Take burning of agri waste. The question is why the farmers resort to in situ incineration of waste even though burning kills vital microbes and releases chemicals, which impact yields. Fact is, returns from farming, particularly in small holdings, are not enough to pay for waste disposal. State intervention and/or leveraging of the ‘start-up’ template can enable financing/leasing and mechanisation, to create linkages with thermal power plants. That has not happened.
Political expediency makes the tactical seductive—ergo governments resort to measures like odd/even, banning construction et al. The measures on the table are paracetamol prescriptions. Introducing new constraints, imposing costs on the people and the economy for policy failures are neither sustainable nor will be fruitful. India can scarcely afford the consequences. Air and water pollution claim over 2.5 million lives. World Bank studies show air pollution cost India 8.5 per cent of the GDP in 2013. The costs represent the price of inaction. The crisis demands a strategic overhaul of policies on urbanisation, agriculture, energy and transportation. It will take more than placebos and the occasional rain to cleanse the air.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India