Indian govt can study China’s air cleanup

By S. Sarkar Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-17 19:58:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When US President Barack Obama visited India in January, two items diverted attention from diplomatic issues. One was the special suit Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore, an over 10-million-rupee (over $160,000) affair in which the pinstripes were actually his name printed over and over again. The other was the news that the US Embassy in New Delhi had bought over 1,800 air purifiers in preparation for the visit, triggering speculation if the president would curb his outdoor activities in the Indian capital, the world's worst polluted city.

Thick fogs, bronchial and heart diseases and a spurt in cancer are becoming part of the landscape as Indian cities grapple with fossil fuel consumption, growing industrial emissions, diesel fumes from ancient and badly maintained vehicles still on the road, and a construction boom. The relentless population growth putting pressure on resources has added to the woes. 

There have been several wake-up calls about the air peril. Last year, a World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 1,600 cities in 91 countries found Delhi to have the highest concentration of tiny airborne particles, PM2.5, in the world, overtaking Beijing. The particles, which can be inhaled and enter the bloodstream, can cause lung cancer, heart disease and acute bronchitis. A staggering 99.5 percent of India's 1.2 billion people inhale unsafe air while of the 20 cities WHO calls the most polluted, 13 are in India.

Another study in the Geophysical Research Letters journal the same year said every year India loses crops worth $1.3 billion due to the rise in ozone, a key component of the haze.

However, while Indians are familiar with images of runners wearing gas masks during the Beijing International Marathon last year and Singapore and Malaysia being engulfed for several days in a pall of haze that billowed from Indonesian forest fires, the situation at home has gone largely unnoticed.

Though an earlier government in Delhi sought to ban diesel-driven autos, a public vehicle that can carry three to four passengers, and convert them into gas-driven ones to cut down on emissions, the benefits have been diluted due to the rise in the number of diesel cars despite the Central Pollution Control Board advocating a ban. While the introduction of the metro in major cities should boost the fight against emissions, the prevailing Indian notion of cars being a status symbol prevents the wealthy from using public transport.

The government reaction has been shortsighted denial. It rejected the WHO findings and said it would come up with its own National Air Quality Index. This time, in the wake of the Obama furor, the three government agencies releasing air monitoring data in the capital were asked to submit the findings to the pollution control board first "for analysis," giving rise to fears that the information could be altered or simply suppressed.

A Greenpeace campaigner told the media, "India is still in denial about the alarming pollution levels in the national capital. Our government still wants to compare itself to Beijing but the Chinese city is already moving ahead. Its pollution levels have reduced, they have put in place a five-year plan, monitoring systems and an alarm system (to warn of high pollution levels)."

There has been no move to curb the growing number of private vehicles or slap higher pollution tax on polluting industries. Though efforts are on to develop solar and wind power, the Power Ministry is seeking to increase coal production to treble coal-fired electricity generation to 450 gigawatts by 2030.

That is likely to lead to further air deterioration, given the low fuel standards and a lack of regulation to control mercury and other poisonous emissions. Central India still bears the scars of the world's worst industrial emission disaster in 1984 when a multinational pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked toxic gas in the air, causing over 3,000 deaths and disabling tens of thousands.

With its love of the West, the Indian government is planning an environmental protection program with the US. It could also look closer to home for environmental cooperation. In 2009, Delhi and Beijing signed an agreement to enhance cooperation on climate change and have been displaying a united front on tackling global warming in international forums. In 2010, they agreed on bilateral cooperation in the forestry sector to create a mechanism for absorbing greenhouse gases. It would only be logical to take this cooperation one step further. The geographical proximity of the two countries and their similar lifestyles should make sharing experiences and expertise more fruitful. 

The author is an Indian reporter based in Beijing.

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