The Toxic Air of India

We have tolerated air pollution for too long now. Our apathy is as foul as the air we breathe.

“India is a tolerant nation,” Nitin Gadkari said in a speech recently. Many saw this as a benign BJP hat being thrown into the Prime Ministerial ring. Be that as it may, I agree with Gadkari — we are an extremely tolerant nation.

We are tolerant of miscarried justice, uncleared garbage, killing roads, and the most toxic air in the world.

14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India, including my hometown, Delhi. Our air quality makes global headlines in autumn, when cool evening air traps pollutants close to the ground, low wind speeds stem their dispersal, and the acrid smoke of stubble-burning in Haryana and Punjab drifts our way. From October to January, the Air Quality Index (AQI) sets my activity levels for the morning. If it’s moderate, I hit the road on my cycle; if it’s poor, I don a mask along with my helmet; if it’s severe or hazardous, I stay at home, with the air purifier on. This year, I haven’t cycled since Diwali.

Medical research says I’m not being alarmist. If air pollution levels in Delhi remain where they are, the average resident’s life span could be shortened by 10 years. That number means little till you think of it in terms of chronic bronchitis, asthma, impaired breathing, tuberculosis and lung cancer. Our air pollution is characterised by unprecedented levels of the finest particulate matter, sized below 2.5 microns (PM2.5). Our natural defences are not built to filter out pollutants this tiny, so they creep into not just our lungs, but into our bloodstream, and elevate the risk of depression, strokes and various forms of cancer.

Our toxic air puts most of north India at risk, from Punjab and Haryana, through Delhi, into UP, and most of Bihar, home to over 500 million people. Pollution should be seen as a national crisis. Instead, as Siddharth Singh writes in The Great Smog of India, “silence has characterised the air pollution issue in every way.”

In 2016, an embattled Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, launched an ill-conceived plan to keep 50% of private cars off our roads. It failed, and no alternative was brought into play. He also pledged to procure vacuum cleaning trucks to reduce road dust. Two years later, you see the odd one in Lutyen’s Delhi.

In 2017, Kejriwal tried to discuss the stubble-burning issue with the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana. No meetings were held. Instead we have seen an extended verbal battle between Kejriwal and his Punjab counterpart, Captain Amarinder Singh. The public-minded flavour of this debate is well-captured by the Captain’s rhetorical question: “Even a school kid would know better, can he (Kejriwal) really be an IIT graduate?”

Air pollution does not recognise state boundaries, and the looming health crisis requires massive coordinated action at the federal level. I do not recall a single call for action by our Prime Minister. In contrast, when air pollution in China hit alarming levels, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared, “We will resolutely declare war against pollution, as we declared war against poverty.” Between 2012 and 2016, Beijing saw a 25% reduction in air particulate levels.

China’s governance structure is designed for severe top-down change, and severe penal action. Ours isn’t. This Diwali, the Supreme Court issued strictures against burning firecrackers in the NCR. Perhaps the Supreme Court overstepped its remit. Irrespective, the restrictions were flagrantly ignored, and little action taken by the police. While PM 2.5 levels jumped from 170 to above 1000 in 3 hours, vocal segments of the social media said the firecracker ban was an assault on their religious and cultural freedom.

We are now at the end of the year, and neither the state politics of stubble burning nor the religious politics of Diwali cloud the issue. What we now clearly see is civil apathy. In my own neighbourhood, night watchmen burn wood fires to keep themselves warm, because their millionaire employers won’t pay for electric heaters. My family’s domestic staff refuse to wear the masks we bought them for outdoor work. Among the thousands of runners at the Delhi half-marathon, only a handful had protected themselves. It’s as if we are blind to the science of medicine, and the concept of long-term risk.

In a nation beset with economic and social issues, and limited by poor state capacity, governmental action will come only in response to massive public pressure and protest. Sadly, I don’t see this happening till the suffering piles up in lakhs of homes, and doctors and epidemiologists wave the death toll in our faces.

Meanwhile, long live tolerance.

About the author

Mohit Satyanand

Mohit is an entrepreneur, investor, and economy watcher. He is Chairman of Teamwork Arts, which produces the Jaipur Literature Festival, and has business interests in food processing, education, and a wide range of start-ups.