Why Don’t Indians Think Air Pollution Is A Serious Problem
Of the many issues that the 2019 General Elections were fought on in India, strangely enough, pollution didn’t feature highly at all. Given we in India have some of the most polluted cities in the world, that clean air is not considered important or essential enough to be an election issue is noteworthy. Pollution is primarily an urban phenomenon and considered a local issue rather than a national one. Cities like Delhi and the entire NCR region to be fair, have been dealing with pollution levels that sometimes can go off the charts. Yet, far from declaring this as a national health emergency, and demanding to know what political parties propose to do to tackle this, citizens are too caught up with day to day survival. With issues like job losses, growing unemployment, and economic downswing, issues like pollution and health concerns naturally don’t figure high on the list of priorities. Do ordinary citizens even think about air pollution as important enough to demand answers and solutions from those in power?
Says Siddharth Singh, Author of The Great Smog of India, “In the year 2000, to curb air pollution, the Supreme Court ordered that industries within residential areas of Delhi be relocated away from the city. One would imagine that residents of the city would have welcomed this move. Instead, people took to the streets and protested this move. Public infrastructure was destroyed and people even lost their lives in the violence. The reason was straightforward: with industries moving out of town, people would have lost their jobs and livelihoods.
Far from declaring this as a national health emergency, and demanding to know what political parties propose to do to tackle this, citizens are too caught up with day to day survival.
This concern exists to this day. Every action against air pollution will come at a cost to the people. Shutting down coal fired power plants without installing replacements will lead to power cuts and job losses, stopping crop residue burning will lead to farmers feeling financial strain, stopping diesel-powered trucks will lead to essential commodities not reaching people, closing schools when air pollution is high will lead to students losing out academically, and so on.
Now, of course, air pollution has an even graver impact on the people, with over a million deaths every year. However, these deaths are too scattered and no one has been able to perceive the pattern easily. These deaths happen in hospital beds, away from the media glare. People suffer in silence. Therefore there is no large scale understanding of the criticality of the crisis, and the sacrifices we will have to make to improve the situation.”
Adds activist Cassandra Nazareth, “I think people are too preoccupied with earning their daily bread to stop and think about such issues. In India the “Quality of life” concept just does not exist. The social awareness that one can lead a better life, has yet to percolate to the greater chunk of the population, who are yet, mostly non or partly educated. Government policies are formulated more as appeasements and remain on paper. There is no political will to implement them. India is governed by Political parties who are notorious for framing rules to suit themselves, it is only if more transparency is demanded and implemented in Public life will the citizens be at the centre of this governance.”
In India the “Quality of life” concept just does not exist. The social awareness that one can lead a better life, has yet to percolate to the greater chunk of the population, who are yet, mostly non or partly educated. – Cassandra Nazareth
Last year in May, the World Health Organisation put the Indian city of Kanpur at the top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world. This was based on 2016 data from the Central Pollution Control Board about the presence of PM 2.5 particles, which are pollution particles in the air which can enter the lungs of a person. Globally the safe limit is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, in India, we consider 60 as the safe limit, Kanpur was at 173.
The list of the most polluted cities is based on the PM 2.5 which is an air pollutant. Levels of up to 60µg/m3 are considered acceptable, but cities in India have long crossed this. Ironically, India is a signatory to the Paris Accord of the United Nations and is one of around 200 countries which have done so to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change from 2020.
Says Ronak Sutaria, Founder & CEO, Respirer Living Sciences Pvt. Ltd, “Our problem is primarily industrial pollution. It is cheaper to pollute than to find a cost-effective manufacturing method which does not pollute the environment.” The small scale industries are largely unregulated in terms of emissions, and in belts like Kanpur in UP, this is even more acutely felt. “In cities, our major problem is that of waste burning. Of the 11,000 tonnes of trash which is generated in Mumbai each day, over 30 percent of our waste doesn’t make it to the dump yard. Vehicular emissions are another major issue, as is road dust and construction dust in the cities.”
Our problem is primarily industrial pollution. It is cheaper to pollute than to find a cost-effective manufacturing method which does not pollute the environment. – Ronak Sutaria
In 2019, the manifestos of the BJP, AAP and the Congress party have all included a promise to address the issues of pollution if voted into power. But sadly, this is where it has remained, in the manifestos. We didn’t hear about it in the road shows, in speeches, no mottos were coined to popularise it, pollution one would argue, did not get the attention it deserved, neither from those standing for the elections nor from those who would vote these in. To be honest, pollution is not much of a priority in the public discourse about the issues that concern the voter.
What is heartening perhaps is that for the first time ever, pollution did figure on the election manifestos of the leading parties, even if the mentions did feel like tokenism given the placement of the issue almost at the end of the manifestos for some.
The party manifesto for the Aam Aadmi Party promised to substantially reduce the current levels of air pollution in Delhi by focussing on eliminating crop residue burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. As for the BJP, their manifesto focuses on the National Clean Air programme which was launched in January 2019, with the promise of reducing particulate matter in the air by 30 percent in the next five years. This was mentioned almost at the end of a list of 75 items which perhaps indicates how much of a priority this is.
To quote from the manifesto, “We will convert the National Clean Air Plan into a mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country.”
As for the Congress, they are the only party to actually say that they will treat pollution as a national health emergency and put in place an environment protection authority that will “establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and regulations.” It does not elaborate though, how it proposes to do so. This too comes almost at the end of the manifesto, in the 49th section in a manifesto with 52 points.
In the AAP manifesto, they state that contingent on Delhi becoming a state, the party will convert the public bus transport system to 100% electric, vacuum up the roads and encourage citizens to be participants in the efforts to reduce air pollution.
Are these enough though, or is this too little too late? Says Siddharth Singh, “It is a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere close to being enough. A mere mention in the manifesto does not guarantee any action at all. The whole election season passed without a single mention of air pollution by the PM or opposition leaders. Until the day a politician loses a seat due to air pollution, it will not be taken as seriously as it should.” Adds Cassandra Nazareth, “The fact that it made it to the manifestos of a few political parties in 2019, shows that the issue is becoming important to the population.”
A mere mention in the manifesto does not guarantee any action at all. The whole election season passed without a single mention of air pollution by the PM or opposition leaders. – Siddharth Singh
Are the economic policies in place to tackle manufacturing, industries, emission control, agriculture, etc? Are voters concerned enough about the financial, physical and emotional cost of pollution in their lives? Says Siddharth Singh, “The first step would be to recognize air pollution as a public health emergency. This will give the signal to everyone in the society that it should have priority in all their actions. Second, there should be a unified policy framework for air pollution. This framework would bring together all arms of the central and state governments that are supposed to act on the issue: the transport ministries, finance ministries, industries, agriculture departments, pollution control boards, regulators, municipal corporations, and so on. They would then have to focus on public transport, put curbs on the dirtiest coal-based power plants, enforce a complete transition away from agricultural waste burning by providing alternatives for the farmers, enforce emission curbs on industry, and enforce the use of modern construction techniques for better dust management.”
Adds Sutaria, “Air pollution is nobody’s baby. It needs concerted coordination between the Ministry of Industries, Environment and Health to have a significant impact. We do have Health Advisories being issued but are those enough? We don’t have a template for a National Health Emergency to be declared. For instance, in the USA, a state like California managed to bring their pollution smog days down from around 200 days to about 70 days over a period of 20 years but that is only because they went about it very systematically with the setting up of the California Air Resources Board, and further into Air Quality Management Districts. This has to be a long term effort, we cannot expect substantial changes otherwise.”
The first step would be to recognize air pollution as a public health emergency. This will give the signal to everyone in the society that it should have priority in all their actions. Second, there should be a unified policy framework for air pollution. – Siddharth Singh
Sadly though, the conversations around the health risks surrounding pollution come up at the times when pollution levels peak. This conversation too is focused on short term impact rather than long term repercussions on health. People are focused on individual solutions to the pollution threat like air purifiers and face masks rather than looking at long term solutions to reduce pollution. This is according to a March 2019 study titled Hazy Perceptions, by Vital Strategies, a global health advocacy which analysed 500,000 news and social media posts in 11 countries from South and Southeast Asia to understand how people respond to pollution.
Countries like China have managed to show a concerted effort to tackle air pollution. Says Siddharth Singh, “What China did well was make it a political issue, and then put their administrative might to solving this problem. Their senior most leaders made speeches about the air pollution crisis, and they conveyed to administrators very clearly that action would be taken against them if they did not act. This led to bureaucrats falling in line at every level. Of course, they were able to take a few aggressive steps that are not possible in India. However, at the very least we should learn how to make this a political and administrative agenda from the Chinese.”
Awareness about the long term impact of chronic pollution on health as well as the development of children is low and therefore pollution does not rank high on the list of issues for an average voter, which is why political parties in turn can put it on low priority.
Says Siddharth Singh, “Everyone who is in the position to raise a voice must do so. And we must communicate this in simplest possible terms, while focussing on the very real impacts on people. If the statistic about 1.2 million deaths in a country of over 1 billion doesn’t move the needle, then people should be told about the impacts they will see in their own lifetimes, including possible heart attacks, lung cancer, cognitive disorders, and much more. Until people see and hear the impacts of the crisis, we will not be compelled to act.” Cassandra Nazareth states, “The persons/companies responsible for pollution must be made to rectify and curb pollution. A holistic approach to garbage segregation with robust recycling & scientific disposal is much needed. At the micro level, merely penalizing housing societies and dictating that they dispose of all of their garbage themselves is not the way to go.”
Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.T