Environment is becoming good politics. The timing is apt for both an administrative and political vision to give a Green Roadmap for India.

pollution, Delhi, SO2, climate change, sustainable development, industrialisation, urbanisation, Right To Clean Air, air pollution, environment

Smog in Gurgaon, December 2017


Recently, in Delhi, play was to stopped at the Ferozshah Kotla ground three times during the India-Sri Lanka cricket test. The reason was not rain or bad light as generally used to be. But this time, because of high levels of pollution. The Sri Lankan cricketers were battling for survival: not just against the Indian cricket juggernaut but also from having to cope with the heavily polluted air. The sight of international sportsmen wearing air masks and donning the national colours was a first to many.

This winter there is tension in the air. According to the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, India is expected to record a 2% increase in carbon emission this year. Before that leading up-to Diwali the Honourable Supreme Court burst a cracker of its own by banning its sales. The onset of the new season followed and large parts of northern India got covered in a blanket of smog. Moving on, there was controversy surrounding the Odd-Even scheme in the national capital. Meanwhile the PM levels reach alarming levels, children and the elderly face risk of permanent lung defects, schools are being forced to be shut down and air masks and purifiers sales go through the roof.

According to the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, India is expected to record a 2% increase in carbon emission this year.

In a span of a month, as a country and as a capital we have tried to deal with the issue of air pollution from small domestic use explosives, farmer stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana and vehicle emissions. Some estimates hold road dust is responsible for 38% of air pollution while vehicle emissions account for 20% in Delhi. In recent times, many proposals have emerged in the mainstream media on how to deal with the issue. The Economist has also written on the issue recently lamenting the state of air in South Asia.

As large parts of northern (and central) India struggle to breathe, it is time to bring a breath of fresh air to the problem. While civil society and citizens can and do play a critical role in solving environmental issues, institutional action is critical. Both from the political establishments and the executive. Caring about the environment has now become both good politics and good governance.

One, because pollution costs India dearly — a study by the Lancet Commission found that 2.51 million Indians died in 2015 due to pollution related deaths. We rank No. 1 in pollution related deaths and 25% of all deaths are caused due to pollution. Moreover, according to a 2013 World Bank report, air pollution alone costs India 8.5% of its GDP due to welfare costs and lost labour income. In the capital alone, the annual average PM2.5 particles number stands at 142 — 14 times the WHO standard of 10. If the Delhi air pollution could be reduced to the national standard of 40, it would increase the life expectancy by six years. Such high numbers cause early onset of asthma in children, pregnant women to deliver low weight babies with permanent health problems and critical ailments to the older populace.

If the Delhi air pollution could be reduced to the national standard of 40, it would increase the life expectancy by six years.

As the former deputy chairman of the planning commission, Montek Singh argues, eleven of the twenty most polluted cities in the world are in India. Given the coming urbanisation in the next few decades to attract investments and tourists we need to make our cities more liveable. The deputy chairman does articulate a host of ideas and measures for urban India starting with tackling the problem in the capital.

Two, because pollution has also entered the public discourse. Indians (at-least urban) have begun to become increasingly concerned with the issue. For starters social media outrage and satire on the subject shows a clear pulse of the people. Rigorous surveys tend to corroborate the mood — in 2015 a Pew Research Report revealed that 73% of Indians were “very concerned” about global climate change. A similar tone is repeated in a 2016 Pew Study which finds that 73% of city dwellers and 65% of rural Indians view air pollution as a “very big problem” with 47% of people willing to forgo economic growth for cleaner air. A separate Nielsen 2011 study adds weight to the argument by showing that 90% of Indians were “concerned” about air and water pollution and 80% thought climate change was an “important issue”.

While the problem is not a new one and the debate is not a first, but the issue has reached a crescendo both in terms of public consciousness and externalities.

  • There is a need for a Green Manifesto when political parties gear up for elections at least in urban India. As argued not only is that a moral imperative it is also tactically suave. The recent manifestos of most major parties did not give sufficient space to a green agenda. Come 2019 and beyond that should and will change. There is a need to have a separate environment vision document especially for Urban India. Given the recent events political parties should expect environment to become a focal campaign point, at least in cities. A glimpse of this coming change can be seen in some of the more recent documents albeit from relatively young political parties. While the West does suffer from double standards in international negotiations there are still some lessons to be learnt. In the American context, candidates are compelled to articulate their respective positions on the matter. Former Vice President Al Gore built an entire movement and narrative around the subject. The UK even has a Green Party, albeit it has seen limited success.
  • There is a need for an environment roadmap from the administration and the executive. One, the Niti Ayog could set green goals akin to the UNDP’s Millennium Development Goals. While air pollution is one of the main culprits, it is not the only one and radical solutions in mission mode need to be sought. Two, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) needs to be revamped and armed with more scientists and environmentalists and fewer retired judges.
  • As some have risk India should have a federal green agency akin to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Certain government measures are welcome steps — for example, the vision to have only electric vehicles by 2030.
  • It is important to study the steps taken by other countries. Until a few years ago Beijing was more polluted than Delhi — satellite data between 2010-15 show a 17% decline in fine particle material over China while the same data show a 13% increase over India. Moreover a new study from the University of Maryland shows that Sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution declined by 75% in China over the last decade while in India it increased by 50%. In China, the SO2 controls were imposed on coal power plants while in the case of India the measures are delayed until 2022 in some cases (original regulations were imposed in December 2015). A leading Indian daily too has published on learnings from China.

Chipko Movement, Green, pollution, Green Fund, climate change, sustainable development, Right To Clean Air, 2030, right to life, India
Source: PTI

We are seeing early signs of the political boundaries being marked out in the battle of green. Various proposals are doing the round. Creating a multi-north-Indian CM committee headed by the Prime Minister to floating a “Right to Clean Air” Private Member’s Bill. Moreover there is also public debate being created around the RTI disclosure surrounding the high under utilisation of the 787 Cr. Green Fund by the Delhi government. All in all green is slowly creeping into the main stream political narrative and that is not the worst news we have received this spring.

India will need high GDP growth along with sustainable development. A developing country which continues to face dual challenges of unemployment and poverty, needs to balance environmental concerns with needs for rapid large-scale industrialisation. That economic engine along with accelerated urbanisation will put immense pressure on India’s Green Report Card — and that is a juggling act political leaders and administrators will need to master.

India will need high GDP growth along with sustainable development. A developing country which continues to face dual challenges of unemployment and poverty, needs to balance environmental concerns with needs for rapid large-scale industrialisation.

In an impassioned plea to take some action, a recent article talks about the various “time bombs” India is sitting on and its path of “self-destruction”. Climate change and pollution figured high in the list of reasons for us to be very worried about our future and the future of our nation. We have come a long way from few years ago when many of us felt insulted when an American journalist wrote a farewell piece attributing the Capital’s pollution to his decision to leave.

Every Indian has a right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution and a clean environment is part of that right. Neglecting pollution concerns not only violates fundamental rights but it also has economic, human and political costs. The Indian voter is ready with open doors for an environment conscious politician to walk in. But this time, the concern has to be real, the manifesto substantial and the promises delivered.

The Chipko Movement in the 1970’s proved as a tipping point for environmental causes not just in India but rest of the world as well. There is a need for a “Chipko 2.0”, this time lead by the political class.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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