Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Opinion | When will India’s war on air pollution finally begin?

Earlier this year, when French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beijing, he looked at the clear blue skies above and exclaimed: “I’ve never seen Beijing like this!" Macron was not off the mark. Ten years ago, the city’s air was so polluted that the sun appeared to be a fading dot in the sky.

Looking back, when I first landed at Beijing airport in 2008, dawn had broken but the intensity of sunlight was feeble at best. The frail sunlight in Beijing touched a chord with people from Delhi, used to the capital’s tepid sunlight in the winter. A few days ago, I read in The New York Times that cancer caused by industrial pollution is claiming lives in large numbers in this Asian superpower. Millions of people meet an untimely death owing to air pollution and only 1% of residents in the world’s most populous country are able to live in an environment free of pollution.

Five years after my visit, in 2013, China evolved a national working strategy to fight pollution. Under this, they placed a number of restrictions on the use of coal. Thermal power stations were shut down and people were not allowed to burn coal even for household consumption. Also, apart from creating norms for vehicular emissions, a number of precautionary measures that could keep air pollution in check were put in place. For the record, 137,000 people in China lost their lives because of PM 2.5 vehicular emissions just this year.

While it is true that Beijing’s air quality has improved, the government is far from achieving its targets. The Chinese government has acknowledged that pollution has not reduced to the extent that it was targeting in as many as 231 out of 338 Chinese cities. To overcome this, another three-year working strategy has been prepared.

The question is: If China can launch a fierce war on pollution, why can’t India? Until when will we keep lamenting that the form of governance in China is very different from India, that their government can do what it wants, while we are a democracy? To get approval for its projects, our government requires no-objection-certificates from its own departments. This leads to development plans getting entangled in red tape and facing legal bottlenecks.

Can these hollow arguments by India’s politicians compensate for the loss of lives and money caused by pollution? A recent report by The Lancet Commission on pollution and health reveals that the scourge of pollution claimed the lives of 2.51 million Indians in 2015 alone. It is frightening to discover that 28% of pollution deaths worldwide are of Indian citizens and 75% of these victims stay in rural India. India may not be topping the charts in any other sphere, but we are miles ahead of others on this dubious front.

How bereft of sensitivity our politicians are on this issue is evident in the verbal skirmishes that the chief ministers of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana engaged in. Pay attention! Three different parties are in power in the three states, but they appear to be united when it comes to brushing this subject under the carpet.

The numbers made public by the Central Pollution Control Board last week affirm as much. After examining the air quality of 65 cities, they discovered that the quality of 60 of these was poor.

Delhi and the areas adjoining it are in the grip of a serious pollution crisis. These numbers are scary, but let me help you get acquainted with another scary statistic. Isn’t it a matter of shame that just 65 cities in such a large country as ours have government facilities to measure pollution?

If the pollution levels of every city in the county were to be evaluated, the statistic will be enough to make every citizen anxious.

It isn’t surprising that even migratory birds from distant countries such as Siberia have begun to give India a skip? The number of migratory birds at Delhi’s Yamuna Biodiversity Park has been reducing over the last three years. If the pollution continues, even birds will turn their back on us. Needless to say, it is birds that initiate the process of migration and the process often ends with human beings.

This could be the reason why a recent study discovered that 35% of its residents want to migrate from Delhi. Clearly, the capital has lost some of its sheen.

Nature is sending out a clear signal: Mend your ways or you’ll perish.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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