Home >Opinion >The polluted heart of the particulate matter

Delhiites finally have something to be proud of. Thanks to the vision, planning, and sagacity of successive Delhi governments, the national capital is now officially the world’s No. 1 city in air pollution.

According to a Yale University study, New Delhi has just dethroned Beijing as the metropolis with the world’s most polluted atmosphere. The wily Chinese, of course, are sore losers. They cannot be expected to give up so easily on a matter of such national prestige. So there is now a heated dispute going on over whether New Delhi is really the new No. 1 or the Chinese capital is still ahead of our national capital .

The problem, apparently, was New Delhi’s air quality data, which, according to the Yale experts who conducted the study, was not transparent enough for a direct comparison with Beijing’s air quality data. But hello, shouldn’t this very fact settle the issue in Delhi’s favour? As anyone who’s spent time in the capital this winter will tell you, the air here is so thick with particulate matter that you cannot expect ANY transparency, period. So here’s a piece of advice for Beijingwallas who are reading this in Chinese translation: Start getting used to being No. 2 from now on, ok? Pollution is not badminton.

But then, as many a management guru has pointed out, it is easier to get to the top, but tougher to stay there. Delhiites must therefore rally behind their government in its efforts to keep their city at the top of the world rankings. While many credit India’s vibrant automotive sector for Delhi’s achievement—Delhi has more cars than any other Indian metro—one cannot forget the contribution of Delhi’s urban planners who had the foresight to prioritize transport infrastructure for fuel-guzzling, exhaust-spewing private vehicles by building more flyovers than we need, scuttling BRTS (bus rapid transit system), keeping parking more or less free, and resisting the temptation to impose congestion tax despite sustained pressure from activist types.

Speaking of activist types, they all have one character flaw in common: a closed mind. And their minds are closed the tightest to the idea that pollution is actually a good thing. Can any sane person deny that a high level of air pollution is usually a sign of industry, which, in turn, is a sign of economic growth and development? You will not find the air polluted in the jungles of Chhattisgarh or the deserts of Rajasthan or the mountains of Ladakh. And in case you do, you can rest assured there would be a hubbub of development not too far away—a mountain being carved up for some metal, perhaps, or a forest being erased for a resort. So if development is a good thing, then pollution is a sign of a good thing. Ergo, pollution is a good thing. So we should all welcome it with open lungs instead of selfishly thinking only about our own health and well being.

Agreed, air pollution can make you sick. You may have to keep coughing all the time (which in any case has been made fashionable by the Delhi chief minister), or occasionally, die—a small sacrifice, no doubt. But does that mean we take a narrow view of it, and forego the vast, untapped, and some would say, limitless, economic benefits of pollution?

New Delhi, for instance, is today home to some of the finest particulate matter in the world, and a lot of them, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are pure thoroughbred carcinogens, which, if you take an objective view of it, is a monumental business opportunity. Cancer, as is well known, is a fast-growing (no pun intended), multi-billion dollar industry, and India, with its massive population, has the potential to become both the world’s largest cancer market as well as a global player in the sector, just like in cricket, where our sheer market size gives us the financial muscle to do whatever we want.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then pollution can mother a whole lot of innovations, and boost entrepreneurship. Gas masks, for instance, is a huge business opportunity waiting to be tapped in a city like Delhi, where to breathe is to put oneself up for a bidding war between asthma, allergy, lung cancer and heart attack—whoever can get you first. There can be many more: if crops can be genetically modified against pests and pesticides, why can’t humans be genetically modified to withstand arsenic and lead? Isn’t that what technology and progress is all about anyway—finding new solutions for existing problems that will, in turn, give rise to new problems which, in turn, will inspire innovative solutions, along with new problems, and so on ad infinitum?

Some commentators keep harping on the fact that pollution, by causing illnesses, kills thousands of people. But they forget one thing: population is not a problem for India. Even if thousands or even millions die, say, of cancer caused by air pollution, there will always be enough people left in India. So we should make the most of India’s demographic advantage instead of simply hoarding it (which creates its own intractable problems, such as poor people, etc)

All said and done, the No. 1 ranking in air pollution is a tremendous honour for Delhi, and being the national capital, it is to be hoped that its example will inspire the rest of the country to embrace the smog and the filthy air. The fact remains that India, despite Delhi’s sterling performance, is still ranked only 174th in the global ranking for air quality. Our arch rival in everything from cricket to jingoism, Pakistan, still enjoys air quality that’s way poorer than ours (they are ranked 175), and so does China (176).

Even Nepal (177) and Bangladesh (178), despite their lower rate of economic growth, enjoy air that is far more polluted than ours. If India, and specifically Delhi, is to fulfil its destiny as the world’s most challenging place for human beings who breathe, people have to change their mindsets about pollution, and be willing to sacrifice their health and lives for greater shareholder value.

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