For New Delhi and most of north India, November qualifies for being the “cruellest month". That’s when air pollution levels spike dramatically from the year-round hazardous to well-nigh fatal, with almost every year surpassing previous highs for toxicity. Last year, post-Diwali smog moved Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to tweet that “Delhi has become a gas chamber" as the air quality index spiked to nearly 1,000 (below 50 is considered safe), which was then roughly ten times worse than Beijing.
This year, it’s still only October, but Kejriwal has already announced restrictions on the use of private cars, massive distribution of free face masks, and 1,000 new electric buses for the public transport network. Kejriwal’s urgent actions in the capital are commendable, but the problem extends across the region.
According to AirVisual, the leading source of international air quality data, India is home to 20 of the world’s 25 worst polluted cities (as measured by the levels of fine particulate matter—PM 2.5 and PM 10—which can penetrate deep into the lungs). Faisalabad and Lahore in Pakistan are also in the bottom 10.
If you add in Dhaka in Bangladesh (at No. 17) that means only two cities outside the subcontinent (Hotan and Kashgar in China) register in this dismal litany of failure. There’s especially cruel irony to see the heavily touted standard-bearer of India’s global competitiveness, Gurugram in Haryana redlined as the worst polluted city on the planet.
Yet it is undeniable, as we have learned in Delhi with some of Kejriwal’s moves making headway, that these abysmal scenarios can shift and change towards improvement. The shining example for India is right across the border in China, where stringent but easily replicable measures have produced impressive results in a host of cities. The country’s comprehensive legal standards and strict environmental law enforcement have propelled Beijing entirely out of AirVisual’s list of the 100 most polluted cities in the world. It’s currently at 122. The UN Environment Programme’s chief scientist has said, “Beijing’s efforts, achievements, experiences and lessons in air pollution control over the last 20 years are worth analysing and sharing in order to progress global environmental governance."
Even with China’s rapid advancements, the somewhat unexpected standout leader of international urban sustainable development efforts has emerged all the way on the other side of the globe. This is London, under mayor Sadiq Khan (he was elected in 2016), who has derided his city’s “filthy, toxic air" as “a public health emergency".
With great tactical success, he has positioned the problem in a social injustice framework, saying that “the children living and studying in pollution hotspots, which are often located in the poorest parts of our city, are growing up with underdeveloped and stunted lungs. This isn’t just unacceptable, it’s shameful". This provides rationale for “the most ambitious plans to tackle air pollution of any big city in the world".
Khan can speak with great resonance about inequality, because he made it into the highest echelons of British politics the hard way. The fifth of eight children born into a working-class immigrant family in South London—his father was a bus driver, and his mother a seamstress—he grew up in a cramped council flat. Now, the first-ever Muslim mayor of a major city in the West serves both as beacon and lightning-rod. A few months ago, US President Donald Trump tweeted a series of extraordinary personal insults his way, “Sadiq Khan, who by all accounts has done a terrible job as Mayor of London…is a stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me….Kahn [sic] reminds me very much of our very dumb and incompetent Mayor of NYC, de Blasio, who has also done a terrible job - only half his height."
The Goan connection
Soon after taking office, Khan, whose grandparents had migrated from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan following the Partition, reached out to Shirley Rodrigues, who was born into a Goan family in Nairobi, to serve as his deputy mayor for environment and energy, and tasked this veteran of environmental policy-making with tackling London’s air pollution problems.
Her new boss said at that time, “Shirley will drive forward the urgent action needed to ensure Londoners no longer have to fear the air we breathe, and will address the failure to tackle the problem by the previous mayor and government…(she) is the perfect person to deliver my agenda."
Then the duo moved dramatically. In just a few months it was amply clear to the world these two policymakers, with roots in Pakistan and India, were now at the forefront of combating the effects of pollution in cities.
By the time this fact became popularly known, I had already become fascinated by what Rodrigues and Khan were managing to achieve, watching along with great interest from an urban vantage in the tiny, but increasingly troubled and deteriorating, capital city of India’s smallest state. My home town Panjim has no heavy industry, and is gloriously situated along the shoreline where the Mandovi river meets the Arabian Sea. Stiff ocean breezes ruffle our curtains all day long. Yet, despite all this, air pollution has steadily worsened to worrisome. All through the winter months last year, PM 2.5 levels remained significantly higher than what is normally considered safe. All around me, there’s a rapidly burgeoning epidemic of respiratory problems (which plague all three of my sons). So it’s not just north India, the country’s urban blight has now reached as far as my idyll on the Konkan coast.
Rodrigues and Khan began to turn London around with bold innovations that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. I eventually found myself reaching out to the deputy mayor via her Twitter account, to ask if she would consent to being interviewed about London’s anti-pollution agenda. Shirley Rodrigues’s office is evidently overwhelmingly busy, because it took several months for responses to emailed questions to reach my desktop (at one point, lasting weeks, I was told by her press office they were “being looked at by the final sign off director").
Nonetheless, I finally got to learn more about the most ambitious green agenda of any major world city, embedded with many lessons for the rest of us.
Rodrigues wrote, “London’s environment plays a vital role in making the city so attractive to visit, live, and work in. Our air, water, and green spaces are precious, but they need our help to ensure they are protected, improved, and continue to deliver the greatest possible benefits for Londoners. In May 2018 we published the city’s first-ever integrated Environment Strategy, aiming to make London greener, cleaner, and ready for the future."
The deputy mayor pointed out the obvious benefits of an integrated approach. “We’re tackling environmental issues together, to ensure that our policies support each other. For instance, making sure that policies to reduce the use of diesel cars to cut air pollution don’t lead to a switch back to petrol cars which contribute towards climate change. We’ve also drawn strong links between environment, health, social, fairness, and economic agendas," she wrote.
She then went on to articulate the future road map: “We have set a very ambitious vision for 2050 with detailed plans, policies, and pathways for the near- and medium-term, including making London zero carbon, zero waste, and with a zero emission transport network."
The zero tolerance zone
The deputy mayor pointed to the remarkable success of Central London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which in April became the world’s first 24-hour, 365-days-a-year area with toughest global emission standards. The zone imposes a hefty daily fee on cars which emit more than 75g/km of carbon dioxide. Now, 35% fewer such vehicles show up on city streets, and the city has earned £55 million to reinvest in its transportation network.
Rodrigues told Mint, “The mayor has committed to extend the ULEZ to inner London, up to the north and south circulars in October 2021, and to tighten standards for heavy vehicles in the London-wide Low Emission Zone in October 2020. We will also keep cleaning up London’s transport system and phasing out fossil fuels, including diesel, making the whole bus fleet zero-emission by 2037. By October 2020 every bus in London—all 9,000—will meet or exceed the ULEZ standards. It’s an unprecedented transformation to make London’s famous red buses go green."
She was unequivocally clear about what our collective priorities must be, “Environmental threats are real and present, and cities must be prepared for them—it’s an issue of social and environmental justice. Air pollution is an international health emergency that needs to be urgently tackled. There is a huge economic cost (£3.7 billion in London alone), (but) bold action on addressing our environmental challenges is paying off."
Rodrigues went on to explain: “New research shows how London’s strength as a global climate hub is growing, despite the challenges of Brexit uncertainty. Total sales of Low Carbon Goods and Environmental Services have grown from £20.9 billion to £39.7 billion over the last decade, an increase of 90%, with a 20% increase between 2015-16 and 2017-18 alone. Meanwhile, the number of people working in the sector in London has grown from 155,953 to 246,073 over the same period, an increase of 58%."
These are the kinds of numbers promised by the newest generation of American politicians led by 29-year-old phenomenon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who promises a “Green New Deal" phasing out fossil fuels while overhauling the nation’s infrastructure.
But, while this idealistic cohort is still finding its feet and facing down virulent opposition in Washington, the exact same logic is being translated into real world policy initiatives in London, which is drawing the rapt attention of every urban planner and city administrator on the planet. Rodrigues said she and Khan take this responsibility seriously. “We know that as a major global city, others look to London to lead and be a source of inspiration on how to tackle environmental challenges. But we are also keen to learn. The mayor often says he is happy to steal others’ good ideas! To support this, we regularly share good practices and examples of cutting-edge solutions from London so others can follow our lead and learn from our successes."
How can it be that two grandchildren of the subcontinent can forge so spectacularly ahead in creating workable solutions to the precise problems dragging down the cities in their ancestral homelands into unimaginable depths? How is it that pollution barely registers as an election issue anywhere across South Asia?
Here, the coda to the great architect and urban planner Charles Correa’s landmark essay Great City…Terrible Place rings unerringly like prophecy. “If you drop a frog into a saucepan of very hot water, it will desperately try to hop out. But if you place a frog in tepid water and then gradually, very very gradually, raise the temperature, the frog will swim around happily adjusting to the increasingly dangerous conditions. In fact, just before the end, just before the frog cooks to death, when the water is exceedingly hot, the frog relaxes, and a state of euphoria sets in. Maybe that is what is happening to us."
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.